US Republicans should not give up on immigrants

Post by John Lee (regular blogger for the site, joined October 2012). See:

Bryan Caplan at EconLog recently pondered why it is that Asians in the US lean Democratic. I suggested in the comments of Bryan’s post that his view — that Asians don’t feel Republicans respect them — seems right, at least to me. I met Bryan for lunch recently, where the topic came up again, and co-blogger Vipul has urged me to elaborate on the subject here.

The important question here, from an open borders standpoint, is how far do immigrants holding undesirable political opinions justify restrictions on their liberty. Secondarily, whether or not undesirable opinions justify immigration restrictions, how much of an actual concern is this for natives, such as political activists hoping to win the votes of immigrants? Specifically, in the US context, is it worthwhile for Republicans to become more “immigrant-friendly”?

We’ve addressed the first question — do undesirable opinions justify immigration restrictions — a fair bit on this site, and we’ll return to it in the future. But for the second, with regard to the US context, my answer is: if Republicans toned down their rhetoric on immigration, and more generally, embraced a less fundamentally white vision of America, they would be much more competitive than they are now.

Bryan’s question about Asian-Americans particularly is interesting because the Republicans quite concretely favour more Asian (high-skilled) immigration, and back policies, such as extension of the H1-B visa, that promote Asian immigration. One hypothesis is that Asian immigrants, who are very well-educated on average, disdain the Republican party’s seeming anti-intellectual/anti-science bent. This seem plausible to me, but I think it’s overlooking the even simpler explanation that Asians feel Republicans don’t fundamentally see them as part of America.

At this point Republicans are up in arms, protesting that they’re not racist. I agree, most Republicans aren’t. I think even Republicans who say insensitive things probably don’t actually harbour much, if any, meaningful prejudice towards the people they’ve insulted (unintentionally in some cases). But the difference between Republicans and Democrats, I think, is not that one group is necessarily less prejudiced than the other. You can be perfectly unprejudiced towards somebody and still see that person as outside your fundamental community or constituency. That, I daresay, is the Republicans’ problem.

It’s difficult to vote for someone whom you believe doesn’t see you as part of their constituency or community. Even if you understand they don’t dislike you on a personal level, that’s a far cry from embracing you and your community as someone to serve, as someone whose interests they care about. In the comments on Bryan’s post, I referred others to this fantastic piece by Muslim baseball blogger Rany Jazyerli, one that starts:

Almost before I knew that I was an American, and almost before I knew that I was a Muslim, I knew that I was a Republican.

It ends:

I look forward to the day, hopefully in the near future, when I once again vote for a Republican candidate… But first, the Republicans have to stop insinuating that I’m alien to this nation. They have to stop implying that I support terrorists. They have to stop accusing me of being anti-American. And they need to denounce anyone in their ranks who does those things. That, I’m afraid, is not negotiable.

Read the whole thing. Rany’s story may be specific to the Muslim community, but to me personally, I think it’s also the story of why Asian and Latino support for the GOP is at pretty much an all-time low. The Asian vote flipped from 48% for Bob Dole in 1996 (versus 43% for Bill Clinton) to 73% for Barack Obama in 2012. Rany cites research by CAIR (a Muslim activist group) which found that Muslim support flipped from 70% for George W. Bush in 2000 to 4% for Mitt Romney in 2012.

Over lunch, Bryan Caplan mentioned that his father’s vision of America includes people like me — people who, as Bryan put it, “dress normally, don’t wear ethnic dress, work at a bank, fit into white society”. The senior Caplan’s vision strikes me as the vision of the Republican party as well. If that’s how you see the US, then of course it’s fine to be suspicious of Muslims’ and other minorities’ loyalties to the US. Of course it’s fine to suspect the sincerity of Barack Obama’s or Nikki Haley’s religious beliefs, and of course it’s fine to joke about them being “ragheads”. Of course it’s fine to make fun of the names these weird people give their children, just as former Virginia governor George “Macaca, or whatever his name is” Allen did.

Republicans at this point rightly retort that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden make their fair share of racial gaffes too. But I have a hard time believing that a poorly-timed joke about Gandhi segueing directly into lofty praise for the man is at all comparable to calling someone a raghead, or making fun of someone’s culture or name. If the best defence Republicans can muster is that “Democrats are racist too,” that hardly debunks the case that Republicans should be doing more to reach out to immigrant ethnic groups. If anything, it means Republicans could easily stop making insensitive comments and clearly differentiate themselves from Democrats in this regard.

Just compare and contrast the entrenched “give no ground; show no quarter” approach to dealing with Latino-Americans and other immigrants that a current strand of Republican thinking espouses with the approach George W. Bush promoted when he ran for governor of Texas:

Bush has pointedly refused to sign on to his party’s immigrant-bashing agenda. He opposed Wilson over Proposition 187, which withdrew health and public education benefits from illegal immigrants and their children in California.

