The rise of right-wing demagogues around the world has been the result of any number of hotly-debated causes, but no one seems to dispute that immigration is one of them. The center-right’s recent victory in Austria, in which it adopted the far-right’s rhetoric and substance on immigration, is a case in point. In his new book, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, Sasha Polakow-Suransky travels around the world and examines the fight against open borders in a number of countries, seeking to explain its roots, from a fear of Islam to the collapse of middle-class jobs. While Polakow-Suransky believes that liberals and the left haven’t been sufficiently cognizant of the political problems caused by refugee flows and immigration, he nonetheless diagnoses the white nationalist backlash against them to be a much graver threat to liberal democracy.
I recently spoke by phone with Polakow-Suransky, a former editor at the New York Times. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Angela Merkel’s refugee policy can succeed, the connection between ethnic homogeneity and a big welfare state, and why the “civilizational threat” of Islam is overstated.
Isaac Chotiner: Did reporting and writing this book give you any new sympathy, or new understanding for some of the less-liberal populist currents roiling so much of the world?
Sasha Polakow-Suransky: It definitely gave me a greater understanding of those currents. I wouldn’t say that in the end I came away with sympathy for those political views, in the sense that I’m not receptive to them as solutions to the problems that Europe faces or that the U.S. faces. But the reporting for the book obviously put me in touch with the sorts of people that I don’t usually associate with. I think that’s something that a lot of people in my political situation don’t usually get exposed to and it would probably be a good thing if all of us were.
Is there some way in which you think their critique of immigration and open borders and the way the economy is currently set up is correct, even if you disagree with their solutions?
I’m not an advocate of absolute open borders and I never have been. I think that it causes all sorts of problems and it’s specifically an issue in advanced, wealthy, European welfare states.
The right-wing argument—and this is not only the right, because it includes the center-right, and many center-left parties will make this argument too—is that in order to sustain a functioning, generous welfare state, we can’t bring in 1 million people per year, and I think that is a reasonable argument. What I object to, and what a lot of the book is about is the way that that practical economic argument has been blended, conflated, and in many ways overtaken by this civilizational rhetoric that blames Muslims in particular and immigrants in general for taking over, undermining, and destroying European societies. I would argue that the backlash against those people is actually a bigger threat to the liberal societies and advanced welfare states that these people claim to cherish.
When you say that bringing in this many people means you “can’t” have a functioning welfare state, what does that mean? That there’s simply not enough money? Or that middle-class majorities in these countries are not willing to fund a welfare state if they perceive it as going to people who are different from them?
You raised two points. The first is a simple question of numbers, right. What Germany did is unprecedented in a lot of ways. Even the people who are the fiercest advocates of that policy admit that it was a staggering number of people and created all sorts of difficulties, logistically and in terms of integration.
I support refugees being accepted. I support abiding by U.N. conventions and giving people a chance to lodge asylum claims. But I acknowledge that if 1 million people do that and many among the 1 million are actually economic migrants and don’t have necessarily legitimate refugee claims, it will be a burden on even the wealthiest societies. There I think that people on the right are onto something.
The problem is [when that gets] overlaid with the xenophobic argument, which is that they are coming to take over and change our societies, which is something completely different and much more sinister. It’s reasonable to say yes and to integrate 50,000 or 100,000 per year and train them and eventually employ them, which is what some of the more moderate conservatives in Germany would argue makes sense. But then what you see coming from the far right is that these people are coming to change our way of life and they’re fundamentally incompatible and we can’t have them. But there’s a problem in some segment of the left, where people will push back against all of that rather than just some of that.
For the welfare state thing, I think you hit upon something significant there, which is that a lot of these societies are quite homogenous and have long been quite homogenous, especially places like Denmark. So the solidarity that sustained these welfare states was something quite familiar and known for a long period of time. Then you have these people coming in and opportunistic politicians have exploited that. Denmark is the best example of this because you have an incredibly progressive country with a very generous welfare state suddenly start to become incredibly intolerant toward a certain minority group.
These far-right populist parties that had been basically liberal in economic policy in the ’80s and ’90s, saw this political opening and they seized that niche and they said we’re going to become more socialist than the socialists on economic policy. They basically defended the welfare state on nativist terms and it resonated with this whole swath of voters. Some of them were xenophobes and some of them were angry, disgruntled working-class voters who had voted for the Social Democrats but felt that their grievances were being ignored. I think it was a combination of basic economic issues and a country with a very generous welfare state reaching a point where it was strained, and people were taking that moment and exploiting in a way that served their own political interests and they did it very, very well.
It seems like the upshot from what you’re saying is that the consequences for Germany are going to be dire.
It could be dire. But there are two things that are different about Germany. One is that Merkel hasn’t indulged in the kind of rhetoric that a lot of center-right parties have elsewhere. What you see in places like Holland and Denmark is the center-right and in a lot of cases the center-left basically caving to the demands of the far right or simply mimicking them rhetorically.
And no one is challenging those ideas, or people are actively adopting those ideas in fear of losing voters to them. Merkel has not done that. She’s basically said, “We did this. We’ll manage,” and she’s focusing on integration. It’s going to be a huge challenge. What’s interesting to me also is that the people who objected to her policy internally within the party are also not really indulging in the outright Islamophobic, “Muslims are coming to take us over and destroy us” rhetoric. They’re basically saying, “yeah we disagreed, but we toed the party line and now we’re going to deal with it. It will be a big challenge, but maybe in 20 years, if we do a good job of integration policy, it will work and it will be an economic benefit to us.”
