Conservatives Can Win By Embracing ‘Selectionism’

Immigration doesn’t have to spell demographic doom for Republicans.

An American flag worn in a suit pocket during a naturalization ceremony
Genna Martin / San Francisco Chronicle / AP

The conservative intelligentsia is in the grip of a profound demographic pessimism—a sense that a diversifying America necessarily spells doom for the right, and that the movement’s only hope is therefore to halt, or at least sharply reduce, immigrant inflows. Portents of demographic doom have long been a mainstay of conservative media, whether on the Fox News prime-time lineup or in highbrow journals of opinion, and embracing restrictionism has become a surefire way for ambitious Republicans to signal their edginess and resolve.

But a funny thing has happened on the road to conservative demographic doom. Since 2016, a rising number of first- and second-generation Americans have been gravitating to the political right, a trend that predates the current political travails of the Biden administration and that has grown particularly pronounced among voters of Latin American origin. Cosmopolitan liberals who have long imagined themselves the vanguard of a rising progressive majority are now confronting the possibility that they are an overrepresented rump, with political influence that stems more from their control over elite institutions than widespread popular support.

Given this emerging political realignment, immigration, and the incorporation of immigrants and their descendants into American civic life, is proving less an obstacle to conservative political ambitions than an opportunity to expand the conservative coalition. Rather than cower in fear at the progressive left’s supposed efforts to use immigrant inflows to remake the U.S. electorate, as some on the restrictionist right would have it, why don’t conservatives embrace an immigration strategy that can move America in a more conservative direction?

The term restrictionism conflates two distinct ideas: that our country should take in fewer immigrants, and that Americans, and Americans alone, have the right to choose whom to admit to the United States. If the former is polarizing, the latter commands broad public support, which helps explain why Americans have traditionally drawn a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigration, perceiving the latter as a violation of the rules the country has established for selecting newcomers. Further, there is good reason to believe that what matters to GOP voters is not absolute reduction but control. The big question, in other words, is not “How many immigrants?” but “Who decides, and on what grounds?”

The key is to focus on what I call selectionism, or the unambiguous defense of the American people’s right to choose whom to admit and whom to exclude, and to do so on the basis of promoting the national interest. By abandoning restrictionism for selectionism, ambitious Republicans could not only assuage the concerns of their base while promoting the interests of the country—they could also, potentially, chart a path out of the current immigration deadlock that would appeal to a broad, multiracial majority of Americans.

The politics of this moment represent a striking reversal. As recently as a decade ago, many of the Republican Party’s rising stars were calling for a major increase in immigrant admissions. Today, in contrast, virtually all Republicans have united around the cause of immigration restriction. And though this is true for a number of reasons, perhaps the most salient is the aforementioned conviction that immigrants and their descendants are destined to become foot soldiers of the progressive left.

Anxieties over ethnic change are a familiar feature of U.S. politics, and calls for immigration restriction grounded in a belief in fixed ethnic identities and political allegiances have a certain realpolitik logic. Cosmopolitan liberals really have described immigrants and their descendants as part of a “coalition of the ascendant” that can foster progressive political dominance, and at least some of their opponents have taken this demographic triumphalism seriously. The trouble with this brand of ethnocultural determinism, however, is that it reflects a political era that is drawing to a close.

Until very recently, one could take this notion that immigrant origins are a reliable predictor of support for Democratic candidates for granted. Drawing on data from the 2016 presidential election, for example, the political scientist George Hawley found that established Americans—native-born Americans with native-born parents and grandparents—were significantly less supportive of Democratic candidates than first- and second-generation Americans, even after controlling for a wide range of individual-level attributes. And though one could argue that the unique circumstances surrounding Donald Trump’s polarizing presidential campaign played a role in this outcome, as Hawley readily acknowledges, it nevertheless helped make the case for conservative demographic pessimism.

Yet today, the conservative movement finds itself on the cusp of what could be a prolonged period of political success. If non-college-educated voters continue to move rightward, as many observers on the left and right confidently expect, Republicans will soon have an even larger advantage in contests for the U.S. Senate and Electoral College, which Democrats will find exceedingly difficult to overcome. This possibility has engendered dread among progressive intellectuals, who fear the prospect of a more powerful GOP, and it has given rise to “popularist” calls for a new Democratic politics that is more responsive to working-class interests and sensibilities. But to take full advantage of this opportunity, the right would do well to embrace selectionism.

Consider that most Americans strongly prefer educated immigrants in high-status jobs over other immigrants, and this preference varies very little according to education, partisanship, labor-market position, and ethnocentrism, according to a study by the political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins. As a result, high-skill immigration has had a markedly different political impact than low-skill immigration.

In 2018, the economists Anna Maria Mayda and Giovanni Peri released an analysis of the impact of immigrant inflows on county-level election outcomes from 1990 to 2010. They found that an increase in the proportion of college-educated immigrants in a given county’s population was associated with increased support for Democratic candidates, while an increase in the proportion of non-college-educated immigrants was associated with increased support for Republican candidates, a result that they hypothesized was tied to the perceived costs and benefits of immigrant inflows. That is, because higher-skilled newcomers were seen as generating positive spillovers for their communities, they boosted support for the more pro-immigration Democrats; a lower-skilled influx, in contrast, buoyed restrictionist Republicans.

