President Trump’s pernicious attacks on nonwhite immigrants have thrust a particular theory of political membership—white nationalism—to the forefront of American politics. Since white nationalism predicates political membership on having a particular racial identity, it is obvious that a commitment to liberal, democratic ideals entails a rejection of that theory. But what theory of political membership and immigration should partisans of liberal, democratic ideals endorse? Can a democratic politics exist without excluding immigrants from the political community?
In her recent book, Immigration and Democracy, Sarah Song defends a theory of democratic political membership according to which noncitizen immigrants can become members of a political community by participating in shared institutions. Song holds that political membership should not be predicated on racial identity, but neither should it be predicated on citizenship. Political membership, in her account, derives from collective action, not from the possession of a racial identity or legal status.
Song’s theory of political membership is a theory of what Michael Hanchard, in The Spectre of Race, calls the ethos of democracy, of democracy as a concept involving the ideals of political inclusion and equality. But these ideals, Hanchard argues, have always been haunted by the ethnos of democracy, the reality of exclusion and hierarchy based on race, ethnicity, or national belonging.
Put another way, Hanchard worries that the concept of democracy frequently conflicts with the practices of real-world democratic states that employ “mechanisms and institutions designed to restrict, not universalize, political participation.” In the United States, as well as Europe, contemporary white nationalism is symptomatic of the long-standing tendency in Western democracies to envision citizenship in ethno-racial terms: as Hanchard puts it, to link “autochthony, blood and soil with citizenship.”
In ancient Athens, for example, “only the children of freeborn natives were eligible for democratic citizenship”—which is to say, metics (foreigners) and slaves (whether owned publicly or privately) were not. Western democracies have followed the ancient Athenian example of restricting citizenship, Hanchard shows, by implementing criteria of democratic inclusion and exclusion.
From such early roots, Western democracy has continued to build ideas of citizenship around exclusion and race. Yet political scientists, especially students of comparative politics, have tended to ignore this trend. Because his fellow comparativists remain oblivious to the legacies of colonialism, racism, and imperialism within Western nation-states, Hanchard advises them to acknowledge the racial specter they have ignored and to modify their scholarship accordingly.
Is the specter of racial discrimination an aberration, or, in fact, a norm of the modern nation-state?
Even Hanchard, however, fails to acknowledge how those without full citizenship—often those subject to racial discrimination—contest their exclusion: activism. While Martha Jones’s Birthright Citizens, with its focus on antebellum America, lacks the scope of Hanchard’s study, it meticulously details the many forms that such struggles for citizenship can take.
In the antebellum period, there was no consensus regarding the meaning of “citizenship.” In fact, birthright citizenship as we know it was a distinctive political project advanced by free black activists of the antebellum colored conventions movement. By the time the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, activists had been promoting the idea of citizenship as a birthright for roughly half a century. Still, birthright was only one of the ideas informing their work.
Song’s proposal that institutional participation can enable noncitizens to become members of a polity illuminates the conceptual space necessary for Jones’s argument. Song’s view of political membership, as based on participation, implies that much of the activism Jones identifies—even when it failed to yield the legal recognition of free blacks as citizens—may well have sufficed to make them members of the polity. For Jones, in fact, the civic involvements of activists both within and outside the conventions movement suggest that we conceptualize political membership not as a birthright, but as established through activism itself.
Put differently, these activists modeled the idea that political membership is not determined by where one is born, but by how one comports oneself.
In 1873, Edward Augustus Freeman—a founder of the discipline of comparative politics, by Hanchard’s account—gave six lectures at the Royal Institute of London. Freeman began his lectures with the assertion that “the establishment of the Comparative Method of study has been the greatest intellectual achievement of our time.” Freeman interests Hanchard because his scholarship, unlike that of subsequent generations of comparative politics specialists, emphasized “the relationship between race and polity,” even though it remained, according to Hanchard, Aryan-centric and racially biased. A critical part of The Spectre of Race is the story Hanchard recounts of the history of the discipline, extending from Freeman’s lectures and Woodrow Wilson’s writings through the scholarship of Charles Merriam and Gabriel Almond, and up to the present day.
