Since Wax’s remarks became public, other conservatives have defended her against accusations of prejudice. Yet the debate over whether what she said technically qualifies as racist obscures the bigger issue: What she said was incoherent, even on its own terms.
In European democracies, the idea that immigration presents unique challenges for cultural solidarity has the attraction of being somewhat coherent. There is something called “Danish culture” or “Dutch culture” that cuts across partisan divides and that mainstream center-left and center-right parties accept as broadly representative. This usually involves some commitment to liberal ideals such as gender equality, sexual freedom, and a neutral or “rational” public space. Accordingly, right-wing populist parties—and mainstream parties to various degrees—ask recent or prospective immigrants to accept, and even embrace, this national culture. Restrictionists in western Europe have, for instance, portrayed Muslim immigrants as hostile to gay people and sought, in the name of women’s rights, to limit a woman’s right to wear the head scarf. This aggressive, sometimes even coercive, insistence on liberal values leads right-wing populists to adopt illiberal positions—a sort of illiberal liberalism.
In the United States, conservatives see a liberal political order—privileging nonnegotiable rights, personal freedom, and individual choice—as a threat to a historically imagined culture that no longer exists. If anything, the only consensus is that there is a lack of consensus over how to define the American creed. This complicates any new approach to immigration: In the absence of a shared understanding of American culture, whose conception of it would we privilege?
Many national conservatives are either illiberal or anti-liberal. If the United States is a liberal country—in the classical sense of elevating a liberal constitutional tradition—then should we make it more difficult for supporters of right-wing populist parties, such as Italy’s League or Austria’s Freedom Party, to immigrate to the United States? Across Europe, whites, being an ethnic majority, are more likely than nonwhites to hold to an ethnonationalist conception of the state. Accordingly, under a “cultural distance” immigration regime of the sort that Wax proposes, a Democrat could reasonably argue that white Europeans are more likely to believe in things that are contrary to American ideals. One of those ideals is unrestricted birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the Constitution and, I would argue, is central to Americanness and the American idea. If a white European says he or she doesn’t support birthright citizenship—not a single European country currently has birthright citizenship—should that affect his or her chances of immigrating to the United States? Perhaps.