Why Democrats should go easy on the Arizona hot buttons

The Arizona law provides Democrats a potential wedge issue at the very time electoral trends seem to be running against them. Tempting, but any short-term political gain could create a longer-term problem.
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A coalition of community groups gathered in Minneapolis on April 26 to protest Arizona's immigration law.

The Arizona law provides Democrats a potential wedge issue at the very time electoral trends seem to be running against them. Tempting, but any short-term political gain could create a longer-term problem.

My article last week on the Arizona immigration law, and attendant issues, generated too many responses (for my taste) with a partisan basis. The country and Arizona are facing a genuine crisis over immigration issues, which are complex, cannot be easily characterized, and have not been adequately addressed by national policymakers.

One commenter asked why Democrats, in particular, should not use immigration as a "wedge issue" to energize Latinos in fall elections. (I had decried the exploitation of the issue by both Democrats and Republicans).

The answer is this: When elected officials and political activists see every issue as an opportunity to gain short-term partisan advantage, we become more polarized and gridlocked. Big problems become more difficult to solve. Ordinary citizens who are not partisan junkies become more alienated from the political process.

Partisan fevers are running particularly high now because Republicans hope, and Democrats fear, that a big turnover will take place this fall in U.S. Senate and House seats — perhaps enough turnover to restore Republicans to majority status in both chambers. Statewide elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts gave Republicans strong injections of hope early in 2010.

Special House elections later this month are being watched closely as signals of things to come.

Elections will be held May 11 to fill the seat of former Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.); May 18 to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.); and May 22 to replace former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). On the same day as the Pennsylvania special election, Sen. Arlen Specter and Rep. Joe Sestak will be contesting each other for the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination in that state.

Republicans have had little recent luck in special elections. They have lost nine in a row, six since President Obama's inauguration. If that trend reverses this month, it will be seen as yet another symptom of Republican momentum moving into fall campaigns.

I don't see things that way. Each of the elections has a different local component to it. And the Specter-Sestak race is complicated by the fact that, until recently, Specter was a Republican.

More meaningful, to me, are opinion surveys showing general voter satisfaction or dissatisfaction with conditions in the country and preference for one party over another. Independent voters, in particular, have been moving gradually toward the Republican and away from the Democratic Party. But the shift has not been so dramatic to rule out arresting the trend before the November elections.

That is where emotional issues such as immigration come in.

It should not surprise readers that a majority of voters, nationally, will tend to cast their votes during uncertain times for candidates and parties offering stability. On the issue of immigration, for example, a strong majority of voters will come down on the side of tough measures to assure border security. That would tend to favor Republicans.

On the other hand, the pro-security majority may not feel sufficient intensity about the issue to place it above all others in making decisions about congressional candidates. Latinos feeling threatened by the recent Arizona law, however, are quite likely to put it first in making candidate decisions. Moreover, their intensity of feeling is quite likely to generate Latino voter turnout this fall, which might otherwise be lacking.

If you are a Democrat, you may say, why should you not favor all-out efforts to inflame Latinos by whatever means?

First, there is a long run as well as a short run. In the long run, voter desire for order and security always trumps all other desires. So, while Democrats might gain votes from Latinos this fall, they likely would lose votes in the long run from non-Latino voters.

Second, exploitation of race and ethnicity in politics has a bad history, dating back to white, southern segregationist exploitation of race in the early- to mid-20th century. Race and ethnic hustlers in recent years have made a good living out of stirring black and Latino resentments in the other direction.

Power in politics no longer resides in the two major political parties but in single-issue and single-interest groups, which raise money and build support by framing issues in the most simplistic and demagogic ways. We see it now among right-wing groups who see communism, socialism, and anti-religious motives behind every Obama or Democratic policy; and among lefties who see right-wing extremism, religious extremism, racism, and fascism underlying Republican or conservative initiatives. When the emotion and noise levels are reduced, advocacy groups attract fewer adherents and less money.

Obama owed his 2008 election, in part, to the belief by a majority of voters that he intended to break with such partisanship and polarization and move toward nonpartisan problem solving. For a variety of reasons, that has not happened. But there remains a majority in the electorate who want that kind of governance.

Bottom line: For a candidate or party, rabble-rousing and manipulation of sensitive racial or ethnic issues can help win near-term elections. But, over the longer term, it can move a majority strongly in the other direction. While not as vocal as the strong partisans, moderate and independent voters hold the electoral balance of power in the United States. They react badly to demagogy from left or right.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.