Identity, Immigration, and the Impact of Changing Demographics: An Interview with Reihan Salam

 /  Nov. 16, 2015, 7:45 a.m.


Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review and a Fall Fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. He is the co-author of Grand New Party with Ross Douthat, and previously served as an associate editor of The Atlantic, a producer for NBC News, and a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Gate’s Danielle Schmidt sat down with Salam to discuss American national identity, the influence of language on the 2016 campaign trail, and the political impact of the changing demographics of the United States.

The Gate: The focus of your Fellows seminar series is on the rise of majority-minority politics and changing demographics in America. How is this demographic shift in the US today different than previous shifts, and why do you think this is such a pressing issue?

Reihan Salam: There are lots of different ways of slicing up a population, and there are some that have more weight than others because they have some official sanction. So there are lots of ways. For example, in the 19th century, in the Deep South, people would categorize racial groups because there wasn’t purely a kind of racial binary of whites and blacks. In the Deep South as in much of Latin America, you had gradations. In fact, you had a whole vocabulary for people who were, let’s say, half black or half indigenous. And actually some of those terms live onthe term “mestizo,” for example, refers to someone of partly European origin and partly indigenous origin. So that was the discourse and vocabulary that was used in this different time and place.

Now, in contrast, we have this vocabulary for ethnicity and race that is powerfully shaped by bureaucratic categories. In the 1970s for example, the US Census introduced the Hispanic or Latino category that has now come to have a lot of cultural meaning that it didn’t have before. So you now have this weird interaction where you have these kind of thoughtful administrative state workers who are thinking, “How do we make sense of  the world, and how do we make sense of the country?” But in choosing and constructing these categories, they actually give life to these categories. Similarly, there was always a lot of debate on how we think of people from South Asia. Are they Asian, or do we lump them in the same category as people from the Philippines? Those debates are still live debates, but merely by virtue of creating these categories, we give them some significance, and they become a kind of basis for organizing. This isn’t just true of the United States; it’s true of many different countries. You could say that you’ve had demographic transformation in the past too, but to  a large extent, you had transformations that were happening across different lines, not across these post-1970s lines that we have now. You had large numbers of people from southern Europe, but they weren’t conceived of as belonging to a kind of separate racial groupI mean, they were to some degree culturally, but you didn’t have this bureaucratic category in the same way. So, in a way, you have a lot of these subtleties, and what we’re dealing with now is this discourse, this language, of multiculturalism co-existing with this demographic change that has been driven in large part by immigration.

It’s also been driven by the fact that the birth rates of some populations are lower than for other populations. So that means that immigration and the descendants of immigrants post-65 have very big demographic weight in younger generations, like your generation. So that’s a big part of what’s differentthat kind of source population of the United States used to be largely European, to some extent indigenous, and you had people who were the children of enslaved Africans. But now, you have a much larger number of people who are, let’s say, mestizos, Amerindians from Latin America. You have a much larger number of people who are of Asian origin, and that of course can mean a million different things. Those are pretty big changes, and I think that they are shaping our politics, our economic and cultural life, in all kinds of interesting ways. Here, we’re trying to focus a little bit on the politics of it.

Gate: You say that identities can be put into “bureaucratic categories,” based on race, cultural ties, or other factors. Is it possible for someone to identify into multiple categories?

Salam: Yes, absolutely. On an individual basis, there’s enormous flexibility, but the question is, we have our own identity, we have our way of thinking of ourselves, but then there’s also an ascribed identity that is how other people see us. And sometimes, there can be a gap in how other people see you and how you see yourself. That gap can arise for all kinds of different reasons and is something that can be a source of tension and dissention. It can also be something that shapes political mobilization. For example, about one out of every ten of African Americans in the United States right now is foreign born. I can’t tell you the exact number, but there are a fair number of African Americans who are the children of those immigrants. Now, these are people who come from a very different cultural background than that of African Americans from native-born stock. But because they are perceived as black, many people in this category believe, “Well, I’m going to embrace that black identity,” for political purposes […] and sometimes there’s a kind of assimilation into black identity, where your cultural ties to your native country deteriorate. So I think that’s really interesting. In a way, every individual has their own quirky story. But when you are taking the ACT, and you’re sitting down and filling out this form, they’re not asking you, “Hey, how do you define yourself?” or “Do you really care a lot about your Czech great-grandmother, and do you connect with eastern Europe, and did you read Vaclav Havel when you were fourteen because you’re like, ‘I don’t even know what Czechoslovakia really was, I’d like to learn about it’?” Maybe, but there’s no room for that. All they’re saying is, “Got it, you’re white,” or, “You’re Latino, cool, that’s what what we want to know for our purposes.” I think that that is inevitable because the whole nature of these bureaucratic tools is to make sense of a really messy, complicated world. But for a lot of individuals, it’s like “Hey, this is like really impoverishing, and it’s actually not true to my sense of myself.”

