The Melting Pot Boils Over

One of the projects I hope to launch this year is a look at the economic implications of immigration policy. Our new reality is that the national birth rate is now below the replacement rate. That means the only thing saving us from an absolute decline in population is immigration. Other countries, notably Japan, Italy, and China just last year, have already embarked on that downward slope. Some people make an argument for the viability of a steady state, no growth economy, but most economists argue in favor of growth and note that it goes hand in hand with population growth. A closer look at that hypothesis and an examination of the practical consequences of population decline and reduced immigration would be a useful contribution to the public debate we are already having.

Immigration policy, as we all know, is a notorious can of worms. The last overhaul of our policy was in 1986, and multiple failures since then have not been for lack of effort but for lack of consensus. Immigration has been a fraught issue throughout our history—fear of the “other” is not new—but there are two important differences between then and now. First is the question of who is immigrating. The waves of immigration in the first part of the nineteenth century were from Europe and consisted of people who largely looked like the other Europeans who had immigrated. The waves of Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans that came here faced many forms of discrimination, but over time the differences eroded, encouraged by the “melting pot” principle. Subsequent waves of immigration—Chinese at the end of the nineteenth century, other Asians after World War II and the Vietnam War, and Latinos from multiple countries in South and Central America—have been more complicated because the new people didn’t look like the people who were already here, which has made assimilation more difficult.

The other difference is the change in the conversation. For decades, our historical metaphor was the melting pot—people who came from many different places and became one here because the United States was founded on an idea of freedom, liberty, and democracy, and is not simply the legacy of hundreds of years of culture and tradition found elsewhere. Ronald Reagan made this point clearly: "I received a letter just before I left office from a man. I don’t know why he chose to write it, but I’m glad he did. He wrote that you can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Italy, but you can’t become a German, an Italian. He went through Turkey, Greece, Japan and other countries. But he said anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American." This is the basis for the idea of “American exceptionalism,” that our country is different from all the others (and by implication, better). George Mardikian, a Turkish-born American restaurateur, chef, author, and philanthropist, put the meaning of becoming an American citizen succinctly: “One moment you belong with your fathers to a million dead yesterdays — the next you belong with America to a million unborn tomorrows.”

Over the past 20 or 30 years, however, the national conversation has changed. The melting pot is out, and celebration of our differences is in. First or second-generation immigrants used to take pride in saying, “I’m an American,” as opposed to saying they were Italian American or German American. Now it seems to be the opposite—we take pride in our differences, which means we have become less interested in assimilating and becoming one. From one perspective, this as a good thing. Americans can celebrate their individual ethnic and cultural heritage, and we are all richer as a result. From another perspective, however, this focuses on what divides us rather than on what unites us. We are looking more at our individual pasts than our collective future. The beauty of the melting pot metaphor is that it enabled us to think about what we could do together in the face of adversity and crises like a depression and two world wars. It also prompted us to spend more time talking about our obligations as U.S. citizens rather than our rights. John F. Kennedy summed it up in the famous quote from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Sadly, our current political debate shows how far we moved away from the melting pot. In the face of multiple global crises, not the least of which is climate change, it seems that all we can talk about is what the government can do for us. I think one of reasons for that is the vanishing melting pot. That used to be so fundamental it appears on our currency. Look at the back of the dollar bill if you still have one. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one. Just as cash seems to be disappearing from our economy, so is that thought. So, as we celebrate our differences, it would be good if we also remember what brought us here in the first place and what ought to unite us now.

Similarly, as we once again try to tackle immigration policy, we should think beyond the immediate crisis on our southern border and remember both what brought our ancestors here in the first place and what contributions to our economy immigrants have made over more than three centuries.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.