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Quiet Time

In the short story "Silver Blaze," Sherlock Holmes draws Inspector Gregory's attention to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time," insists the confused Inspector. "That," Holmes responds, "was the curious incident."

Last month in France, a dog barked at the top of its lungs: Jean-Marie Le Pen placed second in the first round of vot- ing for the French presidency. But while Le Pen's second-place showing was a surprise, his growing popularity wasn't. After all, far-right parties have been gaining steam in Europe for several years now. In 1999 the Vlaams Bloc--whose leader describes himself and Le Pen as "brothers in arms"--won 10 percent of the vote in Belgium. In 2000 Joerg Haider's Freedom Party won 27 percent in Austria. Last September the Progress Party--which wants to cut immigration to 1,000 people per year--won 15 percent in Norway. That same month Germany's Law and Order Offensive--which would deport all asylum seekers--won 19 percent in Hamburg. Two months later the Danish People's Party--whose leader has called for a "holy war" against Islam--won 12 percent in Denmark. And in March the Livable Netherlands Party--which wants to ban all Muslim immigration--became the largest party in Rotterdam. In giving Le Pen 17 percent of the vote, France was simply catching up. The "curious incident"--the dog that hasn't barked--is the United States. Americans sometimes say that as a country of immigrants we are congenitally immune to the xenophobia that periodically erupts in nations that define themselves in ethnic terms. But that's a historical fallacy-- and I'm not talking about the 1920s. Less than a decade ago the United States would have fit perfectly into the grim litany described above. In 1994, 59 percent of Californians voted to deny health and education services to illegal immigrants. Two years later Pat Buchanan--America's Le Pen--won the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire. That summer the GOP adopted a positively Buchananesque platform declaring that children born in the United States to foreign parents should no longer automatically become citizens. And in August Bill Clinton signed a welfare bill that denied food stamps to legal immigrants. In the mid-1990s the United States was as nativist as France is now--perhaps more so. So what happened? The answer is a happy and bipartisan story of political leadership by two men: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton did not fight xenophobia on principle; after all, he signed the virulently anti-immigrant welfare bill. But he cut off the political oxygen on which nativism relies. Nativism is fueled--in part--by irresponsible left-liberalism. Inthe European Union, excessive regulation and high taxation have contributed to an unemployment rate that today exceeds 8 percent. Such widespread joblessness has not only made native-born Europeans fearful that immigrants will take their jobs; it has also contributed to epidemic levels of unemployment among immigrants themselves (unemployment estimates reach as high as 20 percent among Turkish immigrants in Germany and 35 percent to 40 percent among Turkish immigrants in the Netherlands). And that has fueled racist stereotypes of newcomers as lazy and parasitic. The same dynamic was starting to play out in the United States. In the four years preceding Proposition 187, California lost 600,000 jobs--many in industries devastated by the cold war's end. California's unemployment rate topped 8 percent, and among Hispanics it topped 11 percent. Had Clinton not broken with left-liberal orthodoxy and cut government spending to reduce the deficit, the United States might never have experienced the '90s boom that banished those economic anxieties--and the resulting racial resentments--in California and across the country. But Clinton didn't only undermine xenophobia by ensuring that would-be nativists had secure jobs; he undermined it by signing welfare reform, which destroyed the racist belief that immigrants were receiving handouts for doing nothing. Europe's growing anti-immigrant backlash is stoked by the perception that left-liberal political elites are allowing immigrants to play hard-working native Europeans for suckers. But the welfare bill--whatever its moral flaws-- demolished that perception in the United States. And Clinton undermined anti-immigrant racism in another way as well: He cracked down on crime. The European Union's crime rate grew 6 percent between 1989 and 1999. And just as growing lawlessness--and the perception that the police were too politically correct or too incompetent to stop it--sparked racially tinged anger in American cities in the 1970s, it is doing the same in cities like Paris and Hamburg today. America's 18 percent decline in crime during the '90s, by contrast, has reduced racial tension--not only between whites and blacks but, especially in the West, between whites and immigrant Hispanics. And while Clinton is not directly responsible for that drop in crime, it could not have happened had he not sharply increased the number of police, and the number of prison cells, despite howls from the civil libertarian left. But if Clinton fought nativism by changing liberalism, George W. Bush has changed conservatism--thus ensuring that nativism's lingering appeal goes unexploited. In the mid-'90s, with Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan riding high, many commentators assumed that the GOP would use immigration the way it had used affirmative action--to cement the allegiance of the middle- and working-class whites who formed the party's base. To some degree, it is big business--with its thirst for immigrant labor--that has kept that from happening. But it is also the historical accident that in 2000 the party chose as its standard-bearer one of its most committed supporters of immigration. Running for governor in 1994--a year when Proposition 187 was so popular that even California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein didn't speak out against it until three weeks before Election Day--Bush said he would fight any such effort in Texas. When Buchanan spoke in Dallas in August 1995, Bush went after him personally, declaring, "It is easy for some to pick on our friends from the South ... and I don't like it." He even opposed the repeal of bilingual education. Today many pundits consider Bush's support for immigration a matter of political survival--he's courting a Hispanic vote Republicans desperately need. But that calculus is still by no means received wisdom in the Republican Party. Before September 11, when Bush flirted with an amnesty for Mexican immigrants, many in the congressional GOP expressed concern. And last month, when Bush tried to restore food stamps to some legal immigrants who lost them in the 1996welfare bill, most House Republicans opposed him. In truth, there remains a reservoir of anti-immigrant sentiment among the GOP base--and in the country at large. But with a popular, pro-immigration Republican in the White House, and without high unemployment or high crime as a spark, nativism has been silenced as a political force. The dog has not barked. And the sound is glorious.

By Peter Beinart