take down

Why pundits are wrong on Democrats and immigration

The party hasn’t moved too far to the left — it hasn’t moved far enough.
take down

Why pundits are wrong on Democrats and immigration

The party hasn’t moved too far to the left — it hasn’t moved far enough.

Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a new column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).

What The Pundits Say

If you listened to most pundits today, you would be forgiven for believing that the Democratic party was run by a Berkeley antifa faction rather than a moderate Democrat from New York working to wrangle votes from center-right politicians. Democrats, according to the news, are obsessed with gender-neutral bathrooms, taking away everyone’s guns, and making sure that the needs of immigrants are prioritized over those of American citizens.

This last view is prominent even in centrist Democrat circles, who believe that progressive immigration policies should be the sacrificial political lamb to get the party back into power. In The Atlantic this summer, Peter Beinart asked, “What if [Clinton] had acknowledged the challenges that mass immigration brings, and then insisted that Americans could overcome those challenges by focusing not on what makes them different but on what makes them the same?” He answered his own question: “Some on the left would have howled. But I suspect that Clinton would be president today.” Beinart went on to claim that Democrats are simply out of line with public opinion, and that they’ve moved too dramatically left on immigration, thus imperiling their chances of future victories.

In New York magazine last month, Andrew Sullivan expressed a similar view. “And this is one reason why I have dwindling hopes that the Democratic Party will be able to defeat Trump in 2020. Instead of adjusting to this new reality, and listening to the electorate, the Dems have moved ever farther to the left, and are controlled by ever-radicalizing activists,” he wrote. The authors may not all agree with each other perfectly, but the conventional wisdom is that Democrats have been pulled so far to the left by the political-correctness police that they have little hope of regaining power.

Have Democrats moved too far left on immigration? Mmm, no.

Worryingly, it seems as though some in the Democratic Party have actually bought into this narrative. After being battered by racist ads tying him to MS-13, Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, condemned imaginary “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has no sanctuary cities, so it’s not quite clear why he would critique them).

Why The Pundits Are Wrong

So far, Republicans have bought into the line of thinking pushed by pundits like Beinart and Sullivan and have tried to attack Democrats with racist ads that portray Latinx people as criminals and gang members. But it’s not doing them much good. In Virginia, the “establishment” Republican Ed Gillespie is openly campaigning on anti-Latinx animus, portraying his opponent as an ally of MS-13 due to a vote on non-existent sanctuary cities). Sullivan critiqued a recent Northam-friendly ad as something that would “give your average Vox or [Ta-Nehisi] Coates reader an intersectional orgasm,” while “dooming” Northam.

However, recent early voting totals (which should be taken with a grain of salt), suggest a surge in Latinx voting in the Virginia gubernatorial election tomorrow, likely driven by the heavily racialized campaigns being run up and down the ticket (I predict that Gillespie will lose the gubernatorial election). Virginia House of Delegates candidates are following suit, with candidates Rich Anderson and Scott Lingamfelter sending out mailers attacking their Latinx opponents for supporting ID cards for undocumented folks and sanctuary cities (I predict that both men will lose their elections). In New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno, currently Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, is running race-baiting ads about “criminal illegals” that make George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad seem subtle (I predict she’s going to lose by at least 10 points).

In Henrico County, Virginia, a Republican sent out a mailer showing his opponent shaking hands with the mayor of Richmond, who is black, claiming that she was “working against our hard-working communities.” In Edison, New Jersey, racist mailers targeted two Asian candidates running for school board with the word “deport” in all caps. Despite a huge GOP investment in anti-immigrant politics, there’s no evidence that these ads are helping and, indeed, most Republicans running them are set to lose this week.

Why? Far from being driven to the extreme left because of increasing fealty to radical organizers, as Sullivan suggested, Democrats are firmly in line with public opinion and rarely stray from it. On issues like a path to citizenship and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals , Democrats have majority (or more) support for their preferred policy. Fully 60 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship, according to a CNN-ORC poll from March, but very, very few (13 percent) support mass deportation (according to the same poll). An ABC/Washington Post poll suggests high numbers (86 percent) of Americans support DACA, and a recent Harvard-Harris poll suggests a majority of Republicans do as well. Republicans can demagogue, but Democrats aren’t on the losing side of immigration.

