Looking at modern society, can we really say that these fears were ill-founded? Do we not have problems today with social fragmentation, a debased civic culture, and hysterical populist politics? Among the European powers, Great Britain was perhaps the most successful in transitioning smoothly from an aristocratic order to a modern, democratic one. There were no major coups, uprisings, or experiments with totalitarianism. Despite that, it seems unlikely that men like Tennyson or Salisbury would withdraw their complaints, given a glimpse of 21st century England. They were right to see that the dissolution of the old social order would precipitate a host of new problems. They were also right to see that the transition was inevitable. A rigid class system simply can’t be maintained once common consensus has deemed it morally unacceptable.
Is the Western world reaching that point, with respect to immigration and citizenship? It’s not clear, but there are interesting signs that we may be moving in that direction. Opposition to migration has been the single most defining feature of right-wing populist movements, both in America and across Europe. At best though, these movements have commanded a very slight majority of public opinion, and their more stringent efforts to crack down on immigration have provoked serious backlash. Italian populists were excoriated this month for their refusal to accept a rescue vessel bearing hundreds of migrants. President Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies drew criticism even from evangelical leaders who have been his staunchest supporters. Permissive immigration policies and porous borders carry obvious social costs, but nevertheless, it appears that Westerners are becoming morally uncomfortable with rigid efforts to maintain a citizenship regime that looks increasingly like a global caste system.