The return of “us” and “them”

At a panel on immigration in the early 1990s under the auspices of, as I remember, Population Environment Balance, an audience member told me that my approach divided people into “us” and “them,” as though that was the worst thing that one could do. I replied that our loss of the ability to say “us” and “them” was precisely the reason we were losing our country and culture, and that if we wanted to survive as a country and a culture we had to regain that ability.

Well, here’s a sign of the world moving my way: In an editorial about changing attitudes toward welfare and immigration in Sweden, Investor’s Business Daily speaks openly of the need of Western countries with welfare states to think in terms of “us” and “them.” When you start saying “us” and “them,” you’re not in Liberal Land any more.

Swedish Message
Posted 07:01 PM ET

Welfare State: Anti-immigrant fever is rising in the nation that led the way in cradle-to-grave security. There’s a connection here, and America needs to see it before heading further down the same path.

What’s with Sweden? The nation seen by outsiders, at least, as ultratolerant and generous to everyone within its borders has just given a big boost to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. The Sweden Democrats won their 5.7% of the vote and a place in parliament for the first time in the Sept. 19 election.

Angst over Islam surely helped the SD, but the party also seemed to gain traction from a pocketbook appeal. It made the point that immigrants were getting the benefits of Sweden’s welfare state at a time when that system is under stress.

The party covered all the cultural/racial/economic bases, for instance, by running a video in which, says Reuters, “an elderly pensioner is overtaken by burqa-clad women pushing prams in a race to collect welfare cheques.”

The message was clear: “They” should not get “our” benefits. Heartless as this might sound, it points to a political reality of all welfare states. Even in the most liberal-minded democracy, the capacity to redistribute wealth is not infinite. People are comfortable sharing with families, friends, churches and charities of their choice. They understand the need to pay taxes for public services.

But when it comes to supporting strangers, the hurdles get a little higher. Supporting the old (with pensions and health care) and the young (with free education) makes sense to most. But even here, the familiar tends to trump the foreign.

Think of Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Democratic convention keynote speech, which famously defended welfare-state liberalism with the image of a wagon train that leaves no one behind as it moves to new frontiers. Unlike Republicans, he said, “we Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”

Now a wagon train is a pretty tightly knit group, not open to anyone just passing through. Ditto for a family. Cuomo took pains to say that the Democrats are “constantly reaching out to extend and enlarge” that American “family.” Even then, those not yet in the family are not yet on that wagon train, are they? They’re not quite “us,” though someday they may be.

Metaphors aside, it’s no surprise to a political observer that welfare states and homogeneity seem to go hand-in-hand. The institutions of cradle-to-grave security date from a time when native-born Europeans largely had the place to themselves. Only in the later 20th century did the continent become a magnet for immigrants.

The U.S. is a different story, of course. It has absorbed waves of immigration throughout most of its history. The process certainly wasn’t painless, but the nation didn’t come apart at the seams. One reason might be that there was no overbearing central government to take wealth from Americans in one city and state and send it elsewhere. Not, that is, until Americans started looking to Europe for inspiration and began building a welfare state of their own.

Europe has discovered, and America might be about to learn, how a much-coddling national “family” resists outsiders. For instance, ObamaCare has created a new stumbling block to immigration reform by raising its potential cost. Once given some kind of legal status—as, say, guest workers—millions of people currently in the undocumented work force would be eligible for health coverage, largely subsidized by everyone else.

The good news from Sweden is that the political mainstream has taken a healthy turn toward realism. Voters soundly rejected the Social Democrats and shifted power to center-right politicians, led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. If the power and reach of the welfare state is diminished as a result, that will be all to the good for Sweden’s economy and society.

- end of initial entry -

Stephen T. writes:

It may be a “return” for whites of European descent, but make no mistake, today’s brand of immigrants have never stopped thinking in terms of “us and them.” In California, It is common to hear mestizo Mexicans, even those generations removed from illegal alien ancestors, refer to Mexican nationals they have never met as “my people” and to their fellow Americans who happen to be Anglo as “them.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 27, 2010 09:59 AM | Send

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