Jack Kemp, the conservative split over immigration, and how optimism vs. pessimism explains it all

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

Before Ronald Reagan came along, conservatism was, almost by definition, pessimistic.

With the help of Jack Kemp (who introduced him to supply-side economics), Reagan changed all that. But in recent years, conservatives have too often reverted to the paranoid style in American politics.

The current schism over immigration reform is indicative of this split. Where you stand probably has less to do with a right vs. left — or even libertarian vs. traditional conservative paradigm — than whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

This really hit home with me when I read Bob Costa’s recent NRO column about how Kemp influenced Paul Ryan on the issue.

An excerpt:

Kemp often spoke passionately about how immigration was necessary for economic growth and for the Republican party to prosper. He also tangled with critics and, in a 1994 memorandum, warned against a “nativist, anti-immigration climate.”


“We are a nation of immigrants,” Kemp said in 1996, during his vice-presidential acceptance speech. “We must close the backdoor of illegal immigration so that we can keep open the front door of legal immigration.”


Ryan was Kemp’s speechwriter during that campaign, and if Ryan’s visit to Chicago on Monday afternoon is any indication, he continues to share Kemp’s view on the subject.

If you have a negative worldview, you’ll probably dismiss Kemp’s philosophy as quixotic hooey. Meanwhile, Kemp’s words will likely inspire the optimist.

* * *

Of course, there are extremes on both sides of this divide. The most forceful opponents of “Shamnesty” envision a dystopian world where nobody speaks the same language, where working-class Americans can’t find work, and where mariachi bands are ubiquitous.

In short, they fear America will turn into Mexico — or, maybe worse — California.

Meanwhile, the utopians see a world where diversity creates few obstacles, where immigrants are quickly assimilated into the dominant culture, and where we all hold hands and sing kumbaya.

In truth, I suspect neither extreme has a monopoly on the truth. But that doesn’t mean the optimism vs. pessimism schism isn’t where the action is.

* * *

This divide isn’t just about policy, either. It’s also about process. The optimists believe our leaders have the ability to craft legislation that — while not perfect — can make things slightly better. Pessimists see legislators as either inept, impotent, gullible, or corrupt.

And, of course, this is also about future elections. The optimists believe many immigrants will support an opportunity society where achieving the American Dream is still possible. The pessimists scoff at such naivety. They assume that new citizens will seek only their own self interest, thus dramatically increasing the welfare state.

The optimists hope conservatism is a compelling enough philosophy to attract new adherents. The pessimists know that it is not.

Who’s right? I’m not sure. The safe thing to do is nothing, which partially explains why the opponents of immigration reform can play on fear and emotion to easily move undecided conservatives to the “no” column on this issue.

Maybe we are going to hell in a hand basket? Maybe we are Rome? Maybe Pat Buchanan’s “Death of the West” prophesy was correct?

On the other hand, America has absorbed immigrants before. And, despite all the fear-mongering at the time, it worked out pretty well. Maybe this handwringing is what always happens?

* * *

I’m not sure who’s right — but I am sure which is the most compelling and inspiring message. Optimism is clearly the political winner.

Pessimism has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. People are repelled by negativity, which, of course, proves the pessimist right all along.

So I think it comes down to this. What kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to focus on the hopes and aspirations of the future, or dwell on fear and negativity? — to desperately clinging to the status quo? Do you believe that America has a bright dawn ahead, or that we must manage its decline?

Kemp was known for his cheery optimism. So was Reagan. In fact, conservatism didn’t really take off until Kemp and Reagan teamed up. And if you look at today’s most rhetorically inspiring conservatives, is it any wonder you find people like Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan — both champions of immigration reform?

The most vociferous opponents tend to be pundits and talk radio hosts, who don’t need to win a majority to be successful, and who have entirely different incentives.

I suspect this isn’t a coincidence.

Matt K. Lewis