Archive for category Immigration

Obama, the Republicans and Immigration

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

Obama addresses the nation on November 20, 2014

The politics behind President Obama’s executive order on immigration are fascinating, so I’ll quickly dispense with the policy stuff.  Yes, what he did is legal.  It probably should have been earlier, and it comes after he tried to work with Congress for six years to get a legislative solution.  No, this doesn’t go as far as comprehensive immigration reform – we’ll still need Congress to do that (and I suspect they will – but only in 2017) – but it definitely gives the US a more humane, compassionate and reasonable approach to immigration.

And the politics, well…as Spock would say, fascinating.

One theory is Obama is purposefully “trolling the Republican party.”  Not so much by the policy – Obama was going to do this anyway – but by not waiting until a bill was passed in December to continue government spending.   The logic goes like this:  the Republicans do not benefit politically when they try to shut down the government.   Most Republicans do not want a government shut down.   Already 2016 looks difficult for them, wounding themselves politically is something they want to avoid.

Moreover, the GOP remains divided.  They want to create the impression they are united and can be responsible, but the divisions are intense.   If those divisions can be brought into the open and be shown to bring chaos into Republican ranks, then the Democrats not only have a better shot to perhaps win back both houses in 2016, but Obama will benefit politically, giving him more leeway.  Already talk radio hosts, tea party activists and many in the House and Senate are calling for a government shut down.

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

One probable result of these changes in immigration is improved economic growth

This would, however, be a major shift of tone from a President who has been criticized for being too nice with Republicans, too unwilling to take unilateral action.  He is by nature a consensus builder and he has tried to use pressure and persuasion with Republican leaders who make ultimatums and refuse to compromise.   It’s not that they don’t want to compromise, but they don’t have their House caucus under control.  To make significant compromises would be to face a rebellion, and Speaker Boehner would prefer to lead a “do-nothing” Congress with at least the illusion of party unity than one gets things done, but further divides and weakens the GOP.

So the White House may believe: a) there is nothing to gain by trying to work with this Congress – it’ll be no different than the last one; b) it’s now or never, we have two years to continue our agenda; and c) if we act now and inspire anger in the GOP base, then the  party will be divided, play with the fire of a government shut down, and ultimately be weakened going into 2016.

On top of that, Latinos will be thankful, will see and get angry at the rhetoric coming from the right, and turn out in record numbers to vote in Democrats in 2016.   The Republicans will claim the Democrats are “bribing Hispanics,” but that will be even more insulting.  The result: a weakened GOP and a revived Democratic party, already recovering from the 2014 election and realizing that overall the direction of the country still favors the Democrats.

To be sure, Obama wouldn’t have done this if he thought it was bad policy.  This could be another aspect of his legacy that one day shines brightly, despite the controversy now.  It could also make it easier for the GOP to actually decide to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy that has more of what they want, realizing they get nothing if they just complain.  If the Republicans did that, they might find it easier to win over Latino voters in the future.

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

Too harsh a response and Republicans could help push record numbers of Latinos to vote Democratic in 2016

To Boehner and McConnell, they have to somehow satisfy their right wing (Boehner calling Obama ‘the most lawless President in history’ shows at least he’ll use their rhetoric) but chart a path that shows the country that the Republicans aren’t a bunch of angry whackos who can’t be trusted with the steering wheel.  This is a real test of whether or not the GOP can actually use their new majority effectively.

Clearly Obama is still very relevant and willing to use his power.   Senator McConnell said the President is ignoring the will of the voters (the relatively small number of voters who voted in the midterm), but the Majority Leader should be reminded that Obama won elections with significant majorities twice.   That means he has been entrusted to follow his best judgment.

It’s also interesting how fickle politics can be.  Just over two weeks ago Republicans were overjoyed and Democrats demoralized by the 2014 Midterm elections.   Between the defeat of the Keystone pipeline, the China-US climate deal and now bold leadership from the President on immigration, it’s the Republicans feeling angry and upset, and liberals light on their feet.   But that could change just as quickly.


Demography, the GOP and the Democrats

Some facts from an article in the New York Times by John Harwood got me thinking.  His argument was straightforward:  in a close election President Obama will have an edge due to changes in demographics.  Some facts:

  • 89% of the electorate was white in 1976, now it is 74%
  • 1% of the electorate was Hispanic in 1976, now it is 9%
  • In 12 battleground states the “working class white” vote is down 3% from 2008

This may mean that the election is “economics vs. demographics,” though that’s oversimplifying.   But what does this say about the future?   To me it points to an inevitable shift in the Republican party as they move to embrace policies that right now are anathema to the Tea Party, such as immigration reform, gay marriage, and a welfare reform that doesn’t just seek to cut welfare, but make it more effective.   The Democrats, on the other hand, need to find a way not to have to rely on non-whites for victory.   Both parties face a demographic challenge, though the GOP’s situation is more dire.

Consider – the shifts described above are not over.   The working class white vote is declining, the white vote in general will continue to go down (and at some point be below 50%), the urban vote is growing, the rural vote receding, and Hispanics are voting in ever larger numbers.

At some point, the Presidency will be almost unwinnable to the GOP if they do not shift policies in order to appeal to these demographic groups.   This isn’t yet true in 2012, and maybe not be for a few election cycles, but the writing is on the wall.   If the 2008 election had been held with the demographics of 1976 or even 1988, Obama wouldn’t have had a chance.   A President Obama was only possible because of demographic change.