In the years since 2010, however, the immigration landscape has changed. In the 2000s, it was not uncommon for Republicans to back the expansion of low-wage guest-worker programs to signal their pro-business bona fides, a stance that, as Mayda and Peri’s work suggests, engendered a conservative backlash in rural regions. Outside of agriculture, however, GOP-aligned employers and donors have lost interest in spending their political capital on making it easier to recruit low-skill immigrant labor. The rise of offshoring has meant that large domestic employers have less economic interest in lobbying for low-skill immigration today than in earlier eras, when low-skill, low-wage manufacturing represented a larger share of the U.S. economy. We’ve seen this pattern in many of the world’s market democracies. More and more, support for low-skill immigration is rooted in humanitarianism, not hard-nosed economic self-interest. The result is that the Republican elite has largely jettisoned its politically costly commitment to low-skill immigration, thus allowing for a pivot to a more politically appealing selectionist stance.

At the same time, as the Democratic Party’s activists and donors have moved leftward, Democratic policy makers have come to reject the default expectation that new immigrants should be economically self-reliant, an expectation closely tied to selectionism. During the welfare-reform era, conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats worked together to pass limits on immigrant eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, non-emergency Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and a range of other programs, an approach dubbed “immigration yes, welfare no.” This proved politically effective for immigration advocates, as there is evidence that U.S. voters are more concerned about immigrants collecting public benefits than they are about the prospect of immigrant wage competition.

More recently, however, progressives in the media and the nonprofit sector have come to place a heavy rhetorical emphasis on the moral and humanitarian dimension of immigration policy, suggesting that denying entry, and public benefits, to almost any would-be migrant would be unacceptably cruel. Democrats in state legislatures and in Congress have worked to expand access to public-benefit programs to immigrants, including unauthorized noncitizens. On the left, “immigration yes, welfare no” is giving way to “immigration yes, welfare yes,” a stance that remains anathema to conservatives and moderates. The implication of this position is not only that U.S. citizens have no say in who is admitted to the country but also that American taxpayers must foot the bill for immigrants who can’t support themselves. Given the unpopularity of this arrangement, restrictionism is becoming a more potent wedge issue for Republicans running against Democrats who find themselves constrained by elite progressive opinion.

But if restrictionism has greater appeal—at least to some voters—than the more self-flagellating forms of progressive humanitarianism, it is still not a position capable of building a durable national majority. Indeed, these two poles in the immigration debate feed off each other, locking the country in an unproductive, zero-sum dispute. Conservatives and some moderates, fearful that liberals wish to pursue a de facto open-borders policy, embrace restrictionist politicians as the least-bad option. Meanwhile, elite progressives, correctly judging that full-blown restrictionism alienates many voters, feel little pressure to moderate their rhetoric or take concerns over low-skilled and irregular migration seriously. The result is an immigration debate pitting the “woke” against the “MAGA,” with the broad majority of Americans of all colors left out. For Republicans, selectionism offers a way to break this impasse—one that meets the concerns of their existing voters while broadening the party’s appeal to the first- and second-generation voters already trending in its direction. The children and grandchildren of post-1965 immigrants would be especially drawn to a selectionist approach that welcomes productive newcomers while rejecting any compulsion to set immigration policy on the basis of the racialist fixations of cosmopolitan liberals.

As for what a selectionist immigration agenda might entail, much depends on whether it should center on bloodless materialism or some robust vision for how newcomers might shape America’s cultural and political character. In light of the changing global economic and demographic landscape, and challenges and opportunities as varied as renewed great-power competition and the rise of intelligent machines, there is a strong case for focusing on attracting superstar talent. As Caleb Watney of the Institute for Progress has observed, “the advantage to a country that attracts geniuses compounds over time, as clusters form around them—talent attracts more talent—which helps all the individuals and firms in such clusters become more productive than they would be in isolation.” Post-Brexit Britain has moved sharply in this direction. Having asserted the sovereign right to control immigrant inflows, the British government is adopting a points-based immigration system and launching a new “high potential individual” visa aimed at graduates of the world’s most prestigious research universities. And though populist critics warn that the government’s selectionist approach is inviting an anti-immigration revolt, the survey evidence thus far suggests otherwise.

Progressive humanitarians and conservative restrictionists alike would no doubt denounce this frankly elitist approach to immigrant selection, but 78 percent of U.S. adults support encouraging high-skill immigration, including 63 percent of the minority of voters who favor reducing immigrant inflows overall. While evidence on the economic and fiscal impact of low-skill migrants on the native-born is contested, there is an overwhelming academic consensus on the economic benefits associated with high-skill inflows.

Nevertheless, I don’t anticipate that a selectionism grounded in a narrowly utilitarian calculus will carry the day. If conservatives do eventually embrace a more creative and aggressive approach to immigrant admissions, as I believe they will, it won’t be because of arguments about maximizing America’s growth potential, important though they may be. I suspect it will be in response to more-contingent developments. The ongoing incorporation of anti-socialist Venezuelans into the conservative coalition, for example, might lead Republicans to look favorably on other South Americans seeking to flee the rising influence of Marxist political movements in their homeland. In a similar vein, the political awakening among Asian Americans opposed to racial preferences and alarmed by rising urban violence might cast Chinese émigrés fleeing their native country’s intensifying authoritarianism in a more favorable light. Rank-and-file conservatives might also see wisdom in welcoming Ukrainian refugees, or in raiding the most-skilled scientists, workers, and entrepreneurs from Russia and other geopolitical adversaries. And though the demands of progressive humanitarianism don’t resonate with the right, at least some religious conservatives can be counted on to champion the interests of Christian minorities facing persecution in Africa and elsewhere, a brand of selectionism grounded in cultural affinity.

It would be foolish to expect Republican politicians to suddenly start disavowing their restrictionist commitments. But as more and more first- and second-generation voters turn right, the shrewdest conservative political entrepreneurs will come to recognize that immigration can represent a demographic boon more than demographic doom.