He’s a strong supporter of Mexico, and he says his warm relations with that country’s leaders have helped him with Hispanic voters. “I’ve talked to a lot of friends who’ll go down to Mexico and they’ll come back and say, ‘God, Bush, you’re really popular in Mexico City,’ ” he says.

Bush gives qualified support to bilingual education, which Wilson and Republican conservatives in Congress have attempted to outlaw. Bilingual education is fine, Bush says, as long as students can pass the state tests he is promoting.

Bush is a vocal opponent of conservative Republican efforts to make English the official language, calling that “a powerful negative message” that repels Hispanic voters.

The natural retort is “And fat lot of good that did George W.” But according to the Pew Research Center, Bush in 2000 cut the Democratic advantage with Latinos from 51 percentage points in 1996 to 27%. In 2004, he reduced it further to 18%. Simply by aggressively building a friendly image with Latinos, George W. Bush reduced the Republican vote deficit among Latinos by 2/3rds. For various reasons, Hispanics may never be a natural stronghold for Republicans, but that doesn’t mean Barack Obama’s mind-blowing 71% of the Hispanic vote in 2012 is the historical norm.

I am not sure if Republicans should hope to return to the halcyon days when they were winning 70% of the Asian or Muslim vote. Certainly I don’t dare claim they can be extremely competitive in the race for the Hispanic vote. There are far too many other confounding issues, such as fundamental policy preferences. But at the same time, it’s difficult to say how competitive the Republicans can be with these ethnic groups when, honestly, George W. Bush aside, they haven’t even been trying.

7 thoughts on “US Republicans should not give up on immigrants”

  1. I think you are descriptively accurate. At the same time, I differ in normative stance. I think that, in so far as you do vote, your voting decision should be influenced by concerns of the general good (which may be a suitable weighted average between Sailerite citizenism and universalism) rather than whether politicians respect you. Speaking personally, if I were to vote in an election (a big *if*), I would almost certainly put approximately zero weight to controversial remarks and maximal weight to the policies and attitudes that the politician imposed and plans to impose when in office. For instance, if judging the War on Terror, I wouldn’t necessarily view politicians who make more jingoistic noises as being actually more hawkish than polite guys like Obama. The same holds with deportation records. If I were to vote in a US election (which I can’t, and may not even if I could), I’d prefer voting for a non-deportationist who made insulting statements to an ultra-polite behind-the-scenes deportationist. In fact, I’m puzzled that you would endorse the other view normatively (even though you’re quite right about this view descriptively).

    1. I think I only alluded to my normative stance in the EconLog comments. Perhaps what I haven’t made quite clear is that I do read politicians’ “controversial remarks” as indicators of their attitudes. I find most political scandals to be tempests in a teapot, but using racially derogatory language, or making fun of other cultures, is a sign to me that when thinking about policy and in your general attitude, you don’t particularly care about people from a certain background. If push comes to shove you would be likelier to throw these groups of people “under the bus” as long as it didn’t harm the group of people whom you do see as the community or constituency you represent. (This is I think a real concern considering how much politics is about horse-trading.)

      I wholly agree that actions speak louder than words. But while soft words can mask harsh action, I think asymmetrically harsh words (especially in politics) are less likely to mask meek policy. Because of the incentives regarding appearances, if you’re going to talk the hawk talk, you will likely be forced, whether you want to or not, to walk it as well. JFK and the Cuban missile crisis come to mind. Being hawkish can be beneficial, a la Nixon going to China, but such scenarios don’t strike me as the norm.

      If we limit our focus to US immigration policy, let’s look at the hawks who ran in 2012: Barack Obama (primarily from an action standpoint, although he also stressed his hawkishness occasionally in his rhetoric), Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney. All of them embraced in their rhetoric various destructive policies (I think these folks would all reach consensus that the US should be deporting lots of immigrants, though they might disagree at the margins, e.g. the DREAM Act). The dove, in actions and in words: Rick Perry. (I am not sure where to place Newt Gingrich.) I think there’s a fairly strong correlation between actions and words. It’s tough to insult immigrants and simultaneously embrace immigration reform (though to be fair, one cannot fully rule out the suggestion that Bachmann, Cain, or Romney would have embraced reforms a la Nixon going to China if they assumed office, by trading on their hawk status).

      I am especially skeptical of placing a lot of weight on politicians’ total policy agendas because so much is prone to distortion along the way in any democracy where one must win legislative approval. It’s just as if not more useful to know what politicians would be likely to compromise in pursuing their agenda. If a politician insults a particular community, that’s a hint he or she would be likely to compromise their interests first if that opens a way forward to pursuing their broader agenda.

