Where immigration, polarization and incarceration meet

by John MacBeath Watkins

One nice thing about the internet is that authors can continue to update information between editions. And since academic books that are not textbooks tend not to make the best seller list, that's especially important for such works. Consider this:

McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal published this through MIT Press in 2006, but they have now updated some of their charts on party polarization and inequity through 2009.

Here's their chart that shows party polarization and the Gini index, which shows the degree of economic inequity in a society.

As you can see, as inequity increases, so does polarization. The puzzle is, why should that be the case? From the abstract for their study:

Some direct causes of polarization can be ruled out rather quickly. The consequences of "one person, one vote" decisions and redistricting can be ruled out since the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, has polarized. The shift to a Republican South can be ruled out since the North has also polarized. Primary elections can be ruled out since polarization actually decreased once primaries became widespread.

But this does not make sense. We've had, in the past, parties that were regional -- Republicans in the north, Democrats in the south, during the Civil War and Reconstruction. We've had a period when the parties were not regionally distributed -- the era of the New Deal, until the realignment following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in which Southern Democrats became Republicans. That really started with the 1968 election and Nixon's Southern strategy. In fact, periods of polarization have tracked pretty well with both parties relying on a regional base. In addition, the Senate usually is less polarized than the House. So look at this chart:

The parties are more polarized now than any time since Reconstruction. In fact, polarization dropped like a stone after World War I, rose a bit after World War II and climbed rapidly after about 1970.

McCarty et al found that there is a metric that tracks this fall in partisanship pretty well: A drop in immigration. See this chart:

Apparently, a high level of immigration tracks with a high level of economic inequity and a high level of political polarization. Again, from the abstract:

It is more difficult to find the causes of polarization than to reject them because social, economic, and political phenomena are mutually causal. For example, immigration might lead to policies that increase economic inequality if immigrants are at the bottom of the income distribution and do not have the right to vote. We document an upward shift in the income distribution of voting citizens. In turn, dispersal in income might lead to polarization. It also might lead to laxity toward immigration if inexpensive immigrant labor in the form of domestic and service workers is a complement to the human capital of the wealthy.
A high level of immigration might also lead to lower wages for those with whom they compete for jobs. Workers would have less leverage in negotiating pay, because businesses could simply hire someone willing to work cheaper. A labor shortage would raise wages and pull more people into the labor force. A labor surplus does the opposite. Labor force participation has in any case been increasing for my entire adult life, because women were increasingly in the workforce. Here's a chart via Matthew Yglesias:

During the Clinton boom in the 1990s, labor force participation increased.   Yglesias maintains that "the reality is that we’ve been in a continuous labor market recession for the past decade." So, was labor share of our economy's rewards falling because of immigrant competition the reason for polarization?

The Gini index started falling in 1933, not coincidentally the beginning of the New Deal. But reduced polarization started before that, taking a sharp turn toward moderation in about 1920. In other words, it wasn't the economic effects of immigration that were correlated with the polarization, it was immigration itself.  The economic effects no doubt magnify the effects of immigration, but the basic problem seems to be that it seems to take time for Americans to get used to new groups of Americans.

One reason for the delay in the fall of the Gini index after immigration fell following WW I may be that the 1920s were a time of rapidly rising productivity, as assembly line production and electrification reduced the need for labor and may have harmed its bargaining position. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into office, he brought with him a conviction that deflation was a real problem. Executive Order 6102 devalued the dollar by about almost 70% against gold. In 1933 the National Recovery Administration started working on codes of "fair practice" and set prices, working against "price chiselers," and when the Supreme Court ruled the NRA was unconstitutional, the National Labor Relations Act replaced many of its provisions, such as minimum wages.

Giving labor more power decreased inequity, but as we've seen, polarization dropped first. This makes me think that labor's negotiating power is only a side effect of the real cause, which is a high level of immigration. When Americans live in an environment where they can get used to who is an American, polarization diminishes.

We could test this, I suppose, by requiring that immigrants invest $1 million to gain entry. If we had immigrants who didn't compete for low-paying jobs, we could see if they still had the effect of sparking a Nativist reaction.

I suspect there are secondary effects of immigration. If large numbers of the lower-paid people in our society don't have the vote, that would leave us with a large group of unrepresented people, and with people who sympathized with them. For example, if Hispanic immigrants have extended families in which most are legal immigrants and some are illegal, that's one group. Another example would be that non-Hispanic blacks accounted for nearly 40% of prison populations while amounting to less than 13% of the population as a whole. On June 30, 2008, an estimated 4.8% of black non-Hispanic men were in jail or prison, while 1.9% of Hispanic men were there and only .07% of white men were incarcerated. This means that black men are about five times as likely to lose their right to vote because of a felony on their record than white men.

Shortly after the Civil War, blacks were inclined to vote Republican. Almost 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, very few are inclined to do so, and they have switched to the the Democrats while many Southern whites have switched to the Republican party.

How does this relate to immigration? Whites who have a prejudice against immigrants often have a prejudice against blacks. The difference, of course, is that after a couple generations, whites tend to forget what they had against white immigrants. Resentment against immigrants, blacks and those who are "on their side" fuels the white-hot anger of polarization. That anger is part of what is behind differences in enforcement. For example whites use drugs about as much as blacks, but are much less likely to be convicted of a drug crime. And differences in enforcement change the electoral  math in a way that makes it possible for those whites most worried about losing their position in life so "the other" -- immigrants or blacks -- to defend themselves at the ballot box.

And that gets us back to the problem I had with Polarized America -- this statement:
The shift to a Republican South can be ruled out since the North has also polarized.
 No, not at all. If one region chooses to fly one banner, and announces its hatred of the other side, you can expect the other side to disagree with them. It works like this:

"I think you suck!"

"No, I don't. You do!"

And there you have it, the essence of polarization. You can put either side in either position, they still don't agree.