Democrats have had a tough few years.

Following the 2016 elections, as Vox has pointed out, Republicans achieved a political dominance not seen since the Civil War era. Not only did the GOP win the presidency while holding the House and Senate, it held total control in 24 states (compared to seven states for Democrats) and controlled 66 of 99 state legislative chambers nationwide.

Republicans achieved these gains despite having a thrice married political novice at the top of its presidential ticket, a man with a reputation for rudeness, truthiness, and bad behavior. How did this happen?

Andrew Sullivan, writing at New York magazine, offers a compelling theory. The English-born American writer (depicted above) says the Democratic Party, unlike progressive parties in European nations, have not figured out that immigration is the defining issue of our time.

“I don’t believe it’s disputable at this point that the most potent issue behind the rise of the far right in America and Europe is mass immigration. It’s a core reason that Trump is now president; it’s why the AfD is now the third-biggest party in the German, yes, German, parliament; it’s why Austria’s new chancellor won by co-opting much of the far right’s agenda on immigration; it’s why Britain is attempting (and currently failing) to leave the EU; it’s why Marine Le Pen won a record number of votes for her party in France this spring.”


While political leaders in other nations, such as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, have recognized this fact, Democrats have not, Sullivan argues.  

“Instead of adjusting to this new reality, and listening to the electorate, the Dems have moved ever farther to the left, and are controlled by ever-radicalizing activists,” Sullivan writes.

How far left have Democrats and progressives moved on this issue?

Sullivan says it’s not simply that they refuse to enforce immigration laws. He says most progressives cannot even utter the phrase “illegal immigration” anymore, resorting instead to euphemisms, while many bluntly say immigration restrictions are “racist.”

Sullivan suggests this simply is a bridge too far for a major political party:

“Borders themselves are racist? Seriously?

The entire concept of a nation whose citizens solely determine its future — the core foundation for any viable democracy at all — is now deemed by many left-liberals to be a function of bigotry. This is the kind of madness that could keep them from power indefinitely.”

Sullivan, it should be pointed out, is not a fan of Trump or the GOP. The former New Republic editor has accused Trump of mindless nihilism, hinted that George W. Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes, and pursued with odd intensity rumors that Sarah Palin was not the mother of her son, Trig.

But there is no doubting Sullivan’s credentials or political instincts (the Palin thing notwithstanding). The Oxford- and Harvard-educated superblogger is one of the most widely-read intellectuals of our time, and he understands a fundamental point of constitutional democracy: nation-states cannot exist without borders.

This should not be a profound revelation. In fact, one could argue that the very idea of “a nation without borders” is an oxymoron. If one Googles the word nation-state, one will find this definition:

Nation-state (noun): a sovereign state whose citizens or subjects are relatively homogeneous in factors such as language or common descent.

Definitionally speaking, a nation-state defines itself as separate from other peoples and nations, and a nation without borders will soon cease to be “relatively homogeneous in factors such as language or common descent.”

This is a simple concept, one most Americans grasp instinctively. Yet there is a powerful and persistent idea among the intelligentsia that borders and border enforcement are immoral, and Americans don’t like it. 

“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” Trump repeatedly said on the campaign trail.

He might have had numerous flaws as a candidate, but Trump understood this basic truth. His ability to embrace it is probably why he’s president now.

“[It was] the most powerful thing Trump said in the campaign,” Sullivan writes. “And the Democrats had no answer, something that millions of Americans immediately saw.”

European nations, following Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to resettle a million Syrian refugees in the heart of Europe, appear to have been rudely awakened to the reality that borders matter. More walls are being built today than at any time in modern history. Sullivan believes this is a reaction to “Merkel’s blithe misjudgment.”

But American politicians have been a bit slower. At various governmental levels—federal, state, and city—we’ve seen policies enacted to facilitate illegal immigration despite a deep hostility to sanctuary cities and similar policies.

Perhaps this is partly a result of the myth of America. America has always been viewed as an idea. Ideas, unlike nations, have no boundaries. This view of America is deeply embedded in our history and culture, and it has been the source of both American greatness and American mischief.

In his 2016 book A Nation Without Borders, Pulitizer Prize-winning historian Steven Hahn argued that this idea was used to help rationalize early America’s imperial inclinations.  

All of this invites an important question: What is a nation?

The French philosopher and historian Ernest Renan asked this question more than a century ago, and answered as follows:

“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle,” Renan says. “Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.”

If Renan is correct, it seems fair to assume that a nation that refuses to see its citizens as distinct from those around the world will quickly lose its past—and with it, its soul.

[Image Credit: Flickr | CC BY 2.0]