Some of the Tea Party is driven by fear of this change.   The cultural transformation of the last thirty five years have been immense, and many yearn to return to when things were “normal.”    However, anti-immigration stances are poison for the GOP.   Besides not getting results, they assure that the largest growing demographic is captured by the Democrats, even if there are some big name Republican Hispanics.    This doesn’t have to be; Hispanics are not naturally predisposed to the Democrats, the GOP is pushing them into Democratic hands.  If this goes on too long, they will be hard to convert.

It’s a no-brainer that the GOP has to alter its stance.  It must embrace immigration reform, even if it draws the ire of their base.  It may be too late for candidate Romney to aspire to win much of the Hispanic vote, even if he chooses Marc Rubio to be his Veep.   There are too many sound and video bites of Romney from the primary season that the Obama team is going to make sure get a lot of airplay before the election.

Even though they are not representative of the GOP, social conservatives have been very good at getting involved, being active in local organizations, and making it to the polls, especially during primary season.   Take an issue like gay marriage.  A majority of Americans now support it, and the largest number of supporters are among the youth.  The culture has shifted and that can’t be undone.

But unlike immigration reform, the GOP can finesse this one.  Romney is refusing to make this a major campaign theme, which irritates social conservatives like Rick Santorum.   The GOP can take a “states’ rights” stance and say that this isn’t an issue for a President.   That way Republicans in Alabama can be stalwart against gay marriage while a Massachusetts Republican can be progressive.   Over time, the issue will lose its relevance, just as interracial marriage did.

Although the Iraq war ended up consuming his Presidency, President Bush’s efforts to steer the GOP towards a different path on immigration reform and a creative approach to social welfare reform reflect ideas the GOP needs to take seriously.

The GOP also needs to mesh it’s conservative values with an understanding of the challenges facing minorities and the poor.   George W. Bush has already shown how to do that.   In 2000 he talked about ‘compassionate conservatism’ and about building an ‘ownership’ society.   Rather than painting social welfare, unions and the like as all bad – with free market and less government the vaguely defined alternative, Bush’s approach sought to redefine the role of government with new markers.   Even ardent Democrats have to admit that high debt loads and the growing number of poor show that the programs we have now aren’t working right.   A discussion of how to fix things needs to be more than one said asking for more and the other side asking for less.  (I discussed ways the GOP could hone it’s message here).

The housing crisis makes it easy to lampoon the ‘ownership society’ President Bush envisioned, but at least he was offering a positive alternative.

Ultimately it’s not a question of if the Republicans will change, but when and how.   So Democrats should not get too comfortable looking at the demographic trends.   Parties adapt to cultural shifts.    The loud tea party “take back America” voice of today cannot win in the long run, and wouldn’t even have a chance if not for the on going economic crisis.   Just as Obama couldn’t have won back in 1988, Romney of today wouldn’t have a chance in 2028.

As Republicans adapt to the new environment and their party changes, Democrats will also be forced to change as well.   When the GOP starts making inroads with Hispanics and other minorities, the Democrats will have to address what used to be their core constituency: working class whites.    If the two parties become voices for ethnic blocs, American politics will break down.   We need two effective parties exploring creative ideas will nudge each other not to be complacent with a particular ideology or set of solutions.

These demographic trends point to two parties that face both long challenges and great opportunities.   Democrats should look at working class whites (their support among them is about 30-35%) as a great potential source of votes.   Republicans should look at Hispanics and other minorities as their key to the future – as Karl Rove and George W. Bush tried to do in 2000.    Avoiding the demographic split is the best way for the two parties to heal the dysfunction the defines US politics today.


Obama Not so Different After All

GOP annoyance that President Obama uses the raid that killed Osama to defend his record is driven by the fact that this action undercuts some of their core arguments against Obama as President.

To many in the Republican party, the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency was a shocker.  It wasn’t just his race, though that clearly added to the “different” factor.  It was his background and the fact that he had a very different heritage and image than any other American President.   Ever.

This opened the door to fantasy.   Maybe he wasn’t a real American – hence the birthers.  Others were convinced that he was an anti-American anti-colonialist at the core (Newt Gingrich played that card recently), bent on destroying America from within.   Still others thought he was a radical leftist, more socialist than liberal, bent on leading the country into some kind of massive wealth redistribution plan.   He would be soft on foreign policy because his heart won’t be into defending America.    Perhaps very telling early on was the claim that he was “apologizing” for America — even though when pressed, not one instance of an apology could be found.

Four years later it’s hard for some Republicans to give up the convenient “Obama as radical/strange” image that spurred them to mobilize for the 2010 off year elections.   But President Obama has a four year record, and it’s nothing like those scary images of Obama as some Manchurian candidate with a nefarious hidden agenda.   In fact, if you have to run on “he’s been faking it for four years his real plans will come out after re-election,” you’ve lost.

That doesn’t mean that that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a case to make for himself, or against Obama.   Every election is about an exchange of ideas and discussion of plans.  There should be disagreements and debates.   It’s just that they need to let go of the image of Obama as somehow strange, different or dangerous.   That’s been utterly disproven.  Obama has a record.