Gate: In your book, Grand New Party, you discuss how the Republican Party needs to open up to a more diverse group of voters. How do you foresee this transition happening?

Salam: Well, I see political parties as basically machines for winning. That is, the only reason [they] exist is to win elections. You could say, well, people get together just to kind of chat and hang out, but that’s not what really excites people, that’s not what unites people. So I would argue that it’s kind of inevitable that as the population grows more diverse, both of our major political parties will have to adapt and change to these new circumstances. Oftentimes, the political parties and the people, the strategists and the candidates, are the people who make up the political party, and they’re reactive. It’s not as though they think, “I have some sort of grand design, and I will follow that grand design.” You might, but usually that winds up getting fouled up by reality and by the ways reality changes in unanticipated ways. So I’d say that the Republican Party has not [done this] in a sort of deliberate or explicit way, but wound up pursuing the strategy where they’re getting a bigger share of the non-Hispanic white vote, and they have fared relatively poorly with other communities. That is going to be a more challenging strategy for them to pursue over the long run, partly because that constituency of white voters is going to represent a smaller share of the eligible voting population. It is important to keep in mind that the population and the eligible voting population look different. Also, the eligible voting population and those who turn out to vote at which time are also pretty different. So those are things that can mitigate this to some degree, if you’re a party that draws most of your votes from white voters. But, I think that it’s basically inevitable, and Republican candidates who want to win are just going to find a way to do that.

The deeper question, though, is how do we think about diversity? So earlier on, I said that we have these bureaucratic categories. But then actually these bureaucratic categories face a lot of subtleties and internal distinctions that get lost when you’re talking about, let’s say, just Latino, Asian, or black voters. And I think that’s an area where Republicans have a lot of potential. There are some voters who connect with some aspect of the Republican message, yet who believe that the Republican Party is not for them for this or that reason. I would argue that Republican strategists and conservative candidates need to think about what those barriers are. How can they address those barriers, and how can they alleviate some of those concerns in order to win some of these voters who might be sympathetic in this or that way? Another issue is that in a lot of these categories, particularly in Asian Americans and Latinos, there’s a very big proportion of people living in this country who are foreign-born. A pretty big portion are not citizens of the United States. But people who are native-born, as they come of age and as they get older, their political perspectives might wind up being pretty different from their immigrant parents. And that’s another source of potential opportunity for conservatives in the future.

Gate: As a nation of immigrants, the United States is unique in that it does not have one universal race, religion, or ethnicity. How can we define our national identity apart from these factors? What exactly is the American national identity?

Salam: People often say that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and I would push back on that just a little bit because something like twelve to thirteen percent of Americans were born outside of the United States. That is, twelve to thirteen percent are immigrants themselves. [...] The vast majority of Americans speak English, they speak a bunch of different North American dialects of English. You know, France didn’t have a single common language until the 1700s. There were dialects that were actually so different that they were essentially different languages. So I think that’s one thing to keep in mind. A lot of Americans really believe, “We’re a young nation, we’re a nation of immigrants.” Actually, there are lots of countries that have about as many foreign-born immigrants as we do, for one. Number two, there are lots of other countries that seem [older than us] but are actually about as young as we are. So I’d say that in that sense, we do have things that unite us. We do have this language, this distinctive culture. I know that a lot of kids at the University of Chicago have done a lot of travelling, some of our students here grew up overseas, and when you are an American who is even in London or Toronto (forget about Mongolia or Japan or wherever else), you start to realize, “Wow, I have a culture.” American culture is actually a real culture, not just a universal place.

Because America is a really big country, just like China, India, Russia, and Brazil, we tend to be very inward looking. The funny thing is, these countries that are very inward looking tend to think they’re universallike they’re the center of the universe. And I think in a funny way, when Americans start to appreciate that we’re not the center of the universe, we start to realize how distinctive our culture really is. I think that is something that is really precious and valuable. It’s something that Americans should think about a little bit more: the ways that our culture is unique and some of the things that are challenged by rapid demographic and cultural change. Are there things that we like about ourselves that are getting stronger? Are there other things that are maybe getting weaker, that change from one time period to the next? I think that is important.