The consequence of the story is that the contemporary study of comparative politics is even more neglectful of the specter of race than its predecessors. The insight that Western democracy has always been haunted by ethno-national and racial hierarchies should lead his colleagues, Hanchard believes, to widen the horizon of their inquiries. The principal question Hanchard adds to that horizon asks whether the racial and ethno-national regimes characteristic of colonialism and the politics of the metropole are anomalies of political modernity or, alternatively, among its constitutive institutional components. Is the specter of racial discrimination an aberration, or, in fact, a norm of the modern nation-state?
Hanchard’s answer to this question is that racial discrimination is the norm. He defends his answer by showing how France, Britain, and the United States—countries often labeled as exemplars for other industrial states and modern democracies to emulate—“devised racial and ethno-national regimes to delimit political membership within their liberal democratic polities.” In the British case, Hanchard documents “the role of race in Britain’s imperial design and geopolitics,” as well as the state’s role during the era of decolonization in maintaining ethno-national and racial regimes. Turning to domestic policy, he analyzes elite and popular demands for the increased scrutiny of immigrants from nonwhite Commonwealth countries after 1945. These demands, Hanchard shows, eventually led to a series of immigration acts (in 1962, 1968, 1969, and 1971) that “curtailed nonwhite immigration and led to the increased surveillance of blacks in British society.”
In the French case, Hanchard shows that “despite republican proclamations” to the contrary, “racial and ethno-national regimes can be identified at different moments in French history, within its colonies and départements, as well as in contiguous territorial France.” As in the British case, he also discusses the policy consequences of the immigration of nonwhites in the years following World War II.
In the US case, finally, Hanchard foregrounds the history of immigration and citizenship law (in his view, an understudied aspect of racial and ethno-national regime formation in the United States). This inquiry traces the racially restrictive Naturalization Act of 1790, through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. By demonstrating that racial and ethno-national regimes pervade political modernity, Hanchard highlights the long historical lineage of white nationalism’s contemporary challenges to democratic ideals. “The fear, the fright of difference,” he soberly and wisely reminds us, “is only unknown to those who have not been paying attention.”
Jones concludes her introduction to Birthright Citizens by comparing today’s “unauthorized immigrants and their children” to antebellum free people of color, “at least to the degree that free people of color then were also a community that lived through episodes of punitive legislation and efforts to force their exile.” Jones might just as well have added that antebellum free people of color—like immigrant activists today—were similarly advocating for their rights in the face of white nationalism: specifically, in the face of repeated calls for forced exile from America to colonies abroad.
The actions of Hezekiah Grice, one of the free people of color whose response to the colonization movement Jones recounts, perfectly exemplify this sort of advocacy. A cofounder of Baltimore’s Legal Rights Association, Grice was “captivated” by the possibility that “from birthright flowed an entitlement to the privileges and immunities of citizens for all Americans, black and white.” Persistently seeking help to validate the claims made by free blacks to birthright citizenship, he consulted three white attorneys—John Sergeant, Horace Binney, and former US Attorney General William Wirt—each of whom rebuffed him. Grice’s encounters with these men taught him “lessons that no text could teach: The Constitution provided a basis for their claim to citizenship. But the text alone would not suffice. There were arguments to be honed and minds to be influenced.”
Laws, it seems, had to start with action: with changing hearts and minds, yes, but also with learning to live in new ways. Among the most effective arguments that antebellum black Baltimoreans could levy, Jones reveals, was their active participation in civic life itself. Simply by participating in civic life, they established their claim to political membership and, ultimately, to citizenship.
Jones’s book focuses on the city of Baltimore and on the political agency exercised by black Baltimoreans between 1820 and 1860, emphasizing the experiences through which free black men acquired legal education. Throughout the book, Jones documents the ways that free blacks used the legal system to advance rights claims beyond the claim to birthright citizenship.
Laws, it seems, had to start with action: with changing hearts and minds, yes, but also with learning to live in new ways.
“Free African Americans became rights holders,” she argues, “when they managed to exercise those privileges that rights holders exercised. And they often did so in ways that local authorities were bound to respect and enforce.” By defending a church building against foreclosure, for instance, free blacks asserted their property rights. By petitioning the court to secure travel and gun ownership licenses, they seized the opportunity to make judges and lawyers “party to an exercise of the rights to travel and to own firearms.” When black Baltimoreans filed petitions for insolvency, they “gave testimony against the interests of white men.” And when they invoked the writ of habeas corpus to protect the interests of young apprentices, they succeeded—sometimes—in bringing indenture schemes that “threatened to operate much like enslavement” under the rule of law.
