01 May 2010

How the right wing is out-maneuvering us

I was afraid this would happen. The rank-and-file left has fallen prey to a tempting but dangerous error -- under-estimating its opponents. Bloggers vie to see who can be most colorful and dismissive in denouncing everything the right wing says and does as racist, stupid, racist, ignorant, racist, out-of-touch, and racist. Well, a lot of rightists are stupid, ignorant, and out-of-touch, and some of them are certainly racist too, although the sheer over-use of this particular epithet on the left has now become completely unmoored from any kind of realistic perspective. But a lot of them are none of those things.

We've gotten too used to seeing right-wingers do and say stupid, ignorant, and out-of-touch things. As a result, a lot of people on the left have now failed to even notice that the right, whether by strategy or serendipity, has found a winning issue and used it to set a trap for our side -- so they are walking right into that trap.

The tough new Arizona law on illegal aliens has been denounced in all the predictable ways -- it's inhumane, it will create a police- state atmosphere, and it is (of course) racist. On the first point, it certainly will not make illegal aliens happy, but illegal aliens are, by definition, breaking the law by being in the United States, and any effort to enforce any law is going to make the people who are violating it unhappy. Police state? There are already all kinds of situations where the police or other authorities can and do require people to produce documentation either of citizenship or of a legal right to do something or be somewhere. To enforce immigration law, it is obviously necessary to be able to differentiate illegal aliens from citizens. As for racism, the correlation between illegal aliens and Hispanics is dubious -- about a third of the illegal aliens in the US are from non-Hispanic countries, and the vast majority of Hispanic people in the US are citizens or legal residents, not illegal aliens.

Americans are decisively hostile to illegal immigration and do not take kindly to parties that favor it. A Gallup poll this week showed that, of those Americans who have heard of the Arizona law, 51% favor it and only 39% oppose it. An earlier Rasmussen poll found 60% of Americans and 70% of Arizonans in favor (Rasmussen skews a bit more conservative than other pollsters, but not hugely so). And these results are in the face of overwhelmingly negative media coverage, and of a consensus among the elites of both political parties in favor of a soft approach to illegal immigration.

It's worth pausing here to examine that elite consensus. Logically, one would expect Republicans to be tolerant of illegal aliens, and Democrats to be tough -- since illegal immigration serves the inte- rests of big business and the wealthy, while it harms the interests of workers, especially the less-skilled. The 2007 illegal-alien amnesty that failed in the Senate was advanced by Republican McCain as well as Democrat Kennedy, and was strongly supported by President Bush. In fact, rank-and-file conservatives are more hostile to illegal aliens than Republican leaders are -- most rank- and-file conservatives are not wealthy, and object to illegal immi- gration on grounds like national sovereignty and economic self- interest. They are not alone, however. The Rasmussen poll cited above found Democratic voters "evenly divided" on the Arizona law, while Gallup found 34% of Democrats who had heard of the law favoring it -- a minority, but a big one. The political elite is out of step with mass opinion.

An incident in Britain this week illustrated the danger of this. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, of the Labour party (the more leftist of Britain's two main parties) was talking with a working- class urban voter (a demographic group that skews strongly pro- Labour), Gillian Duffy, who expressed worry about immigration into Britain. After the conversation, Brown, unaware that he was still wearing a microphone, referred to her as a "bigoted woman". The result was a media firestorm. Most people in Britain are hos- tile to immigration, for reasons mostly unrelated to bigotry; the political elite, even more than in the US, favor it. Brown's remark became instantly iconic of an out-of-touch ruling class which contemptuously dismisses the British people's legitimate concerns with buzzwords. Labour would probably have lost next week's election anyway, but seems headed for a crushing defeat now.

The polls cited above don't show us how strongly people feel. A slight majority with strong feelings about an issue can have more impact than a large majority which is only luke-warm. The 2007 amnesty plan was defeated by a massive public outcry so intense that the volume of incoming calls as the vote approached caused the Senate switchboard to crash. I was following the story closely at the time, and I don't think I've ever, before or since, seen such a passionate eruption of mass public involvement on an issue. The Senate leaders thought they had the votes lined up to pass the amnesty, but in the end it wasn't even close.

Part of the reason for that outcry was a backlash triggered by the mass pro-illegal demonstrations in several American cities in the preceding months. Some of these attracted hundreds of thousands of participants and featured the display of foreign national flags. It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way of alarming and antagonizing the broad mass of Americans, convincing them that illegal immigration was a much bigger and much more dangerous phenomenon than they had suspected. So far, the most widely-circulated image from the protests against the new Arizona law is a sign bearing the words "If you think I'm 'illegal' because I'm a Mexican, learn the true history because I'm in my HOMELAND". The obvious interpretation of this is that it rejects the legitimacy of US sovereignty over Arizona and claims the state to be part of Mexico. It's a slogan almost calculated to offend, antagonize, and provoke a backlash. The more the left's opposition to the law takes that character and dismisses opposition to illegal immigration as racist, the more of a backlash against the left there will be.

