“The United States is a nation of immigrants” is a meaningless statement, but that is not to say that it has no meaning.  It is one of the lead lines for the Democratic/liberal/progressive agenda, and has been ever since Israel Zangwill used the mythic term “melting pot” as the title of his thankfully forgotten play of 1908.

First, the United States is not, in any way but juridical, a nation.  And second, at one time or another every country, nation or not, was made up of people who came there from someplace else.  Having made those premises clear, let us move on to the real reasons the myths of the melting pot and the nation of immigrants are so useful (and necessary) to the agenda of the left.  This requires a history lesson.

The period from about 1870 (as the Late Unpleasantness was ending) to 1914 (the beginning of the Great War) was arguably the period of the most concentrated and far-reaching change in all of human history.  Manufacturing and finance moved decisively ahead of agriculture as the backbone of the economy in many regions.  We “conquered” the limits of geography with bicycles, automobiles, trains, and airplanes—not to mention the telephone.  We vanquished the very night with electricity (and therefore potentially eliminated thousands of years of darkness metaphors).  In fact, it is not too much to say that we changed the fundamental relation of man to nature.  We put everybody into government schools, moved from farms to cities by the millions, legislated the strong beginnings of the nanny state.  By the time we went “Over There” in 1917 all these things and many others had reached so far as to touch even the Tennessee farm of Alvin York.  Henry Adams wrote that a boy born in 1850 was born closer to the year zero than to the year 1900.

Immigration was the most significant of all the changes.  Several tens of millions of (mostly) Europeans sailed to the United States, bringing to American cities a cacophony of languages not heard perhaps since the Tower of Babel.  New York City, studying its foreign-born in 1910, discovered that it had more Irish than Dublin, more Germans than Hamburg, more Italians than Naples.  Something like this happened in most cities, especially those in manufacturing areas.

We must also note that the immigrants did not come to Chicago from Rome, or to Detroit from Warsaw.  They came from the Polish countryside, the Sicilian countryside, the Russian countryside, and they settled in cities.  Many, maybe most, were Catholics or Jews.  Just as American Protestants were moving from the farms and small towns to the cities, European peasants flocked from rural areas to the same cities.  Did we expect them all to “melt” in the refiner’s fire and amalgamate into a hardier and more durable alloy?

Here is “Willson’s First Law of Immigration History”: No immigrant ever came to this country for the purpose of giving up his culture.  Sometimes one’s historical imagination must get a little silly, or at least whimsical, to get at the truth.  Imagine a Sicilian, waking up one morning in his little home on a hillside and saying to himself, “I’m tired of living in a patriarchal society.  I’ll move my family to America, where my wife and daughters can have more freedom.”  Or a Polish peasant who says to himself, “I’m sick to death of a long name with so many consonants.  I’ll go to America, where I can have some vowels.”  Or the Russian Jew who tells his wife that he is sick of the Mishnah and the Torah and wants to move to Indiana and become a Presbyterian.  The journalist Teddy White’s father did come to this country to break away from a thousand years of rabbinical tradition in his family and became a socialist lawyer, but his case is remarkable precisely because it was so unusual.

The Italian men to whom my grandfather taught citizenship lessons were not here for the purpose of ceasing to be Italian.  They were not here to liberate their daughters but to work on the railroad and to get what they thought would be a better life.  The New York Times noticed in 1910 that of the over one million Italians who had come to the city to work in transportation industries since 1900, about 42 percent had sailed back home as soon as they saved a little money.  But most people of every race, religion, and nationality stayed and did not melt—at least, not for about 100 years.

My grandfather Willson’s cousin Gertrude Willson taught in the New York City public schools from 1900 to 1936, and although she noted in her journals that most of the children of immigrants, especially the Jews, were dutiful students and well behaved, and that their parents wanted them to do well, she also noted that they had little interest in becoming Americanized.  Their parents joined the scores of ethnic associations (Hibernian Society, Club Polski) that they organized to protect their cultural heritage.  Catholics and Lutherans founded parochial school systems largely to protect their children from the Protestant government schools.  One of the major issues in Cincinnati politics was the Continental Sunday—on the surface, the old establishment trying to prevent Germans and other immigrants from going to the parks on Sunday afternoons to drink beer and play music and picnic, but underneath, a much larger cultural tug of war.  European-language newspapers abounded in almost all cities until well after World War II (just as today Spanish-language media run parallel to English almost all over the country).

The historian Richard Jensen barely survived a firestorm of professional criticism when he denied, in a little book on the history of Illinois, the efficacy of race, class, and sex as explanatory categories.  He did not much like the older terms liberal and conservative, either.  He insisted that one can understand Illinois (particularly in the years around the turn of the 20th century) much better by looking at “traditional,” “modern,” and “postmodern” sets of values.  Immigrants were almost all traditional, which meant that they held rather fiercely to a patriarchal society that emphasized kin, church, and a communal way of dealing with most things that had to be taken care of outside the home.  They also looked at their communities through their guts, as a matter of race or tribe, or what often was called ethnicity.  This is what made them different from the “old stock” Americans and from one another.  Jensen argues that their traditionalism explains most of why they did not easily melt or amalgamate, and also explains how and why they changed American political and cultural life rather than simply exchanged what they had for what they found here.  (He best explains this in Illinois: A History.)

For example, immigrants changed the structure of American politics.  They did not merge but dealt with one another.  One of the reasons FDR’s New Deal was so effective as a slogan was its visceral appeal to tribes who, by that time, were used to making deals.  The new one promised to let them in at the national level just as they had already worked it out in the provinces and in the cities.

