Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders made some of his biggest fans cringe on Tuesday by giving an indelicate but unsweetened opinion on a proposition no one is suggesting: the complete opening of America’s borders. Suggesting Democrats want an “open border” is a frequent refrain of the notorious liar, US President Donald Trump.
By contrast, Sanders’ statement reveals a fundamental and hard-to-ignore truth not just about what most voters would find acceptable as an immigration policy, but also the pressures and contradictions of global capitalism, which has so far outpaced the development of anything approaching a global democracy.
At a meeting with voters in the US state of Iowa, a place crucial to the primary stage of the country’s arcane election system, Sanders contradicted a citizen who called him an “advocate for open borders.”
“I’m afraid you may be getting your information wrong. That’s not my view,” Sanders said. "What we need is comprehensive immigration reform. If you open the borders, my God, there's a lot of poverty in this world, and you're going to have people from all over the world. And I don't think that's something that we can do at this point. Can't do it. So that is not my position.”
Sanders’ opponents, from liberal centrist Twitter’s troll gangs to Max Boot, a noted neocon, erupted in glee at the admission that Sanders does not support the idea of “open borders.” He must be just like Trump, they concluded.
But none of the other candidates would ever endorse such an “open borders” policy either.
They would never do it so bluntly as Sanders did, or with such a curt admission of the frustrating riddle of social democracy. Note, of course, that Sanders never said anything about ending immigration into the country. More than that, what Sanders said was not a condemnation of immigrants as “animals,” as Trump did recently. He doesn’t question their humanity.
Apologising for Sanders isn’t anybody’s job, but his, and his answer was bad because it deeply oversimplified the problem of how to manage economic immigration into the United States.
Sanders’ detractors accuse him of oversimplifying his policies and the political hurdles to implementing or funding them.
When some see Sanders’ proposals as being too simple, others see that simplicity as a reflection of his fundamental principles, socialist ones, that view free healthcare and free college as crucial to a just, equal, and prosperous society. Just like capitalism, socialism supposes its recommendations are universally applicable. In this sense, they have much in common.
The riddle that Sanders gaff exposed is one harder to solve that even how to revive the American welfare state and impose high taxes on the wealthy. And the problem is how a socialist America, hypothetically, would relate to a world it has encouraged, and in some cases forced, to embrace a liberalised global economy. When it comes to immigration, this creates a contradiction that Sanders will have to solve if he wants to be a successful president.
A perfectly efficient capitalist economy spread across the globe would, in theory, have no restrictions on the movement of labour. Indeed, that was the dream of the European Union, that labour could move without the friction of borders, visas or even passports.
Less than two decades after borders in Europe began to disappear, Brexit showed the kind of complications such a supranational bargain could bring about - and how many within Europe are fed up by 'free movement'.
While a borderless world makes perfect sense to some people, it horrifies others. The reason it terrifies them is because of the dog-eat-dog assumptions of life under global capitalism.
Sanders plan for America would work best, in the long run, under a global socialist economy and, crucially, under a form of global democracy, neither of which have been invented yet for the world of 2019.
But that kind of global community is closer than we think, thanks to the wiring of the world through a system of public-private partnerships that have supported the growth of a civilisation where the circumference of the Earth has shrunk down to the width of a human finger.
We also certainly face common threats as a species, with the Earth’s climate, humanity’s oldest foe, mutating into something even more deadly than today. The idea of a single, global government, the stuff of Star Trek, is closer than ever before.
Whatever the future holds, definitions of state sovereignty will continue to change, as will the public’s sense of who they feel responsible for. The rise of global telecommunications has seen a simultaneous expansion and contraction of this circle.
What responsibility do Americans have for the rest of the world? What should the immigration policy look like after Trump? Sanders’ answer on Tuesday shows how these questions will not be answered simply by Trump’s defeat in 2020 - which is in no way a guarantee.
The United States has long treated the sovereignty of other countries as something open to negotiation or even, in the case of Iran, as illegitimate. But to become a responsible actor in international relations, a post-Trump foreign policy will have to take a hard look at how the US defines its own sovereignty, what it expects from others and what it expects from itself.
It’s not clear if Sanders, or anybody else, has found a way to do that.
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