This brings me to the "trap" mentioned in my second paragraph. The Arizona law and the left's reactions to it are serving right-wing political interests in several ways. The most obvious is that, as described above, it has led the left to behave in ways which will provoke popular hostility against itself. Another is that it has brought the illegal-immigration issue into the news, in a way that favors the populist right's preferred narrative. According to this narrative, the elitist federal government has failed to take effective action on the problem, forcing the states to do so. In fact, there has been more effective federal action than is generally realized; enforcement both at the border and at workplaces has been beefed up, and the estimated total number of illegal aliens in the US has declined from 12 million in 2008 to 10.8 million now (though this may be partly due to the recession). But the perception is there. If the Arizona law is ruled unconstitutional, as may well happen, this too will be spun as do-nothing federal authorities obstructing a state's effort to do, at least, something.

Despite rumors, I think Obama and Congressional Democrats are too smart to try to pass another amnesty now, months before an election and with unemployment still high. That would be too obviously suicidal. Nor would it be the best scenario for the right; their opposition would be seen as just one more example of their endless stonewalling of everything Democrats propose. With the Arizona law, it's the right which is being pro-active in favor of a popular cause.

The left is walking into the right's trap. By denouncing all support for the Arizona law as racist, by dishonestly describing opposition to illegal immigration as "anti-immigrant", by accusing opponents of wanting to "round up twelve million people" (the actual favored tactics are border enforcement and employer sanctions, which will drive illegals out as the jobs dry up), much of the left is playing into the right's narrative that the left is elitist, contemptuous of legitimate mass concerns, and out to silence opponents by name- calling. Perhaps worse is the meme now being floated that we can't stop illegal immigration no matter what we do, so such efforts should be abandoned. Americans are not fatalists and do not respect fatalists.

Finally, there is the bizarre and self-defeating habit of thinking of voters in discrete homogenous blocks which can be won or lost en masse. There is "the Hispanic vote", "the black vote", "the women's vote", etc. Many a blog now crows that the right is alienating "the Hispanic vote". First, not all Hispanics have the same views on illegal immigration. More to the point, what matters is the overall picture, not any one segment of it. A policy that loses 5,000,000 votes but gains 20,000,000 is politically successful, even if the former are concentrated in an identifiable group and the latter are diffused across the whole population. A vote cast by a Hispanic citizen is worth exactly as much as a vote cast by a citizen of any other ethnicity, no more and no less.

Will the Arizona law and its fallout be a "magic bullet" issue that brings the right wing back to power? It's possible, but I don't think so. This year's election will turn mainly on the job situation, which is steadily improving and will continue to do so. Congressional Republicans are blundering by obstructing popular Wall Street reforms. Obama is a lot smarter than most right-wing leaders.

But we can't afford to have the right out-maneuver us in any area, especially one which arouses so much passion. The left should oppose illegal immigration on principle. The current de facto position is wrong. It's stupid politics too.

13 Comments:

Blogger Silverfiddle said...

SHHHHHH! You'll blow it for us.

Fortunately, most on the left are too emotional to really analyze what you are saying, and you have written a very thoughtful piece.

Why do labor unions tolerate this flood of illegals who steal jobs and drive down wages? Because they don't really care about the workers, they care about the workers' union dues.

Another dirty secret: Hispanics are not a homogeneous group. May don't give a crap about illegal immigrants and many more are angry about them because they cast a shadow of suspicion over all Hispanics.

01 May, 2010 17:51  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

I understand and sympathize with humanitarian concerns for long-term resident illegals, but I was dismayed by the amount of ignorance I heard in the 'person on the street' interviews conducted at these protests. There really didn't seem to be a solid grasp on the legal issues surrounding this, just a lot of knee-jerk reactions. So that's a big win for the right right there, every person that went on television bleating about what undocumented workers "should" be able to do, or "shouldn't" have to put up with. One wonders if these folks would also go on camera to say that shoplifters should get to take a few things if they really needed them for their family? Still, emotional reactions are understandable, all of us legal residents are here because our ancestors came here looking for a better life, it does seem a little unfair to cut that off and say, ok, we're here, it's ours now, you guys can't come in.