Republicans will chaffe at some of the claims made in this Obama video, but clearly the President’s team wants to run on his record, arguing that he’s accomplished a lot despite the GOP being the “party of no,” obstructing action.   The most damning clip is that of Senate Minority Leader McConnell saying the biggest priority for the Republicans is to prevent the re-election of President Obama.   That’s always a priority for an opposition party, but one would hope the biggest priority would be to fix the economy and move the country in a positive direction, working with the President if possible.

A deeper issue isn’t only that many conservatives over reacted fearfully to a man that appeared different, but that Obama is the future.   Not him personally, but what he represents.      Even if Romney were to pull off an upset and unseat Obama, the 21st Century is going to see a country more open on social issues and with white Europeans becoming less prominent.  Right now these demographic changes help the Democrats because the GOP has embraced fear.

Fear of Obama has led to over the top accusations that make the Democrats look moderate by comparison.  Fear of immigration and demographic change — the idea that America is somehow being “lost” — have led the GOP to reject President Bush and Senator McCain’s vision of sustainable immigration reform and become seen as anti-immigrant.  And though Romney may have trouble walking back the anti-immigration bravado he displayed during the primary campaign, future Republicans will no doubt switch directions.    A cadre of the GOP is lingering in the 20th Century and holding their party back.

The Democrats have their 20th Century ghosts to banish as well.   An emphasis on special interest groups, big government solutions to problems and rejection of any entitlement reform ultimately will hold them back.    Obama’s pragmatic approach has kept those forces at bay, at least for now.   Still, many on the left attack Obama precisely because he’s not different in the way they hoped he’d be.   Many liberal activists hoped he’d bring radical change and the very things the right feared; he has not.

This means that contrary to the perception that might arise in the media — especially on the more sensationalist websites like Drudgereport or The Huffington Post, this election is at base a rather boring contest between a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat.   If Obama wins a second term, don’t expect major changes in policy.   Not only will he be unlikely to have a Democratic Congress, but second terms are usually for consolidating changes made in the first term, not bold initiatives.   If Romney wins there will be symbolic attempts to change things like health care reform, but the changes of the last four years will likely prove resilient.    Democrats will probably stay in control of the Senate, but would have filibuster power on big issues in any event.

While it is distressing to see the nastiness flow or watch the waves of attack ads, often from nefarious groups supposedly outside the control of the campaigns, there is something heartening to the fact that there really isn’t much to fear about either candidate winning.   In fact, an Obama win might push the GOP to more quickly embracing changes that can make it competitive for the long term.

President Obama on the left and former President Bush on the right pose with Roman soldiers to demonstrate 'panem et circenses'

The Romans said that politics was “bread and circuses – panem et circenses.”  The circuses may now be rowdy, and there does seem to be a dsyfunction in our political discourse.   These are serious.    But the fact we have two competent moderate candidates leading their parties into the election is a sign that the American political system can work through these issues.


A Sustainable America

The GOP convention will be in Tampa Florida, August 27 - 30

(This is the fourth post in a row about the state of the Republican party.  It sums up my points from the last three posts, and puts forth a vision of how the GOP could recover.   I’m a former Republican who sees the state of a party that used to be far more moderate and pragmatic as sad and dangerous.  Even if they make the changes I suggest I wouldn’t come back – I’ve moved too far to the so-called left.  But I think we need a strong, reasonable conservative voice in the political arena).

I like President Obama and intend on voting for his re-election.  I don’t like him so much that I revel in the apparent implosion of the Republican party.   The country needs two strong parties offering different perspectives and ideas.   As Walter Lippmann noted in The Essential Opposition, democracy is a process designed to produce better results.  To do so requires that both sides listen and engage each other.   If the two parties end up being like parallel universes, not only will it be hard to get anything done, but the crucible of debate and discussion will not help the two sides critically assess the arguments and see ideas and possibilities they overlooked.   Learning stops if people think they have an ideology that gives them all the answers.  Ideologies are always vast over-simplifications of reality.

So to that end, I’ll proscribe what I think the Republicans need to become viable either for 2012, or at least 2016:

1.  An optimistic future oriented message.   As I noted awhile back, the tone of the campaign from the GOP has been intently negative.   America’s collapsing, our freedoms are in jeopardy, Obama’s going to take away your guns, etc.   For the true believing conservatives this is their reality — the Democrats are threatening the American dream enabled by a media that cheerleads and schools that indoctrinate.   It’s a kind of fairy tale where liberals are evildoers wanting to destroy the good, while conservatives are fighting against all odds to preserve the American dream.

That kind of story line will keep the true believers motivated but doesn’t appeal to independents who look at Obama and say, “he doesn’t seem that bad, but I’m not sure he’s handling the job well.”   They aren’t looking for someone to save us from doom and gloom, but someone who might offer a better vision of what should be done.  (Note: one can find a mirror image fairy tale on the far left too — both sides have their true believers).

Here’s my suggestion:  Start with the slogan: Building a Sustainable America.  This slogan may sound awkward at first, but bear with me.  Sustainability has been a key word for progressives concerned about climate change, the environment and the future.   The GOP can claim it as their own and sound forward looking and progressive.  This would appeal to independents and even moderate Democrats.

