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The Conservative Populist Breakout

John Fonte

April 2015 is the month that conservative populism broke out and reached the major leagues of American politics. On April 15, the editors of the New York Times felt compelled to denounce a Washington Post op-ed by Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), in which he called for reduced immigration to help raise the wages of American workers. The Times editors were particularly miffed that “Mr. Sessions accuses the financial and political ‘elite’ of a conspiracy to keep wages down through immigration” (“elite” is put in sneer quotes, as if there were no elite). What is important to note is not the Times‘s ad hominem attack on Sessions (“choosing . . . to echo an uglier time in our history”) but the fact that the editors believed that the senator’s populist argument required an official response.

Almost simultaneously, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker articulated a populist-tinged message, declaring that our legal-immigration system “ultimately has to protect American workers and make sure American wages are going up.” This set off a firestorm of controversy and placed conservative populism directly into the 2016 presidential race.

Since the 2013 debate on the Senate immigration bill, conservative economic populism has been slowly, but steadily, emerging. In a harbinger of the future, in July 2013, Rich Lowry and Bill Kristol, the editors of two leading conservative journals, National Review and The Weekly Standard, added a pro-working-class populist argument to the more common “enforcement first” stance. In a joint op-ed attacking the Senate bill, Lowry and Kristol wrote that “the last thing” low-skilled workers “should have to deal with is wage-depressing competition from newly arriving workers.”

In June 2014, underdog candidate David Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) in a stunning primary upset by running a strong economic-populist campaign that emphasized immigration. Brat attacked Cantor’s close ties to Big Business and charged that the majority leader “works with multinational corporations to boost the inflow of low-wage guest workers to reduce Virginians’ wages and employment opportunities.”

Today, the conservative populist immigration coalition has reached a critical mass. It consists of three elements: an articulate and persistent political leadership; intellectual firepower from policy wonks, journalists, and media figures; and boots on the ground in the form of committed activists. Most important, these three pillars of the coalition are articulating a compelling narrative to the public at large. Let’s examine this coalition in some detail.

Political leadership: Clearly, the political leader of the conservative populist coalition is the indefatigable Senator Sessions. Day in and day out, for the past two years, Sessions has been issuing memos and talking points, giving speeches, and making media appearances explicating a coherent populist message. The Alabamian is a conviction politician. He is not “positioning” himself for some strategic advantage; rather, he favors limiting (not eliminating) legal immigration because he believes doing so is best for the American people. As the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions is backed by the chairman of the full committee, Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa). Working with Grassley and Sessions in promoting a pro-worker populist approach to immigration is Senator David Vitter (R., La.).

In January 2014, 16 House Republicans sent a letter to President Obama declaring that “so-called Comprehensive Immigration Reform may be a good deal for big businesses who want to reduce labor costs . . . but it’s an awful deal for U.S. workers.” In explicit populist language, the Republican congressmen told Obama, “The White House has entertained a parade of high-powered business executives to discuss immigration policy, all while shutting out the concerns of everyday wage earners.” Among the signers of the populist letter were Lamar Smith (R., Tex.), co-author of the Barbara Jordan–inspired 1995 Smith–Simpson immigration bill, and Tom Cotton (R., Ark.), who campaigned successfully for the Senate that year, talking about immigration in the context of American workers and their wages.

Populist counter-intelligentsia: Populist ideas are being spread by a group of mostly (but not exclusively) conservative policy wonks, research scholars, opinion writers, journalists, and media personalities. At places like National Review, The Weekly Standard, the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the Washington Free Beacon, Investor’s Business Daily, Breitbart, and Power Line, arguments are heard with increasing frequency to the effect that expanding immigration hurts Americans, middle-class as well as working-class. Even on the op-ed page of the New York Times, Ross Douthat explained that, in contrast to the Republican donor class, some of the policy wonks known as “reform conservatives” were skeptical of immigration legislation that could exacerbate “wage stagnation” and weaken “upward mobility” for those at the bottom of American society.

Among those who on various populist grounds are challenging mainstream support for “comprehensive immigration reform” are reporters, commentators, and analysts including Jeffrey Anderson, Fred Bauer, David Frum, Irwin Stelzer, Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti, Mark Krikorian, Henry Olsen, Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, Byron York, Neal Monroe, James Antle, Andrew Stiles, Jay Cost, Matthew Boyle, and Rachel Stoltzfoos, and media stars Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. Often decried by, among others, the editors of the Wall Street Journal as “yahoos,” the populist bloc has assembled a veritable counter-intelligentsia of considerable depth and sophistication.

After Dave Brat’s victory, Tucker Carlson told Sean Hannity: “He [Brat] wasn’t [just] making the case against amnesty — lots of people do that — he was making a case for better wages,” arguing that increasing immigration will depress wages “for middle-class workers.” When the Schumer–Rubio bill was being debated, Matthew Continetti, in Weekly Standard, advocated a “labor Republicanism,” declaring, “A labor Republican opposes the Senate immigration bill not only because it’s a bureaucratic monstrosity, but also because an influx of cheap labor would decrease low-skilled wages.” After Jeff Sessions’s op-ed in the Washington Post, John Hinderaker of Power Line urged “Republican presidential candidates” to “emulate” the senator’s “populist touch.” In the aftermath of the America-first, “wages and workers” controversy stirred up by Scott Walker, Breitbart Matt Boyle reported that conservative intellectuals, activists, and media figures (Lowry, Kristol, Coulter, Hannity, Phyllis Schlafly, and Mark Levin) rallied to Walker’s side.

