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.