Second, it can fit GOP policies.   They could talk about economic sustainability (cut spending, focus on debt, defend entitlement reform), social sustainability (the need to protect American values – vague enough to appeal to social conservatives without turning off independents), and political sustainability (foreign affairs, the US role in the world, etc.)    This is a positive forward looking message that would still speak to the main themes of the GOP.   Instead of being negative and petty, it could be lofty and persuasive.  It has the advantage of suggesting that there is a danger inherent continuing the policies in place, meaning that the Republicans don’t have to ditch their critique completely.

2.  Ditch the current crop of candidates:   Mitt Romney probably would be a decent Republican President.  At this time, however he’s damaged goods both amongst independents and within the Republican base.   What they need to do is go into their convention in Tampa without a clear candidate, and then find someone who can unite the party behind a positive message.   Americans don’t really focus until Labor Day anyway, a breath of fresh air could gain quick support.

They also need a fresh face.  Not Daniels of Indiana or Christie of New Jersey.  Daniels is too bland, and Christie too fat.   Presidential elections are very much marketing campaigns, you need a candidate who looks the part.   I think they should instead choose a woman from Alaska.   No, not THAT woman!  I’m talking Lisa Murkowski.

Lisa Murkowski - rugged Alaskan spunk without the crazy!

Murkowski won her Senate campaign in 2010 as a write in candidate, defeating Joe Miller, who narrowly beat her in the GOP primary.  Many tea party types hated her after that, but Miller was a very weak candidate and now her appeal to independents and ability to inspire a rare write in Senate victory play in her favor.   Coming from Alaska her professionalism contrasts to the flakiness that Sarah Palin represents.  In that sense it would put a new, more serious face on the Republican party.

I doubt they’d choose her though, she’s too moderate (and anyway, I’d prefer Olympia Snowe if they went that route).  They need someone not tainted by this year’s mudfest.  Only Jon Huntsman qualifies, he was too weak to be scathed by the infighting; the others are have all been blemished by the sheer negativity of the campaign.  Jeb Bush may be the best personal choice, but the country probably doesn’t want another President Bush, at least not at this point.

3.  Demographics and Infromation reform: There is nothing about conservative thinking that makes immigration reform something to be avoided.  In fact, Ronald Reagan promoted and championed the most comprehensive reform in history back in the 80s.   Now the GOP has to embrace the kind of reform President Bush and Senator McCain tried to push in 2007, only to be stymied by the right wing of their party.   This is essential if they are going to adjust to demographic change in the country.   They have to mount a credible challenge for Hispanic voters, and their current anti-immigration stance hurts them.   Saying “we’re only opposed to illegal immigration” doesn’t work — they have to embrace reform and then court hispanic voters who tend already to be socially conservative.

Polls show Obama leading in the Latino vote 6 to 1, with no Republican above 14%.  That’s because of the immigration issue  and the harsh stance taken by the GOP.   It is the most severe self-inflicted wound the party has given itself.

4.  It’ll never be 1980 again.   All this will go for naught if the GOP doesn’t take seriously the fact that the country is profoundly different than it was 30 years ago.  Gay marriage is here and will continue to expand.   Contraception?   Sorry Rick.   I think the tea party/nostalgia/’end of liberty’ bit in the GOP is a short term reaction to the shock of 1) a black President named Barack Hussein Obama who grew up outside the continental US and seems strange compared to past Presidents; 2) the apparent decline of US power and prestige in the world, creating a fear of a ‘post-American world’; and 3) demographic and cultural change as whites are soon to be less than 50% of the population and society becomes more secular and diverse.   Many can’t comprehend how quickly after 9-11 what they thought was a conservative shift to a more forceful America went south so quickly.

Republicans don’t have to accept the direction the country is going, but nostalgia and a desire to “take back” America in the sense of going back to what used to be isn’t going to work.  They have to futurize their message and their ideology.   That requires rejection of the tea party and a shift towards a less shrill and ideological conservatism.   That’s not going to be easy, but ultimately that’s necessary for the GOP to succeed.


Misunderstanding Europe

Americans generally do not understand Europe or European politics very well, believing in stereotypes and caricatures, often warped for political purposes.   For instance, during the health care debate horrible stories of long waits and “rationed care” were given as why we don’t want to “be like Europe,” but those stories painted a false idea of what health care in Europe is like.  The reality is that almost everyone gets quality health care, usually with a doctor they know, and without long waits or denial of services.   That’s one reason why Europeans in no way want to give up their health care systems.   After all, you can find as many if not more stories of poor health care or insurance company nightmares cherry picking the US news.

And that’s the problem with lack of knowledge.  If you don’t know a subject well, be it climate change, health care, foreign policy, the nature of Islam, or whatever, it’s very easy to grab on to short often emotive polemics and take them as reality.   If they are well written and the author seems certain, then the reader often accepts it as true, especially if it feeds into existing stereotypes or ideological biases. A coherent world view can be made up of these bits, strung together uncritically, especially by people who like simple straight forward explanations for a complex world.

If you read pundits on the right, Europe is a wimpy pseudo-socialist set of states, unable to field a quality military, and being overtaken by Muslim immigrants.  Some even claim sharia law is gaining traction, as Europeans give into Muslims in hopes that they’ll be satisfied (fitting the ‘appeasement’ meme many ascribe to Europe).  Moreover, the social welfare programs of Europe are dismissed as obsolete, doomed to collapse because of demographic change as Europe ages.   This view of Europe is utterly misguided, yet persists almost as a “matter of course” amongst may conservatives.

