Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, November 9, 2012

Demographics, Immigration, and the U.S. Election

The aftermath of the U.S. election is really something to see.  The Democrats (Obama's party) are jubilant while the Republicans (right-wing) are in a state of shock.  Between you and me, I think both sides need to watch what they say - people in the grip of strong emotion are often not terribly coherent and apt to say things they later regret.  Restraint of pen and tongue should be the order of the day until everyone gets enough distance to be rational and cool-headed.

But there is one theme coming out of the election post-mortem that is worth discussing here.  More than one analyst has pointed to demographics and immigration as key reasons for the Republican's loss.  Their argument is summed up by Juan Williams in the Wall Street Journal:

The critical political message from President Obama's re-election victory Tuesday is that he cemented a new coalition of Democrats, led by the Latino vote, which threatens to reduce Republicans to an afterthought in future national elections.

Who belongs to this new coalition that William's is referring to?  African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, young voters and others.  Who is presumably not part of this coalition according to Mr. Williams?  Something called "white voters" - basically those Americans of Northern European origin whose numbers are declining.  In order for the Republicans to stay relevant, says Mr. Williams, they must broaden their base and appeal to other groups like Hispanics.

Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post concurs and argues that the call for the Republican party to adapt to demographic realities is very very true when it comes to Hispanics who are in his words, "a natural Republican constituency: striving immigrant community, religious, Catholic, family-oriented and socially conservative (on abortion, for example)."  So why then in his view did Hispanics vote for Obama?  Immigration issues, says Mr. Krauthammer.  The Republican party should never have been so strident about enforcement of the immigration laws and should have offered an amnesty or some sort of path to regularization/citizenship for 'illegals' in the U.S.

Versions of this argument were around before the election and have gained a great deal of steam since because the Republicans lost (no hiding that grim reality) and must explain that loss to their supporters.  It may be more palatable for American conservatives to blame forces like demographics instead of focusing on their platform and their message.  But there is truth in it.  This 2011 Pew study showed that Hispanic voters do tend to lean toward the Democrats and feel that they (as opposed to the Republicans) show "more concern for Hispanics."

But does it necessarily follow that Hispanic voters are deeply concerned about immigration issues and voted accordingly?  Not necessarily.  This Gallup poll from June 2012 showed that healthcare, unemployment and the economy were the top issues for registered Hispanic voters, not immigration.  As for U.S. adults overall,  immigration was dead last on the list of their top concerns.

This is a very good example of why immigration is such a deadly topic for politicians.  There were many passionate voices in the Republican party that called for electric fences no amnesty, and punishing the "illegals."  In reaction to that many Republican candidates were genuflecting in the direction of those voices. - falling over themselves to prove how tough they were going to be on the "sans papiers."  Did this help them?  Probably not.

On the other hand there was the Obama administration who over the past four years presided over massive deportations of undocumented migrants and, in some cases, U.S. citizens.  Did this hurt Obama and the Democrats?  Doesn't appear to have had much of an impact.

So what lessons am I taking away from this election?

Race and ethnicity still matter so much in the U.S.  After many years living outside of the U.S. I find it shocking to see how Americans are sliced and diced and poured into racial categories in a way that you don't see in other places. It took me a moment to realize that I fall into the category of "white voter" in the U.S.  Now if I were to become a French citizen, would the French refer to me in that way?    Don't think so and while there are other categories like "Français de souche" these are used primarily by a few and are not invoked systematically as a way of dividing up the French population along racial or ethnic lines.

Race in the U.S. seems to trump almost all other ways of looking at the population.   Some of the categories are pretty dubious and clearly cultural constructs since they seem to have been created solely by Americans for other Americans.  Are there other countries that use race and ethnicity in this way?   Not that I know of but please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.  Forgive me but I don't see much "E pluribus unum" going on in the U.S. these days.  But hasn't that always been true and doesn't that Latin phrase represent more of a wish than a reality?

Immigration may not be that big a deal to most Americans:  For all the passion behind the debate the rhetoric and the reality doesn't seem to have changed people's minds.  Hispanics did not refuse to vote for Obama because of stricter immigration enforcement and it doesn't appear that Americans in general were all that concerned about immigration policy and enforcement when it came down to voting for or against a candidate.   Lot of noise around the issue but in the end it didn't really matter.

Perhaps American politicians would do better to just stop talking about it at all. So much of immigration policy is simply beyond the control of the U.S. authorities.  The U.S. can staple as many Green Cards as it likes to immigrants' diplomas but that won't change the growing attractiveness of other destinations.  The U.S. can put up all kinds of fences along the border with Mexico (good luck with that - it's a long border) but determined migrants will always find a way in.  Nearly 30% of immigration to the U.S. is from Mexico which means that an intelligent approach to U.S. immigration policy would be to treat it as a regional migrant management issue. And that means working with the Mexican government which already asked the U.S. back in 2006 to consider a joint approach.  

And isn't it interesting that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats floated that idea to the American people?  Just a suggestion for U.S. lawmakers whatever party they belong to:  Kick the entire business up to some regional supra-national committee and be done with it.

After all, this does seem to be a viable strategy for some European politicians who are more than happy to have the EU take this contentious issue off their hands. :-)

1 comment:

The Lady Dee said...

It's ironic that in all my years of living int he States (47) most of the "immigrants" I met were de souche European. I am from NYC and in addition have lived in Connecticut, Missouri, Pensylvania, and New Jersey. And I have yet to meet a Mexican who was actually born in Mexico.
Our country is just down right weird!
Take care.