Most Republicans running race-baiting ads are set to lose this week.

Sullivan may claim that Democrats are driving off of a cliff of leftism, but he doesn’t bother to explain why the most likely Democratic Senate candidate in both Arizona and Nevada vote relatively conservatively on immigration. Republicans can regularly garner two dozen or so House Democratic votes for draconian immigration policies. Far from bowing to activists, Schumer has openly maintained his position that border enforcement is on the table, just not in the form of a wall. Obama was no left-wing bomb thrower and continues to hedge his language when talking about DREAMers. Democrats have consistently claimed they only want to protect “good immigrants,” such those with jobs and families, rhetoric that immigration activists find distasteful. Even in deep-blue New York, a DREAM act that would allow undocumented students to receive financial aid has been repeatedly killed by centrist Democrats who ally with Republicans.

While Democrats have occupied a mostly centrist stance on immigration, Republicans have moved dramatically to the right. Beinart portrayed Hillary Clinton as a caricature of campus leftism, but according to Pew data, the majority of Americans believed that Clinton would do a better job dealing with immigration than Trump. According to Morning Consult data, voters trust Democrats and Republicans about equally on immigration. The reality is simple: Democrats aren’t out of line on public opinion.

Ignore the Pundits: Democrats Actually Need More Identity Politics

The Democratic Party has modestly moved left on immigration in the last several years, but this has not been combined with nearly enough of a commitment to bringing in Latinx consultants, centering Latinx politicians, and deep engagement with Latinx communities. Democrats must also struggle with the fact that their openness to the Latinx community follows decades of demonization. As president, Bill Clinton aggressively demonized undocumented folks, claiming undocumented people siphon public benefits and calling for doubling the rate of deportations. When he was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton, Rahm Emanuel argued that Clinton should "claim and achieve record deportations of criminal aliens." Clinton also successfully pushed for the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

Meanwhile, as both a governor and a presidential candidate, George W. Bush openly courted Latinos and pushed for immigration reform (don’t get me wrong: Bush was — and is — racist, but he’s at least politically strategic). In the 2006 midterms, Democrats like Harold Ford Jr. intentionally ran to Bush’s right on immigration. And many Latinx voters probably remember Obama’s early push to publicize deportations to build bipartisan support for immigration. This is not to say Democrats are not currently the better party for Latinx voters, simply that for a long time the partisan signals were mixed, meaning that many Latinx still swing between the two parties.

The biggest problem facing Democrats is too little identity politics, not too much. Consider the 2016 election in which Clinton picked a white man from Virginia who speaks Spanish rather than an up-and-coming Latinx politician for her ticket. Recent data on turnout from elections in California suggests that when popular Latinx were on a ticket, they bolstered Latinx turnout. But Democrats have done little to foster Latinx talent. In California, high-profile Latinx politicians have struggled to break into statewide office as the white establishment holds an iron grip on power. While Republicans have been producing high-profile Latinx talent in Florida, Democrats have run more former Republicans statewide (two people) than Latinx people (zero people). It took until 2017 for a Latina Democrat to enter the Florida State Senate.

Don’t get me wrong: George W. Bush was — and is — racist, but he’s at least politically strategic.

The idea that there aren’t any progressive Latinx in Florida because many are Cubans is absurd: the share of Latinx voters registered with each party was near parity in 2006 and Democrats overtook Republicans in 2008. The lack of political talent is a deep failure of party building. Democrats are finally beginning to solve these problems by moving a more progressive direction and working to bring diversity to the party ranks (though it’s happened too late).

Trump gives Democrats a huge opportunity. Since the election, the percent of Latinx strongly endorsing ideas of linked fate (the idea that an individual is affected to what happens to other people with the same racial identity) has increased dramatically. This suggests that Latinx voters — who for a long time have wrestled between their racial, class, and religious identities — may increasingly see their racial identity as salient. The biggest threat to Democrats isn’t that they are moving too far left on immigration, it’s that they will listen to pundits like Sullivan and Beinart and fail to invest in the Latinx electorate.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher in New York City.