One city where they worked it out was the Big Apple, the great immigrant metropolis of the Western world, the city that invented a modern device—the political machine—to serve the needs of traditional peoples.  Every city picked up on the machine, but it started in New York.  George Washington Plunkitt was the great philosopher of Tammany Hall.  Unlike all but a handful of machine politicians, he was willing to talk on the record to journalist William Riordan, and the result is a little book that may be as important to the 20th century as Machiavelli’s Prince was to the 16th.  On one level Plunkitt was the Yogi Berra of politics: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” “The Irish were born to rule,” “This civil service law is the biggest fraud of the age,”  and “reformers is mornin’ glories” (and many other one-liners) have made their way into our lexicon of political wisdom.

Plunkitt, like Yogi, was shrewd and knew his craft.  He knew every technique to shake money out of party members and businessmen.  There is no good record of how Thomas Edison electrified New York during Plunkitt’s lifetime, but it simply could not have been done without Tammany, and without Edison providing “grease for the machine.”  Plunkitt knew how to organize voters (“Get a followin’,” he said, “even if it’s only one man, and then tell others they can join yer organization”), how to work patronage to maximum effect; he knew every detail of every neighborhood in his district and what its citizens needed.

If you read Plunkitt carefully, you will see that his arguments—quite passionate at times—in favor of “honest” graft, the primacy of parties and the spoils system, and patriotism as loyalty to one’s neighborhood and party are all directed to his great dictum, “Study Human Nature and Act Accordin’.”  Plunkitt saw tribes whose driving force was loyalty and whose loyalty was based on family, religion, and the daily rhythms of the neighborhood.  Basic economic needs often signaled the right times and places for party intervention into those rhythms, but money was just a tool, no more intrinsically important than other abstractions like class or sex.  To be a “statesman,” Plunkitt knew, you had to study what people wanted and what they needed, and get a “followin’.”  Then start making deals.

The “followin’s” the machines understood the best were relatively new immigrants, whose views of the world were tribal and traditional.  They looked for leadership, and they looked for help moving into a culture they did not understand, one that often seemed like it wanted to strip them of what was theirs.  It did not matter which party did the job best, although usually it was the Democrats, who had less stake than the Republicans in building a national political economy.  The Democrats, at least until Woodrow Wilson, tended still to be the party of states, localities, and “the people.”

It became conventional wisdom about 50 years ago that Plunkitt’s time had passed.  Edwin O’Connor’s novel The Last Hurrah (1956) gives a charming portrait of Frank Skeffington’s last race for mayor of Boston.  He loses to a benighted moderate progressive who spends money on television ads and poses in front of his fireplace with his wife, four children, and dog.  Skeffington is a wonderful old rogue, an Irish dealmaker who doesn’t like the Jews or the Italians very much but knows how to cut them their shares, and he goes to bed (without polls) on election night certain that he has won.  His nephew (the storyteller) tries to figure out why the old man lost.  His epiphany comes from the opponent’s manager: “All you have to remember is one name: Roosevelt.”  It seems that the New Deal, despite accepting the help of the machines, actually undermined them.  “What Roosevelt did,” the manager says, “was to take the handouts out of the local hands.”  In other words, a Great Irony occurred.  The Democrats took the dealmaking to the national level.  The machines lost their patronage, so the Skeff­ingtons could no longer be the patrons.

That may have sounded right in 1956, but the best was yet to come.  Not only had Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, and a dozen other tribes worked their way into dealmaking in the Democratic Party, but traditionalist native American people of color (primarily black) learned along the way to do it, too.  After Martin Luther King, Jr., came on the scene they had the perfect political storm: tribal politics framed by ideologues and seized by an opportunistic Irish Catholic president whose maternal grandfather happened to be “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, one of the legendary Boston machine politicians.  Combining his father’s money, utterly cynical uses of the black and Catholic cards, an easy wooing of the chattering classes, and a charm that was at once Irish and cosmopolitan, Kennedy took the New Deal to a new level.  It wasn’t at all necessary to maneuver the Richard Daleys out of the way; it was necessary to enlist them into the grand operations of the nanny state.  The machines, far from disappearing, became the custodians of patronage not only in police and fire departments, and parks and recreation, but in all the hundreds of dispensing agencies dreamed up and funded by the national government.  Plunkitt thought the municipal government should run most everything in New York.  Our current President thinks that about the federal government.

This system is not unlike the clientage of ancient Rome, where most things got done (including the military, beginning with Augustus) through organizations run by a patron and his clients.  It is also similar to the principle of fidelus in the Middle Ages, minus the religious oaths.  To understand the Saul Alinsky organizational principles behind all this (principles which the Clintons and the Obamas absorbed early in life) one does not have to resort to abstract terms like liberalism or socialism.  In fact, such terms are misleading.  The system depends on maintaining large and ever-renewable populations of dependent or potentially dependent groups so that whatever melting eventually takes place cannot produce a stable culture (as, Clyde Wilson once pointed out, seemed to be happening for a while after World War II).

Viewed from this angle, the Immigration Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of that same year are the real foundations of what has emerged as the newest version of the New Deal.  Combined with a refusal to police the borders—Democrats and Republican businessmen welcome the illegals, and the rest just lack courage—these two laws have transformed the electorate once again.  Most Americans are unaware that immigration since 1965 dwarfs the earlier and supposed “age of immigration.”  Every time one group partially melts, having taken its place in the ever-expanding machine, another comes along to help the left keep up its perpetual state of crisis.

So, buy any of the pro-immigration arguments you want to buy, but don’t fool yourself into believing that immigration, legal or not, has little effect on culture, or that the left is just trying to play Good Samaritan.