Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Losing the war of words

Last week when speaking on the immigration, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that "For the American people, and therefore all of us, it's emerged as the third rail of American politics, and anyone who doesn't realize that isn't with the American people."

For many in the migrant-rights movement these words mark a crucial turning point. As a leading voice in the DLC/centrist wing of the Democratic Party, Emanuel's comments telegraph a message that in order to further cement an almost guaranteed Democratic victory next November, the Democratic establishment is more than willing to pander to the right and throw immigrants under the bus.

Today, Democracy Corps, the Democratic centrist think tank published a full statement on their recommendations for handling the immigration issue going forward. Needless to say the group founded by James Carville, Robert Shrum and Stanley Greenberg, not only echoes Emanuel's sentiments, but expands upon them.

Having completed their polling and focus groups, they found that much of the misinformation and propaganda propagated by the Right over the last two years has found its place in popular opinion, particularly with those who identify as the all important independent swing-voters.

Although admitting that many of these opinions are "improbable" beliefs, and "impressions (that) conflict with the facts", these Democratic strategists advise that candidates take positions that pander to them.

As much as this says about the cynical and self-serving nature of the Democratic centrists, it also speaks volumes to our own inability to control this debate. We, as advocates for migrant-rights and meaningful reform of our immigration system, have allowed two years of a constant barrage of lies, distortions, misinformation and bigotry, to essentially go unchecked.

Where is our counter to Lou Dobbs, who daily spouts out "facts" that have little basis in fact? Where is our FAIR or Center for Immigration Studies, who publish reams of dubious research and studies to further their cause? Where are all our talking-heads to fan out across the airwaves to counter right-wing spin? ….all these things don't exist, and as such the American people have been fed a daily dose of xenophobia and misinformation for over two years now. And now we ask, "How come we're losing this battle for hearts and minds"

According to polling sponsored by Democracy Corps, pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner found that Democratic voters are most concerned about war and health care … but for independents it was "illegal immigration" and dependence on foreign oil.

For Democratic voters, being bogged down and spending billions in Iraq is the top issue (38 percent), followed closely by leaders having done nothing about health care (34 percent) and the loss of American jobs to China and India (29 percent).

For independents, the top issue underlying the discontent is ‘our borders’ having been ‘left unprotected and illegal immigration’ growing – cited by 40 percent, with no other issue a close second. The second most mentioned issue is ‘America doing nothing about our dependence on foreign oil and about global warming’ (31 percent).

Democrats: Finding Their Voices As Agents Of Change, Democracy Corps, Stan Greenberg ,Al Quinlan, and James Carville

And it is these independents that the strategists are most concerned with. Willingly pandering to their greatest fears and misconceptions.

Immigration and Welfare Reform

Critical to the success of the ‘New Democrats’ in 1992 was Bill Clinton’s pledge in his presidential announcement a year earlier to “end welfare as we know it.” It featured centrally in his campaign…

The centrality of illegal immigration to the current discontent about the direction of the country may be taking us back again to a welfare moment. Just as many workers with moderate incomes, uncertain employment and health insurance could not understand why they were being taxed to subsidize the long-term idleness of those on welfare, many Americans are just perplexed that this country has lost control of the borders and winks at illegal employment, taxing the resources of local schools and hospitals and much more. Many of the voter responses to welfare were racist to be sure, as now with the response to illegal immigration, but many are not.

How can George Bush, they ask have us on a “terror alert,” and yet he is “not really interested in doing anything about a barrier between Mexico and the United States”? “Isn’t it amazing?” “We’re under a big threat, but he won’t do anything about the borders.” Voters think this is just a first responsibility of leaders who are supposed to be protecting the country. Based on their votes on ‘homeland security,’ ports and the 9-11 Commission, Democrats agree with that first principle.

How can we be paying out government benefits and all this money when we are so financially strapped? Here, responses range from just sheer amount of money the country is paying for their support – “it taxes everything … twenty fold” – to the improbable belief that many are on welfare or food stamps and induced to say here. Some of these impressions conflict with the facts, but many speak concretely about hospitals that can’t deny health care and schools that must cope with the children and special language needs. For others it is more basic: “I’m self-employed “and couldn’t afford health insurance for a year. “We can’t afford to do anything because we’re paying for health insurance. They just go in and get it free.” The discussion of benefits leads to some pretty ugly responses, “Send the people back that don’t have [papers]. Our country has been too kind. I’m sorry.”

And with all the problems with jobs and the economy, how can you give over sectors of the American economy? Some do say that “tons of illegal immigrants in this country” are “doing a lot of jobs that nobody else wants to do.” But that is almost always contested in the groups: “I got boys that can’t find jobs, and I know high school kids that can’t find jobs because” the immigrants are willing to work many more hours for less. “Where is our jobs program for kids in [town] to dig those things out?” They think, not implausibly in some cases, “Let’s get control of what’s coming in and then there are jobs for our people.” With underlying worries about being forced to work at Wal-Mart, they think the illegal immigrants who work hard and for less “are driving the service industry out of our country.”