On social welfare programs, there is a broad consensus throughout Europe (varying by degrees between countries) that modern industrialized states should guarantee the basics needed for relatively equal opportunity to succeed: education, health care, protection from unemployment, nutrition, and pensions for old age.   The latter, of course, is a reward for contributing to society for decades, and presumably raising children who now become productive.   If you look at any health statistic, EU states usually out perform the US, even though the US pays 16% of its GDP for health care, while Europeans pay 8-10% (and the US GDP is higher per capita).    European health care systems do have to be reformed to remain viable, but an American style system would be too expensive — and unlike theirs, ours doesn’t even cover everyone!

The militaries in Europe are very well trained and well equipped.   True, the forces are smaller in number than those of the US, but this reflects a European view that warfare has changed.  The era of major armies battling in large numbers is a thing of the past, at least in the first world.  They emphasize mobility and intelligence.   If a credible threat emerged, the Europeans could expand their forces, but at this point it seems like a waste of money — after all, even spending half the world’s military budget the US stumbled in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Europe has no desire to get involved in conflicts like those.

What about demographic change?  EU fertility rates are low, about 1.5 (as opposed to 2.04 for the US).  These vary, Germany is at 1.34, Great Britain at 1.7, Italy at 1.28, but France is up at 2.0.   The French have done this in part by giving very generous protections for new mothers.   Recognizing the dangers of population decline (fewer workers supporting more pensioners), states give benefits to mothers women her could only dream of.   Guarantees that the job will be there, longer maternity leaves, increased pay, and child care services are provided.   And though the post-war “boomers” are now turning 65, it will take awhile for the cost to get to be so high that the system would become unsustainable.  Pensions now cost the French 12% of GDP, and by 2030 that will rise to 16% if reforms are not made.

That’s expensive, but not debilitating.  And throughout Europe reforms are being made.   They know that the systems created in the sixties were based on having a large productive working population alongside a small group of retirees likely to live less than a decade after retirement.   Europeans understand that they need to adapt it to new demographic realities.   Yet it won’t require draconian cuts, modest timely reforms can make a significant impact.    Countries are already making these reforms, and have been for some time.   While one reads about protests in France, the reality is that the French government has the support of the people to make changes, and overall political systems in Europe are less prone to gridlock than the US system.   Moreover, outside of a few problem countries, their debt and deficit problems are under control, and unlike in the US, private debt is not a problem.  Indeed, European countries still have net savings, meaning that overall they do not have the massive total debt that the US has.  For us, private debt is as severe or more severe than government debt.

Another factor that could help Europe is immigration.   Despite the hype, Islam really isn’t something Europeans should fear.   Right now Muslims number about 20 million in Europe, or about 4% of the population.   The largest number, 5 million, are in France, about 8% of the population, the Netherlands is next with 5%.   The numbers could double in the next twenty years, and some say that 20% of Europeans could be Muslim by 2050.    This is a significant minority, but not large enough to “take over.”

Some claim that “Sharia law” is spreading in Europe.   It’s not.  France, in fact, is flexing its secular state by banning religious symbols from schools and public buildings, and President Sarkozy even talked about banning the burka completely.   Anti-clerical traditions from the French revolution persist, and affect attitudes towards Islam.  Only in Great Britain in very specific cases within the Muslim community has Sharia law been allowed, and that’s primarily due to a loophole in British law which may be closed.  Fear of Sharia is a red herring, designed to appeal to the emotions of those who want to see Islam as some kind of dangerous enemy.

The Europeans do have to overcome their ethnic based notions of identity in order to allow integration of minorities into their societies.  That has been difficult to do, as “blood” so long has defined European self-identity.  Yet immigration can provide labor needed to support the growing number of elderly and Muslims in Europe tend to modernize.  For all the stories of some radical knocking off a Dutch film maker or groups in London selling violently extremists tracts, most Muslims adopt western ideals and adjust their religious practices to fit their new surroundings.   Since Islam as a religion is struggling to adopt to the modern era, European Muslims may lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the Islamic world.   Better integration into European societies could help bridge cultural gaps.

These are not minor problems.   French riots in 2007 show the dangers of ghettoizing and marginalizing immigrants.   Muslims that come to Europe, usually from Africa, are not especially religious or radical.   But there are forces wanting to radicalize the youth and foster a war between Islam and the West.  It’s important that the Europeans don’t make the extremists’ job easier by pushing immigrants into separate communities where they do not have a chance to integrate.  The fact these issues are being debated and discussed openly and realistically give me no reason to think the Europeans won’t be up to these challenges.    In any event, the next time someone drones on about how horrible things are in Europe, don’t believe it.



Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, stated this weekend that multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed, in Germany.  (Dieser Ansatz ist gescheitert, absolut gescheitert).    She’s right, of course — just look at German political debates and the divisions between Germans and non-Germans.  Multiculturalism has failed throughout Europe.   However, what is it?

That raises the question: what is a functioning multicultural society?  There are a couple of things it is not.

1.  It is not the idea that everyone can live side by side with diverse cultures and faiths, mutually tolerant and receiving equal treatment.    That dream, particularly on the left, ignores the reality of human emotions around complex issues like identity and difference.  Moreover, these emotions mean not only that people will often fear and even despise those who think/act/look differently, but politicians will be able to drum up anger, scapegoat, and enhance divisions.