      Finally, as Robin Hanson would say, politics is not about policy. I view politics as primarily about aligning with a tribe; policy accomplishments are unfortunately incidental to this. This is why I am not excited about voting (although it remains superior to most other forms of government that have been tried, since at least voting gives me a choice of tribe). Voting *for* someone who indicates you’re not part of his or her tribe at best leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and at worst can harm your own interests. (Also since politicians at the pinnacle act as symbols of your country, symbolically it would be odd to elect a president or prime minister who believes they don’t represent you or your interests.)

      I don’t see insults towards my community as an automatic disqualifier for a candidate, since I don’t care much for the tribalist approach to politics. But they definitely update my Bayesian priors about how this candidate is likely to perform in office. Disparaging immigrants wouldn’t disqualify an open borders candidate automatically, but it’d make me likelier to scrutinise this candidate and lower my view of the probability that this candidate would do what he or she promises re open borders.

      1. Okay, I agree. Possibly in a libertarian “limited government” utopia and/or in a world where politicians had very little discretionary power, politicians’ personal animosities or disrespect for specific groups would not be worrisome. But in the contemporary political context, it probably should be viewed as an indicator of some sort.

        You’re also right about the asymmetry — soft words may be combined with harsh action, but harsh words are usually accompanied by at least a willingness (even if not a desire) to back those words with action.

  2. I think the most plausible hypothesis is that the Republicans believe (or “know”) that they could make more inroads into the Asian/Hispanic/Muslim vote, but they also believe that any inroads they make would involve a change in rhetorical terms that would cost them a larger share of the white vote. They’d lose a smaller proportion *of* the white vote than the proportion they gain of the minority groups, but since whites still form about 70%+ of the electorate, the law of large proportions, the absolute shift in the former could still be more.

    With continued immigration, there will probably come a point (and may be that point has already come) when Republicans would calculate that the balance has tipped — now, making inroads with immigrants and recent descendants of immigrants from the minority groups you mention is worth the small cost in the white vote share.

    There are also coordination costs. The Republican Party as a whole may benefit by the kind of shift you suggest, but individual Republicans who attempt such a shift are likely to get schooled in the primaries by their opponents who stick to catering to the white base..

    Finally, in so far as Republicans can increase their vote share but not to above 50%, it *still* makes sense for them to oppose more immigration of the groups within which their share is less than 50% (assuming that the new immigrants within the group behave similarly to or worse than those already present). So, even with no loss in the white vote base, if increasing the Hispanic vote share means having to support more immigration of Hispanics, the negative effect of the latter on Republican’s electoral prospects may well outweigh the gains in the vote share. It’s a trade-off, and which way it falls will depend on how the numbers work out. This was Peter Brimelow’s electing a new people argument.

    1. These points make sense and I agree rightfully give Republicans pause. Your last point I consider especially salient (your first point I think is probably the first one that will fall, as it seems to me that the younger generation of whites are considerably less rigid on social issues than their forebears were — already GOP orthodoxy on gay rights and probably soon drugs is collapsing as this generation begins to vote).

      The most pressing question for the GOP seems to be how to appropriately value the trade-off between pleasing the current stock of voters from immigrant backgrounds versus potential losses from admitting future immigrants. I am not sure if a full cost-benefit analysis has been done that would:

      1. Consider the impact of pro-immigrant stances on the votes of already-naturalised Americans (the Hispanics, Asians, Muslims). It’s one thing to note that flows may harm you in the long run, but there’s already a substantial stock here. You can’t drive them into the arms of the Democrats forever. Moreover, by joining the pro-immigrant movement instead of fighting them, you have power to set some terms: agree to “amnesty” and raising visa caps for instance, but in return require even more stringent rules for naturalisation for future flows of legal immigrants.

      2. Consider the full impact of fuller open borders. One way to outmanoeuvre the Democrats is to accuse them of overly pandering to Mexican immigrants’ interests, noting that there are many other people who would love to become American. Immigration reform will have to deal with the reality of Mexican-Americans already in the US and with the reality of Mexico/South America being the closest geographical countries to the US, but with so many millions more Asians and Muslims in the world, who is to say a broad pro-immigration stance would definitively harm the GOP’s electoral interests in the long run?

      3. Consider the difficulty of predicting voting patterns in the long run. In life it is extremely hard to predict things that are years out. An immigration reform that makes it easier to bring in Hispanic immigrants is no guarantee that they will be predominantly Democratic when they finally naturalise or their US-born children come of age in a few decades (one could conceivably argue that had the GOP completed the pro-Hispanic turn which Bush wanted it to, perhaps the voting gap would have narrowed even further by now). If I were a management consultant advising the GOP, I’d advise them to discount projections of future electoral losses at an appropriate rate, both due to time preference and the difficulty of projecting what people will do in a few decades. I would note the considerable upfront benefits of narrowing the voting gap with the existing stock of immigrant voters.

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