The voters most angry about the issue are those with a high school education, African Americans and those in rural areas, both black and white. This is also the top frustration for voters who want to vote Democratic for president but hold back from supporting our leading candidates. For all these target groups, their second frustration is ‘losing American jobs to China and India’ – part of a more general and poignant critique, why are our country’s business and political leaders not standing up for American workers and employees and more broadly, America.

Voters want control of the borders and workplace and recreating an immigration system that works and oppose driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants – positions supported by about two-thirds of the country. For them, that is the starting point, the common sense of the issue. If political leaders do not start there, they are not likely to be heard on other steps. But it is possible to build on those points to a progressive direction and comprehensive reform because people hold other views related to the issue.

• Many people talk about the impracticality of expelling the current ‘illegals’ and indeed, their importance to the economy: “The thing is that you can’t necessarily ship all of them out of here.”

• Despite comments about welfare and benefits, most talk about the immigrants as workers, indeed, hard workers with good values. They talk about business owners who describe them as “the hardest workers that my brothers have hired.” One woman in Colorado observed, “I had that honor, and I will actually say, it’s an honor because these people outworked every American citizen at this sweatshop that I worked at, except me.”

• Some recognize that you have to help the children: “The children shouldn’t have to suffer.”

• People are looking for a system not that excludes immigrants but regularizes the system to put people on a lawful basis. Instead of wasting money building a fence – “It’s just stupid. If we had a reasonable immigration policy we wouldn’t have the illegal immigration problem.” Others recognize the economy needs them but “we need some system in place” to make sure we are dealing with lawful people, not terrorists. While opposed to the impact on the service industry, one woman acknowledges: “People that come to this country have the right to come for a better life.” A majority of the country – unlike many in the world – believe legal immigration is positive for the country.

When we tested a comprehensive proposal in a bi-partisan poll for NPR, we got (44) percent support for a plan to increase enforcement on the borders and work place and deny most government benefits but recognizing we cannot expel 12 million, creates a path for citizenship for the law abiding – a big change in status with opportunities for fuller integration into America. That is likely a presidential issue that could gain further support with public debate. When we tested a plan earlier without the reassurance on benefits, the plan got only 39 percent, suggesting how challenging this issue will be for ordinary candidates without the full platform available at a presidential level. Even with the reassurance on control and benefits, 40 percent
of Democrats and a majority of African Americans favored the tougher Republican alternative that provided no path to legalization. This is a real wedge issue that Democrats need to get right.

But Democrats can get this right – genuinely attacking Bush for losing control of immigration, specifically, failing to manage the borders and no longer enforcing laws at the workplace. Democrats favor greater control and enforcement at the borders and restored penalties on employers for employing illegal workers. They would deny most government benefits, which is current law in almost all cases. Recognizing we can’t expel 12 million workers, Democrats accept some kind of legal status for those who are working, pay taxes
And are law-abiding – putting our values at the heart of the reforms that will further open up our society.

Voters are determined to vote for change and they want leaders who will work for the middle class, putting the interests of the public and country first, after the Bush years when leaders did not see the average person, when greed of executives and the self-interest of politicians determined our unfortunate course. That is the framework for Democrats to articulate their critique and progressive vision. The country wants to vote for change.

As anyone even vaguely familiar with the studies and research on immigration and its effects on both the economy and society can see, most of the "concerns" voiced in the focus groups are based upon misinformation and in some cases ignorance. From "welfare" and taxes to health costs and job loss, most if not all the opinions voiced by the focus group subjects were either blatantly false, or badly misinformed. But that really doesn't matter. People believe what they hear, and when they hear these "facts" spouted off day after day they become as good as real. It's the "big lie" theory of propaganda played out daily by right-wing politicians and their media allies.

As long as we, as immigration reform advocates, continue to fail at the crucial mission of shaping public opinion, we will continue to open the door for the kind of deception and self-serving pandering we now see coming from the DLC Democrats. We can rile against them all we want on matters of principle, but we know we are fooling ourselves if we actually believe that politics is currently moved by principle. It's moved by opportunity and power. And until we harness our own power to move this debate in a more positive direction we will continue to face defeat in the realm of public opinion, and with that abandonment by those who should be our allies.

There is one other important factor that needs to be taken into account when discussing the Democratic abandonment of meaningful immigration policy. Study after study shows that the Latino population will become the most important electoral demographic within the next few years. In states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Colorado, and Florida they may hold the key to 2008 victory.

But this power also seems to be going untapped. With the vicious Republican attacks on immigration issues, common wisdom has it that the Democratic Party will naturally be the beneficiaries of the Latino abandonment of that party. But should Latinos accept the DLC version of "Republican- lite" immigration policies? If this move to the right by the Democrats goes unchecked, what option does that leave? Latinos, and all other groups that contain large immigrant populations, need to come together and send a strong message that they will not be taken for granted. Their votes will not be won so cheaply. The Rahm Emanuels and James Carvilles of the world need to know that they should not be so quick to paint red states blue if in fact they expound views that are no different from their red state opponents.