2.  A functioning multicultural society is also not a stagnant default “home” culture to which others must adapt at various levels.   That idea, a favorite of many on the right, is that as long as those from other cultures achieve some level of adaptation — perhaps learn the language, understand customs, respect traditions — then they can have space for their own cultural practice.  The error here is to see a culture as a kind of natural, unchanging core entity.  This leads people to think they have to protect their culture from change.

My dad’s parents came from Germany.   Grandpa Erb was a Lutheran Minister who still gave sermons in German until his retirement in 1963.  Originally all of this sermons were in German, and his Concordia seminary in St. Louis had given him German language diplomas and training.  I have many of his old notes, in German, as well as a German Bible and hymnal.   The Missouri Synod was the “German” branch of the Lutheran church in America, and whether in Brookings, South Dakota or Lester Prairie, Minnesota, he preached to the faithful who spoke very little or no English at all.   By the end of his career he had an English and German version of each sermon, as the number of German speakers declined.

My dad was born in 1935, and given the era, never learned German (I only learned it in college).  Yet from the late 19th century to the mid-twentieth Century a vibrant group of German speakers lived in the Midwest.  Minnesota, where much of my mom’s side of the family came from, had large Norwegian and Swedish communities.

They did not all learn English, and many schooled their children in their home language.   They brought with them German or Norwegian customs, and settled in communities that often shared that ethnic bond.   The children usually did learn English, and over time German became infrequent (perhaps hastened by the world wars) and now I suspect you could walk around Lester Prairie and not hear anyone speaking German as their main tongue.

These people did not adapt to the new culture, they were part of creating it.  America’s culture did not pre-exist the immigrants, it was constructed by them, with each group adapting and constructing the culture at the same time.    Without the Germans, Italians, Norwegians, French, Chinese or Mexicans, the US would have a distinctly different culture.  Who we are is in a state of constant change.   Many on the right decry the fact whites will soon be less than 50% of the population, worrying that American culture will be “lost.”   But culture is always in transition.

Those on the left who want the everyone side by side respecting difference make a similar error.   The immigrant’s culture is seen as something sacrosanct and worthy of protection.   Yet being in a different society will change that person’s approach to life, and offer new perspectives and customs that often will be embraced.   Living in a new country changes people, and to succeed they have to adapt.

My German forefathers kept many of their customs.     They worshiped in German for decades.    They adapted, but they also maintained practices.   To this day we still have the German tradition of exchanging gifts on Christmas eve, while the British/French east coast does so on Christmas morning.   Over time they made their mark on American culture, even as their children and grandchildren adapted to it.

The key is to recognize that immigration and “multiculturalism” is a two direction process.  Immigrants change a culture, immigrants are changed by the culture.   The culture is dynamic and in constant transformation, just as humans entering new societies are transformed by experience.  In fact, humans are by definition always in a state of dynamic transformation going through life, none of us is the same at 50 as we were at 20 — even if there are some really core aspects of the self which persist.

Multiculturalism fails if culture is seen as a natural product, something pure, which should not be changed.   If immigrants don’t adapt and play a role in shaping the overall culture, then you end up with a fragmented society, where fights over identity and difference overwhelm and can potentially destroy community.   The good news is that the changes can come slowly — the first generation may stick to their past cultural practices, but the second and third adapt and take on the new identity.   The overall culture shifts slowly as well, something obvious if you compare 1970 to 2010, but not so visible on a day by day basis.   We should be able to handle that rate of change.

The bad news is that many people do not understand that cultures change and see any different behavior or custom as a threat.    Natives fear the immigrants will change their culture (they will), and immigrants fear their new home will change them and their children (and it will).    They fear the inevitable.  Fear promotes bigotry.    This error is made by both natives and immigrants.

The key is not to fear change or difference.    Germans and Americans should not fear their culture — each so different now than in the past — being shaped by new comers.   That’s going to happen, and it’s OK.   Cultures are human constructs, and it would be boring if we simply produced the same one over and over.  Moreover, those who go to a new country should not fear losing some of their identity because of their new home.   They and especially their offspring will be changed too, and that’s OK.   We are always changed by our choices and our environment.   Fear can be profound when it comes to issues of identity and difference; letting go of fear in those instances can be very rewarding.


The Natives are Restless

I know it’s been a hot summer, but the political rhetoric is getting bizarre.   For instance, in Florida a candidate in a Republican house contest calls for the creation of internment camps for illegal aliens.   We’d keep them until we had “enough to send back,” she said.   I’m not quite sure how many is enough to send back, but her expensive proposal is just one of many incidents lately of Americans showing an antipathy to foreigners or things deemed different.

Last week I wrote about “ugly Islamophobia,” including the opposition by some to an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from 9-11’s “ground zero.”   The so-called tea party movement and other “movements” on the right embrace a kind of “defend America” or “take back America” attitude that sees threats all around.

The most bizarre is Representative Louie Gohmert’s (R-Tx) claim that Arabs are disguising themselves as Mexicans, coming across the border, and dropping “terror babies” who will grow up and be able to pull off inside jobs against America.   It’s a wondrous bit of propaganda because it ties into both anti-immigrant and anti-terror fears, while being able to say the evidence won’t be available for 20 years (these babies have to grow).   But it’s so over the top that no one is taking it seriously, and the FBI calls the idea “ridiculous.”  (Gohmert claims an FBI agent told him this was a threat, but he wants to be kept anonymous.)

