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The Immigration Trap

Monday, October 31, 2005
Having visited the Southland, what surprised me most was the depth of animosity towards immigrants. Even among moderates and liberals (yes there are some), I heard fear and hostility towards new Latino residents. "They're taking away our jobs. "They won't learn English." etc., etc. Having lived in NYC for several years, I suppose I just didn't grasp the salience of this issue. And as a political analyst, I couldn't help but ask myself - what effect will this have in upcoming elections?

I think that both the Democrats and the Republicans are in very dangerous ground on this issue. In the short term, the immigration hot potato could prove a fatal lure to the Republicans. For decades their principal strategy has been to use "identity" appeals in order to win over the white working/middle class. The success of this strategy has made the exploitation of racial and ethnic divides a conditioned response. While the party is divided on the issue of immigration - the business wing likes it, the strategists want to win Latino voters, and the white nationalist base hates it - I think that in the end the Republicans just won't be able to help themselves. They'll get into a bind and make coded and not-so-coded anti-immigrant appeals. They may couch it is illegal immigration, but the driving force will be anti-Hispanic xenophobia.

This strategy might win an election or two, but in the medium term it will prove to be a political blunder of huge proportions. Latinos are just beginning to politically mobilize, and they trend Democratic anyway. There is a great deal of suspicion by Latino voters towards the Republicans. Should the right run a race-baiting campaigning, it would likely consolidate Hispanics behind the Democratic party for a generation.

The historical example is California. Pete Wilson was struggling to win re-election in 1994, and resorted to immigrant-bashing to win re-election. It worked, but his victory cemented a liberal-black-hispanic coalition that has dominated California politics ever since (Schwarzanegger is a fluke). Remember - a decade ago California was a swing state.

Now as a Democrat I should be salivating at the prospect of the Californiaziation of American politics. But I'm not. You see, such an eventuality was simply reinforce existing political trends, trends that make cultural identity the most important feature of American politics. History demonstrates that identity politics in the end only benefits the right. We are a coalition of minorities, but if the elements of our coalition are primarily loyal just to their own narrow interests, it will always be easy for the right to blow us up with wedge issues. The entire conservative strategy over the last generation has been to displace class politics with identity politics. Should they go anti-immigrant, it might give us a decade of pre-eminence, but we'd then be right where we started.

The chief problem facing America is NOT immigration. It's not civil rights, or abortion, or gay marriage. These are all issues that matter, but they will not in the end fundamentally alter American life. The central challenge facing the country is the steady erosion of economic opportunity and the slow disappearance of the middle class. My fear is that if Democrats learn to use identity politics to their advantage, they will have fallen prey to a fatal delusion, because the result is that we will continue to ignore the real problem facing us, and that when the crash comes (as it surely will), Americans will have learned that the solution to all of their problems is to blame some other group of Americans.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:46 AM
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