Sanders and Warren expose false choice between diversity and welfare

US Politics: The American left’s heroes used to lace reforms with a measure of nativism

Americans tire of the idea that a more enlightened people live to their immediate north. The English, I can report, know the feeling. A sort of moral premium appears to be the due of smaller countries abutting larger ones.

Facts are facts, though, and the recent re-election of Justin Trudeau as Canada's prime minister reminds us of several. At about 20 per cent, Canada has a bigger foreign-born population share than the US. It manages to square this with universal healthcare and an income distribution that is – to go by the Gini coefficient – about as equal as Germany's. Most votes in the election went to redistributionist parties and even the Conservative candidate hedged his qualms about immigration.

Canada is something that is increasingly said to be impossible in real time and space. It is a cosmopolitan social democracy. A conflict between immigration and welfare is the given reason for the ordeal of the western left in recent years. The less that citizens have in common – goes this logic – the less willing they are to underwrite each other’s livelihoods. It is a theory worth taking seriously but it has calcified into something like fact, even as the evidence remains uneven.

The nation with the highest tax burden in the OECD is still France, which is no one's idea of a monochrome hermit kingdom. Sweden and Denmark have pruned their welfare states as they have become less homogenous, but neither has stopped being a social democracy. Australia has a foreign-born population of more than a quarter. It also has public services of US Democratic fantasies. If there is a tension between diversity and solidarity, it is not a hard and fast one.


Nothing would disprove that tension more than the election as US president of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. What makes these Democrats so unusual in American history is not their desire to expand the government. It is their willingness to do so in a high-immigration context. Until now, the left's heroes (of the electable kind) have laced their reforms with a measure of nativism.

Squeeze on immigration

The New Deal and the Great Society happened during a half-century long squeeze on immigration. Franklin Roosevelt and especially Lyndon Johnson were not asking citizens to look after freshly docked arrivals. They also couched their welfarism in patriotic terms (the New Deal was the "moral analogue to war") and sometimes relied on leftover war powers to implement it. They were able to weave such awesome electoral coalitions precisely because the heartland jingoist and the urban leftist could each feel at home.

The Sanders-Warren project bears no comparison. It is big government without the flag. It is cosmopolitan social democracy. Even if Sanders, faithful to his Marxism, is less taken with identity politics than with class, neither he nor Warren are immigration sceptics. Nor, compared to its union-dominated yesteryear, is the Democratic base.

If this seems altogether too Canadian to sell south of the border, do not put too much store in the idea of immutable national cultures. It is now well-enough known that, on economics, most Americans are some way to the left of their stereotype as individualists, chins jutted to the frontier as they wave away all federal help. Lots of left-wing policies are popular. It is said that Warren’s ideas would make life harder for finance, a warning that threatens to cost her literally tens of voters.

Less documented is the softening of views on immigration under President Donald Trump. White anxiety about minorities also seems to have peaked before his election. Of course, voters can say all this now and renege when the choices are real. But on the face of it, attitudes to welfare and heterogeneity are converging in a way that is too often assumed to be out of the question.

Disappointed left

The world has been a disappointment to the left for more than a decade now. The crash “should” have verified its dissenting view of capitalism. Instead, it was the right that flowered. The refusal to choose between the two faces of leftism – between porous borders and welfare – has been isolated as the problem.

But even aside from the patchiness of the evidence, it does not make all that much sense in theory. Why would markets be any easier to reconcile with immigration than welfare? If a citizen resents a fiscal transfer to a newcomer, they will not cheer being undercut by one for a job either.

Diversity versus solidarity has become the “guns or butter” of the 21st century. The choice is posited more often than it is seriously examined. Warren and Sanders want to test it to destruction. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019