Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What the Immigration Issue Says About the Modern GOP

Alex Massie, right again:

Now it's true that immigration reform is a tough subject for conservatives. True too, that when it comes to immigration there are some many on the restrictionist wing who consider Bush to be either a) a sentimentalist or b) corporate America's pawn or c) both of the above. Equally, the orthodox Republican position on immigration - border enforcement first, then reform - is not desperately unpopular. But a popular (or at least not unpopular) position is only half of the matter: you have to sell it well too. And on a subject as contentious as immigration, that requires a degree of tact and sophistication that, by and large, seems alien to many Congressional and grass-roots Republicans.


So it isn't just that legal Hispanic immigrants might be turned off by the GOP's language on immigration, so too are educated, upscale white voters who don't like the idea of endorsing a party that gives the impression, unwittingly or not, of being hostile to immigration. The GOP's posture on immigration fosters the impression, fairly or not, that they're the "nasty party". As far as political branding goes, that's a toxic position for any party to find itself in.

And this is the real problem the GOP faces, and which we've been discussing over the last several weeks. The biggest problem with the party's current situation (i.e., the problem of "talk radio dogmatism") isn't its position on the issues - it's the downright meanness upon which it insists to push those positions.

As I wrote during my stint subbing for John Schwenkler, it's terribly difficult to persuade people to vote for a party or even support its policies (regardless of whether they agree with those policies in principle) when:

  • That party’s guiding lights, rather than make principled arguments for various "anti-terrorism" policies, insist on labeling your religion as "Islamofascism";
  • Rather than make principled arguments for stronger restrictions on immigration, you and your family are portrayed as foreign invaders seeking to destroy the country from within because of the Mexican flag hanging on your balcony - even as nothing is said about the Italian or Irish flag hanging on your neighbor’s balcony
  • Rather than make principled arguments against gay marriage, you are accused of wanting to destroy your country’s traditions because you want legal recognition of your relationship.
  • Those same guiding lights proudly promote, rather than simply defend, the use of words and phrases with a well-known role in oppressing you or your ancestors.
  • Rather than make principled arguments against an auto bailout, you and your friends are accused of bleeding the American people dry
  • Rather than make principled arguments for the use of force and/or for restrictions on civil liberties, you are accused of being a "Defeatocrat" or wanting to "let the terrorists win."
The reason this meanness comes about is that the party has lost sight of the principles that gave rise to its policy preferences in the first place, principles that came from a number of different strains of political thought. Far from being a sort of "master conservatism," the resulting set of litmus test policy preferences thus lacks a coherent ideological basis in any cognizable form of conservatism.

And when a party loses sight of underlying principles, the only way to maintain party unity is to scare its constituents into loyalty, turning every issue into "Us vs. Them." While this can work in the short-term, it must inevitably result in unprecedented discord as once-loyal coalition members become fed up with consistently being called one of "Them." Case in point - see Weigel on Malkin on Voinovich. And that says nothing about the effects it has on ensuring you don't make inroads into the other coalition's constituencies.

H/T: Conor Friedersdorf.

Cross-posted at Donklephant.