Thursday, May 6, 2010

Identity Politics and Immigration

It’s getting a little painful these days watching Democrats flailing around for a political strategy. A couple of weeks ago Harry Reid’s decision to put comprehensive immigration reform back on the table looked like a political masterstroke. It may have been a little cynical inasmuch as everyone paying attention knows that the only way this Congress will enact immigration reform is when the Democratic majority's headed out the door in the lame duck session after the midterms. But raising the immigration issue still looked politically adroit because identifying the Democratic Party with the aspirations of illegal aliens promised to fire up Latino voters in the party’s base enough to mitigate its midterm losses while it tightened the party’s hold on Latino voters over the long term.

Seen in this context, the passage of the recent Arizona immigration law looked like a political gift from Arizona Republicans to national Democrats. The polling data, however, is undermining that appearance pretty decisively. Latinos may be the fastest growing demographic around, but it’s beginning to look like the Arizona laws’ mobilizing effects on them will be overwhelmed in the next election by its countervailing effects on the rest of the electorate. Here’s Jonathan Martin:

“The new hard-line Arizona immigration law that has sparked talk of boycotts and caused leading Republicans to fret about the party’s frayed relationship with Hispanic voters may indeed pose a long-term threat to the GOP’s prospects.

“But in the here and now — and in many of the most competitive races that will determine control of Congress — the law appears to be a poison-tipped arrow in the Republican quiver.

“New polling indicates broad public support for the measure and illustrates the peril embattled Democrats could face this November over the issue.

“In the South and Midwest, where some of the most competitive congressional races will be fought, popular sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of the controversial new law.”
O.K., maybe Harry Reid and a lot of other people (including skittish Republicans) were wrong about how immigration plays in the short term. But won’t being the party that secures illegal aliens a relatively painless path to citizenship still redound to the Democratic Party's long-term advantage by tightening its hold over Latino voters? That’s an interesting question.

I’ve already commented here on the incoherence of the view that you can have both relatively open borders and a sustainable welfare state and how that contradiction will tend to pull core Democratic constituencies apart over time. The argument that immigration plays to the Democratic Party’s long-term political advantage depends on its brand of identity politics generating enough centripetal force to hold the Democratic coalition together anyway.

Lots of people presume it will because they’re analogizing the Democratic Party’s current relation with Latinos to its historic relation with African-Americans. The Democratic Party secured their reliable long-term support when, finally overcoming the resistance of its southern wing, it became the party of the Civil Rights and Voter Rights Acts in the 1960s. At a historically decisive moment, the Democratic Party remade itself into the best available political vehicle not only for promoting African-Americans’ collective interests, but for upholding its members’ dignity.

Identity politics isn’t just a matter of buying votes by shoveling resources to racial or ethnic groups. It’s also about getting people to regard their political allegiances as so integral to their own identity that they'd experience political defection as a betrayal not only of political allies, but of themselves. One measure of identity politics’ power is the currency of the notion, not only in African-American circles, that people like Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice betray a lack of self-respect.

Democrats think that this is the decisive moment in their party’s relation with Latinos, comparable to Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s. Maybe they’re right, but a lot depends on one respect in which the analogy between African-American and Latino politics is less than exact. No one denies that Latinos are discriminated against in this country, but they’ve never suffered an assault on their dignity nearly as profound as that suffered by the descendents of slaves; the Arizona immigration law may be bad, but it’s a long way from Jim Crow. The Democratic Party never had to persuade African-Americans in the 1960s that white racism was the defining feature of their political lives.

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