Gate: You were saying that English is one of the unifying characteristics of our national identity because a vast majority of Americans speak it. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have been criticized for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail. In response, Rubio said the following: “I agree English is the unifying language of our country. Everyone should learn to speak it and it’s important,” but he goes on to say that if people “get their news in Spanish, I want them to hear directly from me, not from a translator at Univision.” What do you think is the role of languages in assimilation into a country? How does this national identity you described work for new immigrants?

Salam: The United States is at a very interesting moment because we have had these moments when we’ve been very permeable and had a big number of newcomers. We’ve had other moments where that number of newcomers, relative to the number of natives, has been a lot smaller. Over the course of that last hundred or so years, we’ve had this process. So, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was this revolution in transportation and communications technologies, and there was a really big surge in migrants to the United States. But then in the twenties that migration closed, and very restrictive policies were put in place. Then you had a period for about thirty to forty years when you had a lot of interesting cultural changes that flowed from the fact that you didn’t have a lot of newcomers that were coming in and replenishing and revitalizing some of these distinctive ethnic communities. So as late as the first World War, you had huge numbers of Americans who spoke German fluently, and it was a huge part of their daily life. Actually, one of the interesting things that happened around the first World War is that there was this real panic about the loyalty of German-speaking Americans, but it’s something that people tend to forget. And then after that, that community kind of evaporated. We don’t think of German-American culture as this really distinctive, vital force like we think of, let’s say, Mexican-American culture. But that’s partly because people of German American origin blended into this larger European origin mass of the population. We forget that we’ve had moments like this in the past, and I think that we’re going through a moment like this right now.

We have a pretty big set of countries that immigrants are coming from, but people of Mexican origin represent a really large share. I would argue Mexican culture, and Mexican-American culture in particular, is actually much more consequential than a lot of other immigrant cultural groups in the United States because of its size and because of our proximity to Mexico. So I think that introduces lots of different questions than, let’s say, the pretty big number of Vietnamese immigrants that we have, or even people that are from Laos or other societies, where you don’t have the same geographical proximity, and you don’t have the same really big linguistic community in which you could conduct your own sort of economic, cultural, and, to some extent, political life. But, on the other hand, when you’re looking at Mexican Americans who are second generation, third generation, or above, they are overwhelmingly English-dominant. They mainly speak Englishmaybe some of them can speak Spanish, but that’s something that happens pretty quickly. On the other hand, they sometimes still lead lives that are very disproportionately Mexican American, as you might expect. With the language thing, that’s really a phenomenon that draws upon the fact we have this very big immigrant population that consists of a lot of people who speak Spanish.

Gate: How should politicians, especially when they are on the campaign trail, respond to the many different languages?

Salam: I don’t have any really normative prescription about that. Earlier on, I said that political parties exist to win. So if I’m in Miami-Dade, an area where there is a huge number of citizens who are Spanish-speaking, I think you’re going to have to learn how to communicate in that language. In other jurisdictions, that’s not as necessary. In the United States, we do have policies in which we try to translate election materials into various other languages, and that seems like a reasonable thing to do to me. But I am also of the view that it is really important that we encourage people to learn English. I guess part of the reason is that I fall into this group of people, perhaps the minority, that believes that America is not a universal nation, but we have a kind of distinctive culture. It’s reasonable for Americans to believe that it’s important for us to allow that culture to flourish and to be present and to be the dominant culture of the country. Though I also believe that you’re always going to have some people who in their private lives and in their communal lives are going to want to speak another language, and I think that is a perfectly fine thing. Again, I think that for politicians in lots of places, not just South Florida but in Northern Virginia and other places, it’s foolish to not try to reach people in their own linguistic communities. But as far as the schools go and as far as our orientation towards the society we want to build, I think that having some sense of commonality and common membership is important.  

Danielle Schmidt

Danielle Schmidt is a fourth-year Public Policy and Philosophy double major and Human Rights minor. Danielle has interned for a non-profit employment center on the South Side and a bipartisan advocacy organization for immigration reform; she served as a Field Director for an Illinois State Representative as well. On campus, she volunteers for New Americans and enjoys exploring the city with her cattle dog.


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