That gives me some hope for Germany. But if next year there’s another massive refugee crisis on the scale of 2015 and 1 million people come from Yemen, or 1 million people come from Egypt because there’s a drought, or Bangladesh because it goes underwater, and Germany does the same thing, then I think you face a real risk of it just becoming too much.
So are you saying it is inevitable, this backlash, or is the result of craven and bigoted politicians?
The massive refugee flow of late 2015 was the pivotal political gift to people like [Marine] Le Pen. It gave them the platform to spout the kind of rhetoric that I’m criticizing. If there had been 10,000 Syrians entering Europe, they would have probably done the same thing, but it wouldn’t have resonated in the same way, right? Because there wouldn’t be people standing on the train platform in their little village in Bavaria, and you wouldn’t have had hundreds of thousands of people marching across Hungary giving Viktor Orban the platform to sort of get tough, build a fence, “keep the Muslims out” rhetoric. Part of this is the emergence of events in Syria, the number of people moving and the political opportunities these people seized. So yes, they would have been there anyway, but it wouldn’t have been as resonant politically if you didn’t have the numbers.
The people who care about maintaining liberal democracies and abiding by international law and giving genuine refugees a fair shake need to push back against this nativist rhetoric and the far-right parties. But we also need to be conscious of the fact that mass migration of people on a regular basis is not going to be sustainable because at a certain point it becomes too much for a society, especially a society that’s constructed as a generous welfare state, to handle.
There is a legitimate argument being made by some people on the right that a lot of these people are economic migrants and not refugees, but the nasty cynics in these far-right parties make the argument that all of them or almost all of them are, and that there are only one or two refugees among them, which is bullshit.
I think that one of the failures on the left, both at the political level and some people in my own social and intellectual circle, is to not draw that line and just say, “OK yeah. Everyone can come and go. It will be fine.” Because that’s both a political liability and at a certain point, economically unsustainable if the numbers are so high.
Amidst this we have the civilizational argument, which has some weird ironies. You have right-wingers here and in Europe saying the culture of these people is essentially reactionary, and so they’re not going to fit in with our liberal society, which of course is ironic because many of these people are themselves reactionary, or supporting Roy Moore, or whatever. At the same time, you have liberal people who say, “Oh it will be fine. It will be fine. We can work out the cultural stuff.” Many of these liberals would be horrified if a conservative Christian got on their school board. I’m not trying to draw moral equivalence, but I was wondering, are you at all concerned about the cultural aspect of mass immigration?
Yes, but there are people who are entering Europe who have never lived in a society where women walk around in miniskirts and go to schools in those miniskirts and where gay couples walk around holding hands. That is going to be a difficult integration issue in any society where it surfaces. Now if that person, who has arrived coming from Afghanistan or Syria or wherever, not having seen these things before, he then attacks the gay couple or rapes the woman then he should be punished in the same way that any German or Dutch person that attacked a gay couple or raped a woman would be, and there are many German or Dutch people who’ve done, who’ve committed those crimes, by the way. They should be punished in the same way.
Yes, there are problems and it’s the task of integration to deal with that, but then to blame it entirely on these people, and to turn it into this civilization thing, that despite whatever horrors they’re fleeing, we can’t let these people in because they’re all going to turn into rapists and criminals, that’s what’s bullshit. Right? We deal with it and should do what needs to be done in terms of integration policies. That’s the task of a liberal society.
Someone like [Steve] Bannon, for instance, he goes on and on about this and how it’s a civilizational attack. You never, ever hear people like [Bannon] proclaiming that homophobia in the Deep South [is a civilizational attack]. In Denmark half of the right-wing party—or a good segment of the party—is like hardcore, old-school Christian nationalists, not particularly friendly to gay people. Le Pen still has various people at high levels in the party who have pretty shady pasts when it comes to Nazi affiliations and anti-Semitism, even if she’s disavowed it herself.
Right. There are issues that need to be dealt with, and they’re blown out of proportion in a way to create the civilizational enemies and that reminds me of some of the nastier moments in American and European history, when you create this other who is an absolute and irreconcilable. We saw it during the Dreyfus affair and, obviously you saw it in Germany during World War II, and you saw it with the Klan in the South.* These things have existed before—where it’s kind of the outside force of a different faith that’s threatening us and our values and our society.
You just wrote a piece for the New York Times, in fact, about how it is white nationalism and not Islam that we should fear.
I think that if you’re the grandson of German Jewish refugees who left Berlin in the mid-1930s, it’s hard not to be afraid when you see an explicitly xenophobic party or several explicitly xenophobic parties, many of which have a direct historical lineage that can be traced to the World War II era. It’s hard not to be afraid of what that means for Europe.
Fundamentalist terrorism is a threat, whether it comes from Muslims or not. But there is a much more tangible and real threat to a lot of these societies because these [white nationalists] present themselves as natives defending the homeland. They can actually articulate that position.
And it’s a more powerful political argument.
Exactly. They come along and they say, “I am a true German and I am defending the German Fatherland,” or “I am a true Dutchman and I’m defending Holland from the invading hordes,” and that resonates with a lot of people, whereas if some bearded cleric comes along and he says, “I want to stone gay people,” that’s not going to resonate with a lot of the Dutch population.
It’s a political threat. No one is focused on the political threat, and I still believe that as grave as the terrorist threat is, and as big as the problems with immigration are, the more fundamental problem is what could happen if these white nationalist groups start to hold sway and really influence politics.
*Update, Oct. 17, 2017, 5:55 p.m. EDT: This article was updated for clarity. (Return.)