Grassroots activists: the unsung heroes of the populist right: An absolutely crucial (in some ways, the most important) part of the emerging conservative populist coalition is the committed citizens who spend hours directly contacting their elected representatives. A large number of Republicans in Congress are on the fence on immigration and will listen carefully to their most determined constituents. Grassroots conservatives are joined together in groups like Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, Numbers USA, Heritage Action, and the Tea Party Patriots. It is not an exaggeration to report that in congressional district after congressional district, conservative activists are fighting Big Business lobbyists, not just for the future of the Republican party but, more significantly, for the future of the American constitutional regime as a whole.

The Narrative
The immigration narrative articulated by conservative populists is winning more and more adherents. At the most fundamental level, this narrative argues that immigration policy should serve American national interests and the interests of American citizens — not the special interests of business, union, political, and ethnic elites. As will be discussed later, the populist narrative today bears striking similarities to the Barbara Jordan immigration plan of 20 years ago.

Opposite the conservative populists stands a formidable elite coalition consisting of Big Business, Big Labor, the Obama administration, the entire liberal establishment, the Republican donor class, and the mainstream media. This coalition favors greatly increasing legal immigration for both low-skilled and high-skilled workers, as well as providing amnesty for illegal immigrants. The elite coalition claims that it is speaking for American interests in strengthening our economy, expanding economic growth, and creating jobs. The American economy, the elites tell us, needs massive infusions of both low- and high-skilled labor. Their core argument is that there is a “worker shortage” in America.

During the past two years, coalitions of diverse corporate leaders have decried this “worker shortage” and called for massive increases (at least double current levels) in both low-skilled and high-tech legal immigration. The corporations involved in these coalitions include American Express, General Mills, Marriott, Hyatt, Johnson & Johnson, Verizon, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Southern California Edison, Walt Disney, T-Mobile, Cisco, Cigna, Intel, Microsoft, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard, and Sprint, among others.

The problem with this argument is that these same companies have been firing tens of thousands of American workers (both low- and high-skilled) — sometimes in the very same week that they have petitioned the White House and Congress for more foreign workers. When asked directly by Bloomberg Businessweek about the layoffs in the light of the alleged “labor shortage,” Facebook e-mailed a one-sentence non sequitur: “We look forward to hearing more specifics about the President’s plan and how it will impact the skills gap that threaten[s] the competitiveness of the tech sector.”

This January, Jeff Sessions released the 23-page Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority, in which he noted the negative effect of mass immigration on American workers in both low-skilled and high-tech sectors. In a Washington Post op-ed, Sessions quotes our nation’s foremost labor economist, Harvard professor George Borjas, as reporting that the mass immigration of overwhelmingly low-skilled workers from 1980 to 2000 resulted in a 7.4 percent wage loss for lower-skilled Americans. In the construction industry today there are approximately seven workers for every job opening, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Census Bureau data revealed that between 2000 and 2014 the U.S. admitted about 14 million new immigrants, while the population of U.S.-born workers increased by 16.4 million. Nevertheless, “all net employment gains went to immigrant workers” rather than to American-born workers.

In July 2014, five leading academic experts published in USA Today an article (“Bill Gates’ Tech Worker Fantasy”) demolishing Silicon Valley’s “worker shortage” argument. The scholars (Ron Hira, Howard; Paula Stephan, Georgia State; Hal Salzman, Rutgers; Michael Teitelbaum, Harvard; and Norman Matloff, UC Davis) declared: “None of us [independently] has been able to find any credible evidence to support the IT industry’s assertions of labor shortages. . . . If a shortage did exist, wages would be rising. . . . Instead, legislation that expanded visas for IT personnel during the 1990s has kept average wages flat . . . [since 1998]. Indeed, guest workers have become the predominant source of new hires in these fields.”

Using U.S. Census data, the scholars note that three out of four Americans (74 percent) with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees do not have a STEM job. This means that 11 million Americans with STEM degrees are not working in STEM employment. Further, American colleges annually graduate twice as many young people with STEM degrees as are currently working in STEM jobs. Specifically, among recent college graduates with STEM degrees, 55 percent in technology, 35 percent in science, 30 percent in math, and 20 percent in engineering cannot find jobs in those fields.

The Wall Street Journal has challenged the data presented by the U.S. Census Bureau by citing the work of the “National Foundation for American Policy,” essentially a one-man advocacy operation run by Stuart Anderson, a pro-mass-immigration activist, who has spent the past 15 years “making a living promoting H-1B” (as Norman Matloff put it). A former congressional staffer, Anderson wrote the legislation that expanded the H-1B program (essentially, a program for high-tech guest workers) in 1998 and 2000. While criticizing Sessions and Walker and insisting on the need for more foreign workers, the Journal editors failed to answer the obvious question: If Silicon Valley needs workers, why is it laying off thousands of Americans? Could it be, perhaps, that tech companies prefer foreign workers, who are younger, cheaper, and immobile (in that they cannot legally leave one job for another)? Further, what justification exists for the tech executives to engage in an anti-competitive wage-fixing conspiracy against their employees (more on this in a moment)? On this, too, the Journal is silent.

