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Playing the Hate Card

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After Iraq, healthcare, the economy, and trust, Americans rank immigration as the number five problem facing the United States. That's not surprising; in June, Congressional debate on immigration policy was front-page news. "Immigration" has become a simulacrum for "race relations" in the U.S. It's no longer politically correct to vilify folks for the color of their skin but, in some quarters, it's okay to bash them for their immigration status. There are approximately eleven million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. While there's broad agreement that something should be done to make it harder for foreigners to sneak across our borders, there's dissension about on what to do with the unauthorized migrants who reside here: should they be arrested and sent back to their countries of origin or should they be granted a path to citizenship? The leading Democratic candidates for President have relatively compassionate attitudes about immigration: Clinton, Edwards, and Obama favor tighter border security to keep out undocumented visitors, as well as a clearly-defined path to "earned" citizenship. A few Republican Presidential candidates, such as Arizona Senator John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, hold similar positions. However, former Governor Mitt Romney and former Senator Fred Thompson oppose "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants. And Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo takes the extreme position: "Illegal aliens threaten our economy and undermine our culture... I am 100% opposed to amnesty. As President, I will secure our borders so illegal aliens do not come, and I will eliminate benefits and job prospects so they do not stay." Tancredo http://www.rightwingwatch.org/2006/09/tancredo_on_mas.html"> supports mass deportation of unauthorized migrants. Immigration has become an important issue because it combines American concerns about security and jobs. Since 9/11 there's been distress about lax border security that lets in thousands of immigrants each year. And Americans continue to worry about the nations' economy; they're concerned about the shortage of good jobs. Politicians such as Tancredo argue these jobs have been usurped by "illegals." Conservative demagogues suggest our economic woes are the fault of "those people;" only this time it's not "colored people," the Irish, or Jews, it's illegal aliens. Underlying the immigration issue is the fact the demographics of the United States are rapidly changing. In May, http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/010048.htm"l> the Census Bureau announced the minority population of the U.S. went over 100 million combining race and Hispanic origin. Approximately one in three U.S. residents is a member of a minority group. The two political parties take different stances on America's changing demographics. Democrats embrace diversity this year their top four presidential candidates include a woman, a black, and a Hispanic. Republicans define their base as White, non-Hispanic voters. And further restrict it by pandering to conservative Christians and xenophobic heterosexual males. This tactic has helped the GOP rally a base that's been dispirited by the failings of the Bush Administration, but it's narrowed their appeal. On Thursday, September 27th, PBS hosted a minority-focused debate for the Republican Presidential candidates. The leading candidates Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and Thompson didn't show up, which was interpreted as their having little interest in minority voters. Perhaps they were reading the demographic "tea leaves." In the http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2004/pages/results/states/US/P/00/epolls.0.html"> 2004 Presidential election, George Bush carried 58 percent of the White non-Hispanic vote, but only 44 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of Blacks. Since that time, Bush's approval ratings have fallen dramatically for every group other than White non-Hispanic straight men. Nonetheless, it's difficult to make sense of the harsh GOP stand on immigration and race relations, in general. Defining Republicans as the Party of white Christian men seems to be a throwback to the segregationist posturing of the fifties and sixties, a strategy that doesn't have a chance in the 2008 general election. However, it makes a historical sense: since the Reagan era Republicans have been adept at mobilizing resentment. In campaign after campaign they've fueled the anger of lower and middle-class whites and redirected it to imaginary groups: liberal elites who promote "sixties values," black welfare "queens," promiscuous women who want abortion on demand, aggressive homosexuals who seek to convert others to their "lifestyle," and now illegal aliens who steal American jobs and benefits. Tom Frank described this process in What's the Matter with Kansas: within the Republican Party, economic conservatives distract social conservatives with inflammatory issues in order to get their votes and keep them from noticing the various life-threatening problems caused by conservative social policy. Republicans mobilize around hate. That's the common thread that connects GOP candidates over the past forty years and fuels the draconian immigration philosophy embraced by a majority of Republicans. In 2008, will playing the hate card work for Republicans? Will they again be able to mobilize the resentment of lower and middle-class whites? This seems unlikely so long as Democrats remember that lurking beneath the GOP politics of hate are legitimate economic concerns about jobs, healthcare, and energy costs; concerns that need to be addressed by policy not prejudice.

 

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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