On a side note, I have to wonder how many well-to-do right wingers choose to overlook the questionable citizenship of the people who do their gardening and clean their bathrooms. And how many corporations profit from exploiting workers who have no legal recourse. They have no problem supporting legislation like this because they know it won't be so effective that they end up not being able to find good help.

I don't pretend to know the answer to this dilemma, but, the bleeding heart liberal in me does wish for humanitarian solutions that would help give undocumented workers a path to citizenship, but I do admit that's very sketchy legal territory there. However there is some precedent for rewriting laws because millions of people keep breaking them - prohibition comes to mind.

But stricter controls do serve a humanitarian purpose in and of themselves, by reducing the number of highly exploitable workers. Since they're willingly exploited, that might not be all that humanitarian, come to think of it, but it would certainly have a negative effect on the exploiters, and that's a good thing, right?

Again, I do not have any idea what the answer to all this is, or should be. Escaping to a better life is what this country was built on (well, that, and the graves of all the natives that we killed in order to be able to build it).

02 May, 2010 01:45  
Blogger Silverfiddle said...

@godlizard:
On a side note, I have to wonder how many well-to-do right wingers choose to overlook the questionable citizenship of the people who do their gardening and clean their bathrooms. And how many corporations profit from exploiting workers who have no legal recourse.

Point well taken! That's not a side note, it is the main topic. We have created an ongoing human rights crisis in this country, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

We have an abused underclass created by our own greed and unwillingness to pay an American what she is really worth.

02 May, 2010 09:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

all of us legal residents are here because our ancestors came here looking for a better life, it does seem a little unfair to cut that off and say, ok, we're here, it's ours now, you guys can't come in.

I'm actually in favor of an increased level of legal immigration, but it has to be controllable and based on what the US needs (as was the case with all that immigration in the past), not based on an accident of geographical proximity. People crossing the border illegally isn't immigration, it's an invasion.

And how many corporations profit from exploiting workers who have no legal recourse.

This is what I meant when I said that illegal immigration serves the interests of big business and the wealthy. It's cheap labor.

However there is some precedent for rewriting laws because millions of people keep breaking them - prohibition comes to mind.

Prohibition was an experiment, and a spectacularly stupid one. Controlling immigration is something every sovereign state on Earth does. Arguably, if immigration isn't controlled, you don't have a sovereign state.

Again, I do not have any idea what the answer to all this is, or should be.

Enforce the law. Implement a system to ensure that only people who are legally in the country can work. If we catch someone in the country illegally, deport him. If someone knowingly hires an illegal alien, put him in prison, whether it's a family farmer or the president of Wal-Mart. There may be political reasons why we don't do those things, but there's no practical reason.

Global population is now about seven billion, a substantial percentage of whom would probably move here if they could. We can't be a safety valve for the rest of the world. The way to help people in poor countries is to help those countries develop so they are no longer poor. We have to control immigration based on what our own needs are, just like every other country does.

02 May, 2010 09:49  
Blogger godlizard (aka dotlizard) said...

"If someone knowingly hires an illegal alien, put him in prison, whether it's a family farmer or the president of Wal-Mart." -- YES!! The current laws provide for up to six months for repeated or habitual violations, but since the fines range from $50 - $10,000 per illegal and increase for repeat violations, it's a safe bet the jail time rarely comes into play.

Fines are just a profit & loss statement item, and are more than offset by the savings of being able to pay substandard wages (often in the form of piecework payments).

I'm ok with strictness, but I really feel like there's a bit of a moral mandate to offer aspiring immigrants a reasonable path in. "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" -- it's kind of what we're about. And that wouldn't be such a big deal if the mostly-Caucasian groups who want to go on the attack against brown people didn't come here and steal land to begin with.

Maybe it's impractical to feel that we have an ethical obligation to be reasonably welcoming to immigrants. Maybe I'm romanticizing the whole issue. But does it really benefit us to be so focused on throwing people out and so obstructionist about giving them a way in?

02 May, 2010 19:33  
Blogger JUDGE TRUTH 101 said...

Silverfiddle said "Why do labor unions tolerate this flood of illegals who steal jobs and drive down wages? Because they don't really care about the workers, they care about the workers' union dues."



Hate to say so but in my experience, and I've been an officer in my local, he's right. At least the part about caring more about dues.



The system is broken and the right does a better job than the left pandering to closed minded fools. It pisses me off but n the whole, I'd just soon be in the party that panders to reason and intelligence. And we must to a better job than we're doing at that also.


Nice post Infidel.

02 May, 2010 19:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

GL: it's a safe bet the jail time rarely comes into play.

