In the midst of Democratic victories on Tuesday, a series of anti-immigrant initiatives passed. In Arizona, voters defeated the worst anti-immigrant hardliners, such as Minuteman Randy Graf who got “thumped” in the 8th district. But voters overwhelmingly approved (by nearly 3-1 margins) Propositions 100, 102, 103 and 300. These initiatives deny some immigrants the right to bail, punitive damages and state child-care and adult education programs. Prop. 103 establishes English as the official language of Arizona. Que paso en Arizona?
It seems voters rejected anti-immigrant vitriol when it spewed from the mouths of candidates, but when that same rhetoric came in the faceless form of citizen’s initiatives that mixed fiscal austerity with xenophobia — voters swallowed the bait. Why should your tax dollars go to services for illegal immigrants? This was the message that anti-immigrant forces took to Arizonans. It was classic Lou Dobbs, class vs. race, and it worked.
The apparent appeal of this message is what makes me nervous about the rising blue tide of economic populism in the Democratic Party. Raising the minimum wage and beating back the worst of free-market capitalism are all good things, of course. But Democrats have a long history of pandering to white, working-class “Reagan Democrats” while cutting and running on racial minorities. Most recently, a raft of Democrats voted to build a fence along the US-Mexico border, including Prez. hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It was a do-nothing, symbolic vote, but it doesn’t bode well for what will happen next on the “common ground” Bush and Dems hope to find on immigration issues. As Roberto Lovato points out, “The crop of House and Senate members-elect includes many Democrats whose positions on immigration hardly differ from the ‘border first’ Republicans they ousted.”
As a matter of long-term strategy, running tough on immigration is a fool’s game. Swiftly and surely the country is becoming majority minority — some big states (California, Texas) are already there. In this last election, 70% of Latinos voted Democrat — up from 53% in 2004 — but this switch was largely a backlash against Republicans, not the product of genuine base-building by Democrats. Dems can keep hoping that Republicans implode on this front, or they can offer up a real alternative.
No one represents the failed strategy of immigrant-baiting more than Tennessee’s Harold Ford. Formerly a moderate on immigration issues, Ford shifted his votes and talk in a craven effort to appeal to nativist sentiment in his home state. In an ad attacking his Republican opponent for hiring illegal immigrants, Ford declared, “We’ve got to get tough on illegals.” (As both a matter of grammar and politics, I find this line repugnant. Acts are illegal. When people themselves are made “illegal” — as in anti-immigrant initiatives or the torture bill — the law becomes a dehumanizing instrument.) In the end, Ford was the victim of race-baiting ads himself, an irony that is probably lost on him.
Ford ran and lost as the anti-Rainbow Coalition candidate, a black man who disparaged his brown brothers and sisters. Now there’s rampant speculation that he’ll be drafted to replace Howard Dean as DNC chair. All of which begs the question — Whither the rainbow in the blue wave?