We need to start to fight more effectively, we need to start to harness our power and direct it at countering the years of lies and propaganda promoted by the Republican Right. We need to let our Democratic "friends" know that they must hold true to the principles of equality, justice, and human-rights on which their modern party was founded …and if they fail that task…they are no better than their opponents....and should be given the same electoral consideration.


yave said...

Anything coming from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Carville should be taken with a dumptruck of salt. In a slightly different configuration, they were featured in the film "Our Brand is Crisis" applying hardknuckle (read: "devious and retarded in equal measure") political tactics in the 2003 Guatemala elections with disastrous results. Read Kos and Armstrong's "Crashing the Gate" for some reasons why Democratic consultants like these guys have as bad an effect on the U.S. as they did on Guatemala. They are unprincipled con men and would sell their grandmothers to the highest bidder.

Here's an example of one of their previous surveys that ended up approvingly quoted in a Bill Kristol Weekly Standard column:

focus groups--according to the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner--show that "attacks on Democrats for opposing any effort to stop terrorists . . . were highly effective."

They are not on the side of the angels!

Even so, I saw this immigration survey quoted by Yglesias as a credible source (though the post itself was a good one). And Josh Marshall today uncritically and casually referred to "illegals" in a post. For too many "progressive" bloggers, immigration is a dangerous issue best avoided if possible, or if absolutely necessary, addressed with some watered-down version of what restrictionists are proposing. This is almost exactly the same approach that "serious" center-left pundits/bloggers took to the GWOT and Iraq, and look where it got them.

A good rule of thumb: whatever Rahm Emanuel says, do the opposite.

Duke, your post is 100% spot on. Some thoughts for action: communicate to the wider progressive blogosphere the futility of mimicking the right on immigration. Draw parallels between the Carville-approved approaches to immigration and to Iraq. Atrios and Yglesias seem to have the right idea, but it's not a top-5 issue for either of them. Also, why not add to my wishlist a TPM-style campaign to put pressure on Democratic politicians in Latino-heavy districts. Do some of the Latino advocacy groups have a similar operation? As you've pointed out before, a blogospheric clearinghouse for pro-migrant advocates like TPM would help to focus and mobilize people to combat the misinformation coming out of so-called progressive sources.

yave said...

Oh, I'd also like to point out how the Democracy Corps study and the Teamsters video from another recent post struck me as being very similar. They both are aiming for the Dobbsian "sweet spot" of middle class, white populist voters frustrated with both parties, the legendary Reagan Democrats that everyone on the left has been trying to win back since the '80s. This approach is a massive blunder for the left. The trick is figuring how to maintain the economic populism without capitulating to nativist paranoia. I think, as evidenced by the recent discussions on NAFTA on this blog, this is easier said than done.

But the Democracy Corps and Teamsters approach is NOT the way to go.

yave said...

Bolivia, not Guatemala--doh! I know the difference, swear to god ...

I feel like the sound of one hand clapping on this thread ...

Duke1676 said...

Sorry Yave, didn't mean to leave you hanging.

Actually, one of the most interesting aspects of the paper by Democracy Corps were the parts that didn't deal with immigration, but rather the broader centrist strategy on issues. I was actually reading it as the debate was going on, and low and behold, the very words on the page were coming out of the mouths of the candidates, particularly from Hilary and Richardson and to some extent Obama. In fact at one point I was reading the section on "Oil, energy independence and global warming" as Richardson basically repeated it verbatim.

Interseting also about the paper was how much the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Carville strategy/analysis sounded like a watered down version of a Lou Dobbs rant. Outsourcing, China, Immigration and Corporate greed, all topping their list of voter concerns in focus groups.

This perhaps is the most dangerous aspect of their advice. They have set up a scenario where they are advocating adopting a right-wing-lite position on these issues - particularly on immigration. They of course claim that the American people don't truly want the harsh and punitive Dobbs/Republican solution ...and they are trying to wrap it in a different packaging ---but the public will see through this for what it is and those who actually favor Dobbs' approach won't accept it, and those who oppose it are left with no reasonable alternatives.

Unfortunately, I see the same thing in the mainstream progressive blogosphere where two general themes seem to come up:

1. It's a Republican issue and it's tearing them apart so don't touch it..let them fight it out. (many hoping for the third party run)

2. It's toxic and making any firm stance can only hurt you ..so ignore it.

Think about it, when was the last time you saw an immigration issue discussed on the front page of DKos,or MyDD. How often is it discussed outside of it's "political theater" aspects on Atrios, HuffPost, etc. There's no serious discussion of this issue in the mainstream progressive blogosphere.

Out here on the outskirts, we're all discussing it. Whether it's the feminist Blogs, POC blogs, the blogs by H1b workers, activist blogs, leftist blogs ..you name it..this issue gets discussed. But we have only a fraction of the power that the "big boyz of blogging" have. If they took it up then we might actually be able to have a "TPM-style campaign"..but thus far they are not willing to commit.

As to your question about the "blogosheric clearinghouse" (I love that term btw) ...yes we're working on it( myself and a few other pro-migrant bloggers) ...trying to organize, possibly find some funding ... hopefully we'll be able to get it together, because it's definitely needed.