Unfortunately it would be very difficult politically to enact, but I'm convinced it would work. It's probably the only thing that really would.

We do offer aspiring immigrants a legal path in. The US accepts more legal immigrants per year than all the other countries in the world combined. All the people who are now illegal aliens had the option of applying to immigrate legally. Instead they chose to break the law.

the mostly-Caucasian groups who want to go on the attack against brown people

Actually, I've seen polls that showed black Americans are slightly more hostile to illegal aliens than whites are. A lot of Hispanics don't approve of illegal immigration either (César Chávez didn't). A few years ago Arizona passed another anti-illegal-alien law by referendum, and if I recall correctly, Indian voters favored it by a larger margin than the electorate in general.

Truth 101: Thanks. I would say that unions have historically been very important in improving working conditions, though they have become something of a sclerotic institution now.

03 May, 2010 05:21  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

SF: We have an abused underclass created by our own greed and unwillingness to pay an American what she is really worth.

I think most people would actually be willing to pay a bit more for things like lettuce and fruit if it meant illegals were not being used and American workers were getting decent pay. Where the actual employers that use illegals to save money are concerned, I agree with you.

03 May, 2010 05:25  
Blogger tnlib said...

Thought provoking post and followup comments from everyone. And like everyone else, I don't know what the answer is. Certainly immigration is an issue that should have been dealt with a long time ago, but it wasn't, and now here we are with a real tiger by it's tail.

Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm has been very outspoken in favor of restricting immigration, a stance that has not won him a bucket full of accolades with his fellow Democrats.

I might take a very small issue with one thing, Infidel. You said:

"'If you think I'm 'illegal' because I'm a Mexican, learn the true history because I'm in my HOMELAND'". The obvious interpretation of this is that it rejects the legitimacy of US sovereignty over Arizona and claims the state to be part of Mexico."

I may be missing something but I didn't interpret it this way. "learn the true history because I'm in my HOMELAND" speaks to the issue of potential racial profiling for legal Latinos who have been here since before the country was inhabited by white people. I might be stretching it a bit but that was my gut reaction.

I enjoyed this and I enjoyed the comments.

03 May, 2010 16:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib: Thanks. Again, I'm actually in favor of a greater amount of legal, controlled immigration. I don't view illegal aliens as "immigrants", and it's important to avoid conflating the two concepts. My parents were immigrants. They came here using the procedures provided by the law at the time.

That sign could be interpreted in other ways, but I think my interpretation is the obvious one given the straightforward meaning of words. "I'm a Mexican" + "I'm in my homeland" = "I'm in Mexico", that is, Arizona is rightfully part of Mexico. It says "I'm a Mexican", not "Mexican-American" or other terms that would have been consistent with the meaning you suggest.

And I can't stress too strongly another main point of the post -- that the left has got to get out of the habit of reacting to everything by sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting "racist, racist, racist", or else we are going to stupid ourselves right out into the political wilderness. To fight effectively against our opponents, we need to have an accurate understanding of them. Remember, I'm a leftist. I want our side to win. It alarms me to see so many people retreating into rhetoric and tactics that will lead to defeat.

03 May, 2010 16:58  
Blogger Silverfiddle said...

Kudos for a great post that provoked some good conversation!

Even Judge grudgingly agreed with me on something (and then turned around and called us all closed minded fools) but I'll overlook that and savor the moment... ;)

This is a tough issue. If we had an iron-clad worker verification program and passed a law declaring that born here by non-citizens makes the baby a non-citizen, the majority would self-deport and illegal immigration would slow to a trickle.

I don't like seeing our government rounding up workers. I would love to see them rounding up and frog marching to jail criminal business owners who exploit these people. (Yes, I'm a conservative)

03 May, 2010 17:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Another thing about the sign is that most people who see a sign like that don't try to parse and tease the meaning to see if they can find a less offensive interpretation. They go with the immediate, obvious impression. When you see Phelps's mob waving GOD HATES FAGS signs, you don't pause and think "Well, maybe they mean 'fag' in the British sense where it means a cigarette." You take it at the obvious face value.

SF: An iron-clad worker verification program is doable. Every time you use a credit card, the merchant's computer system can instantly tell whether the credit card number is valid or not. If Visa can do it, the government can do it.

Changing the citizenship status of babies born in the US would take a Constitutional amendment, though. That should be only a last resort.

04 May, 2010 03:22  
Blogger Silverfiddle said...

"Changing the citizenship status of babies born in the US would take a Constitutional amendment, though."

Maybe not. The meaning of the 14th Amendment has never been tested in court.

George Will wrote a column about it awhile back.

04 May, 2010 04:16  

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