This claim comes just as some called for revoking the part of the 14th amendment that guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the US.   Claiming that Mexicans want to use “anchor babies” as a way into the US, they claim that we won’t stop the streaming “horde” of illegals unless we alter our constitution.   Just as more reasonable voices in the GOP started to push back against the suggestion, recognizing at the very least that politically such an amendment is DOA and would unleash a debate that would guarantee Hispanic support for Democrats for decades, Gohmert tied it in with terrorism.

Here’s the plot:  Arabs will go to Mexico and blend in because they’re also dark skinned.   However, while all dark skinned people may look alike to some whites in the US, Mexicans can tell the difference between Mexicans and Arabs.  Then supposedly these Arabs will master Spanish and fit right in, heading to the US to do heinous deeds.   While no doubt al qaeda types could sneak across borders (some of the 9-11 perpetrators crossed from Canada), the idea large numbers could embed themselves in Mexican society is pretty outlandish.

For Gohmert, though, that’s only the start.   Then they’ll have babies in the US who will be raised as apparently Mexican-American.   That will mean, of course, they’ll attend school, participate in social life, and enjoy the fronts of being raised in a free, prosperous country.   Yet at age 17 when their masters tell them to destroy the Sears Tower in Chicago, they’ll dutifully obey because, well, 17 year olds always do as they’re told.    I suspect most 17 year olds would say, “look, dad, terrorism is your bag, you go blow it up, I’ve got a hot date tonight.”

In Colorado a former Republican running for governor as an independent because the GOP is too “soft” on immigration once said if there is another terror act we should “bomb Mecca.”  Tancredo’s logic illustrates the core fault in this xenophobic surge.  The idea that these people are fundamentally different than us is just wrong.  Humans are humans.   There are cultural, religious, and physical differences.   But there is nothing essentially bad about a Muslim (indeed, most of the 1.5 billion lead virtuous lives) or an Arab.

Many who want to “make the border secure” (but at what cost?) argue that they simply want to stop illegal activity, and that securing the border is essential to a country’s stability.   They have a point.   Illegal immigration is not a good thing.  And many who are concerned are doing so with no dislike of Mexicans; many Mexican immigrants here legally worry that illegal immigration is hurting both the US and their status.   Yet the rhetoric employed by people like Gohmert, Palin, and Gingrich goes for the gut, not the head.   The natives are restless, they sense, and afraid.

The economy is in the dumps, there is a black President with a strange name, and the America of the 1980s seems to have morphed into a strange place, where gays marry, we’re dependent on China to fund our debt, and demographic change means that the standard white American family will soon be a numerical minority (albeit one with most of the wealth and power).    Add to that the fact that middle class whites have seen their status and wealth go down in very real terms.   Across the board the middle class has suffered in the last thirty years as wealth has expanded at the upper levels.    Those at the top play a nice game of distraction, “it’s those poor people taking welfare that take your tax dollars, we’re just investing and creating jobs.”

So when firebrands say all mosques are potential terror grounds and Muslims thus do not have first amendment rights (the guy who said that is sponsoring an event which will be attended by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin), babies are called dehumanizing terms like “anchors” and bizarre terror plots involving babies designed to turn into monsters after being welcomed  in our midsts, this emotive rhetoric lands on fertile ground among some parts of the population.

Yet for all the hype and hollering, this will fade.   Demographically it’s mostly older whites who support such groups, and it’s a minority of those.  The country is changing; even with the economic doldrums, this is a country which elected Barack Hussein Obama, has seen a steady increase in support for gay marriage, and retains a strong belief in the constitution.   The Republicans who sense danger in embracing these firebrands are right — this is a group acting out of fear against change they can’t hold back.   Ultimately, the GOP can no more be seen with these reactionaries than Democrats want to be seen with socialist activists.   In fact, Republican gains in the 2010 election are likely to be smaller because of such movements — if the GOP put forth a pragmatic, rational, alternative without demonizing the left, they’d win big.  The public wants cooperation and problem solving, not zealotry.

Perhaps Gohmert’s bizarre theory represents the point in which the xenophobes went too far, and we’ll move towards a compromise between those really concerned primarily about the importance of border protection and controlling immigration and those wanting a system that humanely deals with the millions lured over here with a wink and nod when we needed the labor.  The natives may be restless, hopefully most of us are not stupid.

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Time for Immigration Reform

Immigration is an issue sure to appeal to the most xenophobic, racist and jingoistic impulses in American politics.   Even relatively progressive people harbor some sense that those “Mexicans” are “different,” and thus react strongly against the idea of immigration reform that either makes it easier to move to the US, or for those here illegally to gain citizenship.

To be sure, there are legitimate issues on both sides of the debate.  Many legal immigrants resent the idea that others can come illegally and gain what they worked hard for.  Others are genuinely concerned about the economic impact, rule of law, or other issues which immigration reform may seem to threaten.   Those in favor recognize that there are 12 million illegal immigrants here, and there are no resources to enforce bans against them working under the table or living in the US.   The only way to fix the system is to accept this reality, and find a workable plan for the future.

