Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Immigration Debate, Public Opinion, and Winning Elections

According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, a majority of Americans support Arizona's recent immigration law even while they think it will lead to more racial profiling.  Moreover, a majority also thinks that the federal government must do more to protect the border and think illegal immigration is a serious problem. Unsurprisingly, the public is divided about what to do with the illegal immigrants already in the country. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll finds a similarly conflicted public.

None of this should be terribly surprising.  Public sentiment appears to mirror long-standing public debates on this issue.  Even the first point -- support for the law in the face of the risk of racial profiling -- is easily explained.  This is the classic "tyranny of the majority" danger lurking in democratic societies.   I get that.  

 Far more important is the fallout of the law for the major political parties, both short and long term.

What to do, what to do . . . 

In the short term, according to Politico's Jonathan Martin, "the law appears to be a poison-tipped arrow in the Republican quiver." The immigration debate has crystallized in the mind of the public as a simple, straight-forward question of right and wrong.  As a person said at at recent conference I attended, "which part of illegal don't you understand?"  To stand against such a law, and to take the side of illegal immigration, is to side with illegality and to condone breaking the law.  Complicating matters, writes Martin, "in the South and the Midwest, where some of the most competitive congressional races will be fought, popular sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of the controversial new law."  This is why the Democrats find themselves on a bind on this issue. While their base might want them to take on this issue head on, short-term political gains clearly counsels against it, and in no uncertain terms.

For the  long term, in contrast, the "Latino giant" is poised to alter the landscape of American politics.  This is the expected surge in the Latino electorate, which analysts see happening sometime in the near future.  The recent Arizona law makes it conceivable that the impact will be seen this year.  Thus the question for the major political parties: do they really want to test the political might of the surging Latino electorate?

It seems to me that this debate boils down in some important respects to the lessons we all try to impart to our children. We generally counsel our kids to take the longer-term gain over short-term gain.  The question for politicians on the immigration debate is, what is the strategic basis for giving into short-term passions as opposed to long-term gains, which is what the "Latino giant" represents.

Or else, Democrats could always take the Madisonian view of things, and behave as he expected representatives to behave.  Recall that in Federalist 10, Madison warns that "measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."  This is why he so derides what he calls "pure democracies," where majorities can get their way with impunity.  In contrast, he exhorts the virtues of republican government.  Such governments "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be at least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial consideration."

In other words, Democrats could always behave like republicans and do the right thing.

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