In that USA Today article, Hira et al. wrote, “The facts are that, excluding advocacy studies by those with industry funding, there is a remarkable concurrence among a wide range of researchers that there is an ample supply of American workers . . . who are willing and qualified to fill high-skill jobs in this country.” One of the authors of that article, Professor Salzman, notes that “guest workers make up two-thirds of all new IT hires.” Another of the authors, Professor Hira, bluntly states: “Most of the H-1B program is now being used to import cheaper foreign guestworkers, replacing American workers, and undercutting their wages.”

A Senate Judiciary hearing run by Grassley and Sessions highlighted rampant abuses in the H-1B program. Fired American workers were forced to train their own foreign replacements. This is not what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg likes to call the race for global “talent.” The new foreign workers were less skilled in terms of experience and education than the Americans they replaced. Further, Computerworld has revealed how fired American IT workers are “silenced” and kept from publicly complaining by the tech companies, which force them to sign non-disparagement agreements or lose severance pay and the chance of reemployment.

Worst of all, Silicon Valley moguls have conspired in anti-market, anti-competitive, monopolistic practices to keep their employees’ wages down. The New York Times reported that federal judge Lucy Koh declared that the executives of seven major Silicon Valley companies (Apple, Google, Adobe, Intel, two Disney subsidiaries, and Intuit) were engaged in “an overarching conspiracy” against their own employees. E-mails revealed that top executives, including Eric Schmidt of Google and the late Steve Jobs of Apple, were personally involved in “no-poaching” arrangements in which the tech oligarchs agreed not to recruit each other’s employees with offers of higher wages. The purpose of the conspiracy was to stagnate the wages of 64,000 employees, who then filed a $3 billion class-action law suit to recoup their wage losses under antitrust laws. Put bluntly, the actions of the tech oligarchs could be described as deliberately “hollowing out the middle class.” In the end, the tech companies paid $415 million to end the suit.

Politics
American voters have perceived Republicans as being too close to Big Business. This widely held view certainly contributed to the hemorrhaging of working- and middle-class support for Mitt Romney in 2012. Conservative populism offers a different message. Law professor Glenn Reynolds, a pro-free-market blogger, argues that the tech industry’s wage-suppressing conspiracy offers an “appealing target” for Republicans. Reynolds reminds his readers that the tech oligarchs have been “big donors to the Democratic Party for years.” Commenting on Byron York’s description of Silicon Valley’s treatment of American IT workers, Reynolds declares, “There’s a big campaign issue here, if the GOP can bring itself to say something negative about big corporations.” Gallup reported recently that only 7 percent of Americans agree with Big Business that legal immigration should be increased, while 39 percent favor cutting legal immigration. As Jeffrey Anderson pointed out in The Weekly Standard, that’s a 5.5 to 1 ratio. Good enough for political work.

Conclusion
The conservative populist agenda is, indeed, an “echo” of an earlier time, but not in the sense that the New York Times had in mind. What Jeff Sessions wrote in his April 2015 Washington Post op-ed is similar to the recommendations of the Barbara Jordan immigration commission of the mid 1990s.

Sessions wrote: “What we need now is immigration moderation: slowing the pace of new arrivals so that wages can rise, welfare rolls can shrink and the forces of assimilation can knit us all more closely together.”

Twenty years ago, the Jordan commission recommended “modest reductions in levels of immigration to about 550,000 per year, comparable to those of the 1980s.”

Like the conservatives Jeff Sessions and Scott Walker, liberal icon Barbara Jordan was a patriot, who emphasized putting the economic interests of American workers at the center of immigration policy. Contrary to some hysterical responses to Sessions and Walker, no one today (nor anyone serious in the past) is (or was) talking about ending legal immigration; they simply advocate reasonable reductions. The Jordan commission’s report resulted in immigration legislation proposed by Representative Lamar Smith and Senator Alan Simpson (R., Wyo.) that would have cut legal immigration by about one-third, or back to Reagan-era levels, reversing the 1990 increase backed by George H. W. Bush.

The Jordan–Smith–Simpson project was derailed by a Republican coalition of Big Business lobbyists (wanting cheaper labor) and Jack Kemp–style utopians (who waxed lyrical about increasing immigration). Barbara Jordan became seriously ill and soon died; President Clinton, who had originally favored cutting legal immigration, changed his mind; and the initiative failed. Twenty years later, we are stuck with the fruits of the anti-Jordan victory: wage stagnation and a weakening of the American working and middle classes.

The hour of conservative populism has arrived. It is time to reopen the immigration debate along the lines of the stillborn but sensible proposal put forward by Barbara Jordan, Lamar Smith, and Alan Simpson.

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