To me, the issue is more profound.  America is changing.   The demographic profile of the country is shifting.  In not too long whites will constitute less than 50% of the population, and the “European” nature of American identity, already weakened, will be hard to maintain.  Moreover, this change is inevitable and can be a source for future strength of American ideals, even as those ideals continue their evolution.

Fox News’s John Gibson made headlines when he told people — white people — to make more babies (here’s the clip).   The threat he sees is that Hispanics might become the majority population in America, and Europe might become “Eurabia”.    To be fair, he tries to soften it at the end by saying “Hispanics can’t carry the whole load,” suggesting that we’re in this together, but the general feel of the piece is that there is a fear that western civilization is about to give way to the ‘darkies’ – Arabs, Hispanics, blacks, whatever.

Those fearing immigration often compare the US to the Roman Empire, noting how the Romans allowed “barbarians” to settle on Roman lands.   These Visigoths, Vandals, Huns and Ostrogoths adapted to Roman ways in order to prosper, but ultimately overthrew the empire and sacked Rome.   They see a parallel to how Mexicans are welcomed into the US, and fear we’ll become Mexamerica.

That comparison — and fear — is wrong on a number of counts.  First, in Rome the “barbarians” had been living in Rome for centuries, serving the Empire well, before Rome collapsed.  Rome’s collapse was not due to barbarian immigration but stagnation of their society.   It was a slow, steady decline, with no clear end point.  Even the popular 476 date, marking the end of the reign of Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the western empire, is misleading.  The new ruler simply became King of that region, and life went on pretty much as it had.  Alaric, the Visigoth who sacked Rome in 410 had been an officer in the Roman legions.   The problem did not stem from the “barbarians” wanting to overthrow the empire, but the steady decline of the empire.

And if you want to make the comparison, the best one is found in Cullen Murphy’s book Are We Rome.   Our country and economy has given way to foreign capital.   Our debt and trade deficits depend on it.  If China or other  countries wanted, they could drive us into hyperinflation by refusing to finance, or in fact trying to cash in our debt.  The dollar would collapse, and then they could buy up our businesses and industries at cut rate prices.    If this happens slowly, over decades, we’ll gradually see increased foreign control over American business, and less sovereignty in terms of economic and foreign policies.   This would be the equivalent of the barbarians occupying Rome — foreign concerns controlling the American economy.  The cause wouldn’t be Chinese “barbarism,” but rather American decadence, greediness and poor judgment.    That is a better comparison with Rome than fear of Mexicans!

This phobia about Mexicans is also irrational given America’s past.   In 1790 nearly half of the country was of English descent, with about 20% more from Africa, mostly slaves.   About 15% were Irish, Scottish or Welsh.   Now the largest ethnic group is German, with 15.2%.   African Americans are about 13%, with the Irish about 11%.   The English, Welsh and Scots make up less than 10%.  Waves of immigration altered the country from being an extension of Great Britian to become a mix of groups.  Mexicans make up 8%, the fifth largest ethnic group in the US.   Hispanics (non-Mexicans) make up about 4% more.

In short, the US is not defined by ethnicity.   Nobody doubted General Richard Sanchez claim to be a true American general, or Colin Powell’s credentials.   A core of loons tried to question whether or not Barack Obama was a true American with stories that he was born in Kenya or had Indonesian citizenship, but they were laughed off.   Simply, America’s identity is not defined by ethnicity, but by core values.

The anti-immigrants know this.  They self-righteously (some honestly, some simply to avoid political incorrectness) talk about ‘rule of law’ and not rewarding illegal behavior.   Yet, of course, it was the rewarding of illegal behavior that brought this problem here.  We sustained an economic boom in the 90s on the backs of mostly Mexican immigrants, a large percentage coming illegally.  They were given jobs.  We needed their labor.  We benefited.  And now, as this becomes unsustainable over the long run due to the sheer numbers involved, we want to declare them the criminals, and pretend to be victims of some foreign invasion.   Thank you for your cheap labor that we lured you over here to provide, now we’ll return the favor by locking you up, destroying your lives, breaking up your families, and demonizing you as criminals.   Hypocrisy on parade yet again!

Another self-righteous argument is fear of terrorism.  But there are so many ways would be terrorists can enter the country that this is a fallacious argument.   Granting a path to citizenship to those already here in no way increases terror threats, after all!  And drug trade and the drug wars on the Mexican border?  Well, that is a problem Mexico has thanks to the fact Americans are so willing to large amounts for illegal drugs.  Either we need to clean up our act and stop demanding illegal substances, or we need to legalize them and regulate trade.

So let’s put  aside the racism, xenophobia, or fantasies that the US is a country defined by European heritage.  True, the “West” emerged from Europe — from the Roman Empire in fact — and we represent “western civilization.”   It’s a civilization we’ve tried to force on others through armed conflict, trying to spread ‘democracy and markets’ to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.   That hasn’t worked.  Perhaps the best way for the West to thrive is simply to stay open to others, and make it clear that the “West” is a set of ideas and principles, not defined by ethnic background or even economic development.

Now is the time for real immigration reform, recognizing the reality of shared interests between the US and Mexico, the need to give those who have been living here a path to citizenship, and a workable system of allowing work permits and immigration that reduces the temptation to cross illegally.  And sure, make the borders more secure at the same time, that can’t hurt.  Frankly, given the times we’re in, we need to unify as a country and not risk ethnic divisions that contradict our core values.