(TEXAS) – President Barack Obama infuriated the right last week with his latest executive order. The order, which essentially provides amnesty and de facto legalization of the children of immigrants who were brought to this country and have now grown into adulthood, is a slightly-watered down version of the stalled Dream Act that allows undocumented young people […]
(TEXAS) – President Barack Obama infuriated the right last week with his latest executive order. The order, which essentially provides amnesty and de facto legalization of the children of immigrants who were brought to this country and have now grown into adulthood, is a slightly-watered down version of the stalled Dream Act that allows undocumented young people under the age of 30 who have been in the country at least five years and have no criminal record to stay and work legally without fear of deportation.
The one million people who will be effected by the president’s order are, in nearly every respect, as American as any native-born citizen of this country. They grew up here. They speak the language. They study here, work here, and have served and continue to serve in America’s armed forces. The only problem is that they had the temerity to be born in another country and not say no to their parents when they were brought over the border.
Fire breathers on the right were predictably outraged, but the way they articulated their anger was telling. Florida Senator and tea party darling Marco Rubio, for instance, was critical of the president for superseding his authority by going around Congress via an executive order. Rubio, who had proposed a bill similar to what the president decreed, was upset that Congress had been ignored.
Florida Congressman Alan West, a Republican who has made McCarthyesque accusations about his liberal opponents, was similarly upset. “We have a legislative process that ensures representative governance by the consent of the American people. This action should be crafted into legislation, debated in committee and brought before the House and Senate for vote, with accordance of our Constitutional Republic way,” he opined.
And so on. What is interesting here is that the outrage was ostensibly about process, not policy. President Obama, Republicans charge, usurped Congress’ constitutional authority to make immigration policy by decree, not law. Shame on him!
What Republicans neglect to mention is that an intransigent Republican majority has blocked all legislation, immigration reform included. Senator Rubio’s criticism rings more than hollow because it is his own party, not Obama’s, that’s stymieing legislative progress on immigration reform. Why? Well, Rubio would rather not talk about that.
Conservatives who don’t have to face the voters in November, however, are all too happy to do so. On my Facebook newsfeed, for instance, some of my conservative acquaintances from rural, small-town, working-class America angrily demanded that the “government-fed anchor babies” (whatever that means) be tossed, along with their parents, right out of the country. Their anger was palpable. To them, the country was being sold down the river to a bunch of brown-skinned foreigners who don’t belong here.
To this set, economic growth is zero-sum, not win-win. For them, there are only a set amount of jobs available – not the growing, churning pool of jobs that economists talk about. Each job taken by an immigrant is seen as one that a friend or neighbor could have had. Each time an immigrant appears in school or seeks aid at a hospital, those are places that could have been taken by one of their own. Immigration is not an opportunity to put out the welcome mat or play the Good Samaritan for these people. It is a time to circle the wagons and fend off an economic attack from those who would steal from them and theirs.
Given the declining wages, poor prospects and generally depressed nature of rural areas in general, this zero-sum logic that promotes tribal loyalty and antagonism over cosmopolitan openness makes sense. This is a class of people that has generally been screwed over since the Regan years – when national economic policy first began its lurch rightward and financial deregulation, globalization, and deindustrialization combined to destroy the economic vitality of and upward mobility for the white working class. Indeed, it is a well-known sociological maxim that when economic times are tough inter-communal antagonism increases.
What is curious, however, is that many of these individuals so consistently vote against their economic interests when it comes to national politics. It is Republicans, not Democrats, they rally to on Election Day, and it is the pro-market tea party they voice their economic unhappiness through, not the Occupy movement. Crushed by global capitalism, they essentially run to support the party that has done most to let loose that moneyed steamroller that has flattened them.
The reason why is the politics of identity. Ever since the Democrats tossed white racism into the dustbin of history in the 1960s the Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, snatched it out of that dustbin to use as a weapon against Democrats. Named the “Southern Strategy,” the outlines of this race-baiting gambit was explained by the infamous Republican apparatchik Lee Atwater in 1981:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””
Of course, it never got as “abstract” as Atwater had hoped it would, and by using the stick of white resentment Republicans were able to win victory after victory in both southern states and culturally “southern” – e.g., rural – areas in other parts of the country. On this was Nixon elected, the Reagan Revolution consecrated and the tea party constructed.
Today, those familiar with the politics of racial and cultural resentment know too well the power this strategy has had over the past 50 years. Like magic, it turned masses of working-class voters who would have otherwise voted for liberal economic policies into rock-ribbed Republicans who follow the party line chapter and verse. The problem, however, is that unlike African Americans, Hispanics are a larger and growing bloc of voters set to become more important in the future.
Thus current Republican intransigence over process, not policy is explained. It is code that attempts to signal to one set of voters that they aren’t racist, while to another that they are. Obama’s move has forced Republicans to try please their core base of unreconstructed white racists while at the same time not overly antagonize a growing Hispanic population and a business community eager to use immigrant labor. It is a tightrope walk of immense political importance and it remains to be seen whether they can make it across without falling fatally come November.