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Immigration Drives Populism to the Tipping Point

Fareed Zakaria:

Supporters of Trump and other populist movements often point to economics as the key to their success — the slow recovery, wage stagnation, the erosion of manufacturing jobs, rising inequality. These are clearly powerful contributing factors. But it is striking that we see right-wing populism in Sweden, which is doing well economically; in Germany, where manufacturing remains robust; and in France, where workers have many protections. Here in the United States, exit polls showed that the majority of voters who were most concerned about the economy cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists. According to the study, if you extrapolate from current trends, “as the percentage of immigrants approaches approximately 22 percent, the percentage of right-wing populist voters exceeds 50 percent.” Hostility to immigration has been a core theme of every one of these populist parties.

One way to test this theory is to note that countries without large-scale immigration, such as Japan, have not seen the same rise of right-wing populism. Another interesting case is Spain, a country that has taken in many immigrants, but mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos, who are easier to assimilate. While you see traditional left-wing economic populism in Spain, you do not see right-wing nationalist movements.

The backlash against immigration is rooted in fact. As I pointed out in a Foreign Affairs essay (written in September, before Trump’s victory), we are living in an age of mass migration. In the past three or four decades, Western societies have seen large influxes of people from different lands and cultures. In 1970, foreign-born people made up less than 5 percent of the U.S. population; today they are about 14 percent. The rise is even sharper in most European countries, home to 76 million international migrants, recently coming mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Austria, for example, took in almost 100,000 immigrants last year — adding 1 percent to its population in 2015 alone.

This much change can be unsettling. For most of human history, people have lived, worked and died within a few miles of the place they were born. But in recent decades, hundreds of millions of people from poorer countries have moved to wealthier ones. This reflects an economic reality. Rich countries have declining birthrates and need labor; poor countries have millions who seek better lives. But this produces anxiety, unease and a cultural backlash that we are witnessing across the Western world.

What does this mean for the future? Western societies will have to better manage immigration. They should also place much greater emphasis on assimilation. Canada should be a role model. It has devised smart policies on both fronts, with high levels of (skilled) immigration, strong assimilation and no major recoil.

The study he refers to is here. An excerpt from the abstract:

Among the central tenets of globalization is free migration of labor. Although much has been written about its benefits, little is known about the limitations of globalization, including how immigration affects the anti-globalist sentiment. Analyzing polls data, we find that over the last three years in a group of EU countries affected by the recent migrant crisis, the percentage of right-wing (RW) populist voters in a given country depends on the prevalence of immigrants in this country’s population and the total immigration inflow into the entire EU. The latter is likely due to the EU resembling a supranational state, where the lack of inner borders causes that ”somebody else’s problem” easily turns into ”my problem”. We further find that the increase in the percentage of RW voters substantially surpasses the immigration inflow, implying that if this process continues, RW populism may democratically prevail and eventually lead to a demise of globalization.

And some findings specifically about Austria and Germany:

In Fig. 2, using the data for Austria and Germany over the past three years (2013-2016), we demonstrate that the percentage of RW populist supporters also depends on the inflow of immigrants into Europe. Illustrative is the Austrian example, where in 2013 parliamentary election the far-right party won 20.5% of the popular vote, roughly reflecting the sentiment predicted from the percentage of immigrants living in Austria at the time. However, due to a high inflow of immigrants that in the second half of 2015 reached unprecedented proportions [33], the local Vienna election saw the percentage of RW voter suddenly jump to 33%. This sudden change in popular vote is reminiscent of phase transitions (i.e., tipping or critical points)—well documented in social sciences [35, 36]—whereby the closer a country to a tipping point, the more abruptly voters turn their back to moderate parties and start voting for more extreme alternatives. A qualitatively similar phenomenon is seen in the case of Germany in Fig. 2(b)-(c)....

Why would countries with a relatively high and a relatively low inflow of immigrants exhibit about the same increase in the percentage of RW voters? This result may be a consequence of the EU’s political organization. Because the EU functions practically as a supranational state with no internal borders, if one country decides to accept immigrants, this decision may have repercussions for all the other member states. The increase in the percentage of RW populist voters may therefore more systematically depend on the total inflow of immigrants into the entire EU, expressed here as a percentage of the total EU population, than the inflow in any individual country. Some, albeit anecdotal, evidence to the effect that the decision of one country may affect the situation in another is seen in the case of Sweden and Norway. The former country was among those that were hit the hardest by the recent migrant crisis, yet the latter country saw practically the same annualized increase in the percentage of RW voters.

Another interesting pair in this context is Germany and Poland. Again it was the former country that experienced a high inflow of immigrants, yet it is in Poland that 53% of the population thinks that their government should refuse asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa (and only 33% thinking Poland should do the opposite). The Polish example may contain another important lesson. Namely, this country seems to have already transitioned from the tolerant mode of democracy associated with globalization to a mode dominated by RW populism. If so, the implication is that the fraction of immigrants at which the Polish population is pushed beyond the tipping point is much lower than in western EU countries. Poland—and similarly Hungary, both of which share decades of socialist experience—is among the toughest opponents of immigration into the EU, strongly debating against the quotas that the EU imposed with a goal to more evenly spread the shock of recent migrant crisis.

The two most interesting findings of the study to me are first the idea of a tipping point: when a country reaches a certain level of immigration (and problems associated with it) support for populists begins rapidly increasing until they may become the most popular party in the country. The latest polls show (g) that the AfD in Germany is now at 15%, the Greens have dropped 3-4% to 9%, and the SPD continues its historic slide, now at 20%. Germany probably won't have as clear a tipping-point as other European countries owing to its fractured party landscape and historic suspicion of parties to the right of the CSU. But who knows?

The second factor the study points to is that Europeans are considering mass immigration as a European problem. Their point of view seems to be that we gave up a considerable amount of sovereignty over our own national borders in return for at least an implicit promise that Europe's borders would offer a similar amount of security. But they don't, and some bad actors within northwestern Europe have further undermined the implicit agreement by continuing to lure large numbers of unsuitable immigrants with their overly-generous policies. So we will elect populists at home in the hope that they will pursue policies that will minimize the fallout inside our own national borders.

That seems like a pretty sensible response to me.