Six common features of the 1920s and the 2010s on immigration sentiment

The 1920s can help us understand  immigration’s hold on public opinion and politics during the 2010s.

One: Disruption. Both periods were burdened with war’s aftermath. And the speed of corporate innovation in the consumer economy alarmed and today alarms many.

Two: New immigrants. Both periods experienced huge surges in immigration from new sources, which contributed to disruptions and also served as a simplified explanation for troubles.

Foreign immigration had surged since the 1880s, the peak year being 1907, when 1.3 million people entered legally. (That’s equivalent to over 4 million new immigrants a year now.) Germans had been the dominant source; Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jews took over. Since the 1980s, non-Europeans have dominated immigration.

Three: Black-white relations were a factor. Then, migration of a million southern blacks to Harlem added to anxiety that white dominance was under siege. Now, conservatives demonize Black Lives Matter.

Four: Purity, pollution and order. Then, white racial purity movements flourished. Now, Donald Trump launched his campaign by castigating the morals of Mexican immigrants. He encourages conspiracy thinking.

Five: Intellectuals’ ambivalence, shown by avoidance. Then, as also now, liberal media often avoided the issue of cultural cohesion, focusing on economic inequality and class. The liberal media today also overlooks today economic disruption of immigration.

But some intellectuals added to support for curtailing immigration. In 1922 John Dewey said, “The simple fact of the case is that at present the world is not sufficiently civilized to permit close contacts of people with widely different cultures without the deplorable consequences.” He said that tighter immigration would allow for “rest and recuperation.” Today, some intellectuals are calling for lower immigration to preserve cultural cohesion, but none of Dewey’s stature.

Six: National politics becomes ethnic. Then, the Democratic Party discovered the national ethnic vote — New York Governor Al Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign won the major cities. This northern bloc of Democrats paired with Southern Democrats in 1932 to give the election to Roosevelt. Now, Reps and Dems fret over the Hispanic vote.

Jefferson Cowie’s The Great Exception (2016) illuminates some of these themes. Cowie holds that the New Deal would not have happened except for closing the borders to immigrants by the 1924 Act and exclusion of blacks from full labor and political participation.


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