In the courthouse, through just these sorts of action, free blacks “carried themselves like rights-bearing citizens.” More generally, Jones maintains that, for black Baltimoreans, “petitioning, litigating, and actions in the streets … are a record of how [free blacks] won rights by acting like rights-bearing people. They secured citizenship by comporting themselves like citizens.” This is a critical claim, asserting that “rights holders were those who did what rights holders did.”
Jones points out that hers is not “a story of unbridled agency in a triumphalist sense.” She admits that struggles to secure rights through participation—through what she terms the “performance” of rights—only sometimes satisfied the demands of justice. Still, Jones is right to recognize that the struggles she documents were conceptually significant, for they sought to enact and practice a notion of citizenship and political membership that free blacks could satisfy when all about them “lawmakers and jurists fumbled, punted, and confused, and otherwise failed to settle the question.”
The crux of Song’s political theory is the idea of collective self-determination—the proposition that peoples have the right to “significant, independent control of their collective life.” On Song’s account, political membership is determined neither by racial (or ethnic, or cultural) group nor by membership in a group comprising the joint owners of public institutions, but membership in a “people.”
For Song, the agents of collective self-determination are peoples; and the agents of specifically democratic self-determination are peoples whose members have an “equal say in the making of the laws to which they are subject.” A group counts as a people if its members (1) act together in ways that “express an aspiration to be authors, not merely subjects, of the rules governing collective life”; (2) share “a history of political participation and contestation”; and (3) have “the ability to exercise self-determination and maintain effective forms of governance.” A salient feature of Song’s theory is the thesis, to which I return below, that citizenship is not essential to belonging to a people. “Noncitizen residents can become members of a people,” she argues, since “they still participate in collective life in myriad ways, … [such as] engagement with civic and community organizations, participating in protests and marches, and contributing to their schools, neighborhoods, and communities.”
Immigration control is essential to collective self-determination. More exactly, “the right to control immigration is part of the bundle of territorial rights necessary for peoples to be self-determining.” Despite endorsing this right, Song’s argument is not a brief for closed borders. To be sure, Song rejects both justice-based and freedom-based arguments for open borders. Regarding the former, she holds that “development assistance,” in contrast to open borders, “is a better way of meeting our obligations to the global poor.” Regarding the latter, she faults the proponents of a “human right to migration” for lacking a normative theory of migration, one that can distinguish and prioritize among different reasons for migration. But no less powerful than Song’s arguments against open borders are her arguments against closed borders. Yes, Song explains, self-determining peoples—and the states they authorize—enjoy a right to control immigration. But that right is qualified by obligations to respect the basic rights of prospective migrants. According to Song, these include the duties to assist refugees and keep families together.
I cannot do justice here to the nuance and sophistication of Song’s arguments, which provide a sorely needed philosophical framework for thinking (rather than tweeting) through current debates over immigration policy. I conclude, however, by returning to her thesis that noncitizens can become members of a people through their involvement in collective life.
Looking to the past, Song recognizes that antebellum blacks who were “denied equal rights of citizenship” also endorsed a participation-based theory of political membership—the same kind of theory that Jones describes in terms of performance. Looking to the present, Song also recognizes the relevance of civic participation and civic performance to the condition of the noncitizen: specifically, to the condition of the unauthorized immigrant targeted by the Trump administration and white nationalists. “All persons present in the territory of a state for a period of time have a strong moral claim to be included as full members,” Song writes, “in virtue of their participation in shared institutions.”
Invoking a principle of “fair play,” Song argues that deporting unauthorized immigrants who have become members of our political community through their participation in our collective life—for example, by working on farms, cleaning people’s houses, tending to the young, and paying taxes—would be a breach of the associative obligations citizens owe to some, if not all, noncitizens. The longer unauthorized immigrants remain in our country, she contends, “the stronger their claim for legal residence status.” This is not to deny that unauthorized immigrants have violated immigration law, only to hold that such infractions should be overridden by other considerations.
The principles of reciprocal fair play and participation provide compelling bases for advancing immigration policies that embrace the ethos of democracy—our democratic ideals—while rejecting the racial and ethnic exclusions that still compromise the practice of democracy. Individuals who act, work, and live like citizens have a convincing claim to political membership; such individuals should eventually become citizens of equal political standing.
This article was commissioned by Ivan Ascher.