The political implications are already being felt. In 1999 fellow Europeans were shocked by the electoral success in Austria of a xenophobic right-wing party whose main plank is “no immigration”. Similar movements are growing in Flemish-speaking Belgium, in traditionally liberal Denmark and in northern Italy. Even in America, immigration is upsetting long-established political alignments. American trade unions’ opposition to large-scale immigration has put them in the anti-globalisation camp that organised violent protests during the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation in 1999. A future Democratic candidate for the American presidency may have to choose between getting the union vote by opposing immigration, or getting the vote of Latinos and other newcomers by supporting it. Equally, a future Republican candidate may have to choose between the support of business, which is clamouring for workers, and the vote of a white middle class that increasingly opposes immigration.
Even so, America’s experience of immigration should give it a lead in the developed world for several decades to come. Since the 1970s it has been admitting large numbers of immigrants, either legally or illegally. Most immigrants are young, and the birth rates of first-generation immigrant women tend to be higher than those of their adopted country. This means that for the next 30 or 40 years America’s population will continue to grow, albeit slowly, whereas in some other developed countries it will fall.
A Country of Immigrants
But it is not numbers alone that will give America an advantage. Even more important, the country is culturally attuned to immigration, and long ago learned to integrate immigrants into its society and economy. In fact, recent immigrants, whether Hispanics or Asians, may be integrating faster than ever. One-third of all recent Hispanic immigrants, for instance, are reported to be marrying non-Hispanics and non-immigrants. The one big obstacle to the full integration of recent immigrants in America is the poor performance of American public schools.
Among developed countries, only Australia and Canada have a tradition of immigration similar to America’s. Japan has resolutely kept foreigners out, except for a spate of Korean immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s, whose descendants are still being discriminated against. The mass migrations of the 19th century were either into empty, unsettled spaces (such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil), or from farm to city within the same country. By contrast, immigration in the 21st century is by foreigners — in nationality, language, culture and religion — who move into settled countries. European countries have so far been less than successful at integrating such foreigners.
The biggest effect of the demographic changes may be to split hitherto homogeneous societies and markets. Until the 1920s or 30s, every country had a diversity of cultures and markets. They were sharply differentiated by class, occupation and residence, eg, “the farm market” or “the carriage trade”, both of which disappeared some time between 1920 and 1940. Yet since the second world war, all developed countries have had only one mass culture and one mass market. Now that demographic forces in all the developed countries are pulling in opposite directions, will that homogeneity survive?