Many Americans and Europeans have undoubtedly wondered why there is so much staunch, even fanatical, opposition to common-sense immigration policies and border security, especially from the political, economic, and cultural elites. In his insightful book, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, R.R. Reno – editor of First Things, a journal of religion and public life – attributes much of the problem to the post-Second World War consensus and its emphasis on never-ending “openness.” Although Return of the Strong Gods was published in late 2019, it has not lost any of its relevance.
The two 20th century global wars were an undeniably traumatic experience for world, and for the West in particular. Both great conflicts led to massive carnage and destruction, and the Second World War added genocide and death camps to the mix. After 1945, many Western intellectuals – on both sides of the Atlantic – increasingly blamed the war in general, and Nazism/Fascism in particular, on the so-called “authoritarian personality” and many traditional Western virtues – which Reno refers to as the “strong gods” – such as national patriotism, religiosity, respect for authority, and a belief in an absolute truth and transcendental values.
One of the most influential intellectuals behind this trend was Karl Popper, whose 1945 book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, set the philosophical tone for the so-called “postwar consensus.” Popper believed that to overcome ideological fanaticism and the totalitarian temptation it was necessary to move away from a “tribal” and “closed” society towards an “open” and individualistic one. He condemned national identity and borders as “magical” thinking and “anti-humanitarian propaganda.”
Not coincidentally, the globalist billionaire George Soros – a major proponent of mass migration and open borders – was a student of Karl Popper’s. “[T]he name [he]chose for the main instrument of his political and social advocacy, the Open Society Institute, testifies to Popper’s influence,” Reno points out.
Thus, in the postwar period, never-ending “openness” became the norm and aspiration for both the left – which emphasized cultural openness – and even the mainstream center-right, which focused more on opening up economies. President George H.W. Bush expressed the essence of this postwar consensus when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 1990, envisioning a “world of open borders, open trade, and, most importantly, open minds.”
Indeed, open borders and mass immigration are in many ways a central element of the postwar Western establishment’s drive to impose an “open society.” That’s because “[o]pen borders are an emblem of the open society. Immigration policy over the past few decades has exposed middle-class workers to wage competition and has disrupted settled patterns of cultural transmission. The preference for open borders among elites…exposes their profound refusal to shelter those whom they lead” from the economic, social, and cultural effects of globalization and mass migration.
While for some – in particular employers and global corporations – mass migration and open borders are about profits and cheap labor, Reno believes that American and Western European elites are mainly motivated by ideology. “Formed by the postwar consensus, the leadership class in the West sees its fundamental duty in historical terms: to prevent the return of the strong gods. Immigrants thus become important assets, not threats, as ordinary voters regard them. They bring diversity, which is the firewall against resurgent racism and fascism…Unless we build an open society, we will backslide into the closed societies of the past. Some of them are gloomier, concluding that, after Auschwitz, the West does not deserve to endure. They welcome the mass migration that will profoundly change the Western culture that produced so many decades of catastrophe…The imperatives of the open society, not economic arguments about the benefits of immigration or even moral arguments about the West’s duty to refugees, are the most powerful cause of the establishment leaders’ reluctance to curtail immigration.”
In short, the postwar drive towards “opening up” Western societies may have begun with good intentions in mind. However, Reno makes a convincing argument that decades of relentlessly forging ahead in the pursuit of “open society” utopianism have resulted in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Thus, Return of the Strong Gods is a warning and a wake-up call for the Western elites and a compelling explanation for the rise of anti-establishment “populist” movements challenging the elites’ myopic commitment to “openness.”