Political Rhetoric 101: More on Crafting An Immigration Position

The other day, I offered a "new" Democratic immigration proposal, which may be summarized by the following quote:

We need to outlaw employment discrimination as it relates to illegal immigrants. Obviously, discrimination in hiring isn’t the problem. In fact, it’s the opposite problem — fueled by the real discrimination, namely, discrimination in wages and working conditions. You see, a NAFTA refugee is over a barrel — just the way the cheap labor conservatives want it. You can pay him less than minimum wage, deny him overtime pay, deny him any benefits, keep him from joining a union or participating in an organization effort, and generally exploit him nine ways to Sunday. Why? How is he going to complain about it? He can’t report the problem to the government. He’s hiding from them.

This proposal generated some useful discussion, providing me with an opportunity to elaborate a little bit on the meta-topic of how you go about crafting an effective position. The points raised in that discussion serve as excellent examples of the pitfalls of crafting a position — especially since the topic of immigration is a particularly dangerous minefield in the upcoming elections. Below the fold, I sort out the various arguments, in order to elaborate on the kind of strategic and tactical thinking that must go into creating a viable position.

Let’s start with the simple and obvious progressive position — which in this case, also happens to be Dubya’s position. Shergold summarizes it as follows:

Amnesty is what distinguishes liberal from conservative solutions to illegal immigrant, and it is the perspective that demonstrates our progressive-liberal values, something we have been afraid to assert in this climate of self-interest perpetuated by right wing conservatives.

In that thread, I did not overtly disagree with Shergold for a very simple reason. Strictly looking at the policy, I don’t necessarily disagree. Amnesty solves a really big problem. It eliminates the "outlaw" status of NAFTA refugees — note the framing, instead of "illegal immigrants." That outlaw status is what makes them fit subjects for rank exploitation. In other words, their status as outlaws is what drives their competition — assuming that such exists — with American workers. "Illegals" work cheaper, because they have no way to complain about violations of laws designed to protect them. When they’re no longer outlaws, that downward pressure on their wages and living standards is removed — restoring competitive balance with American workers.

Take note that "amnesty" has at least some theoretical appeal for American blue collar workers. "They’re taking your job, precisely because their ‘illegal’ status forces them to accept substandard wages — outcompeting you." The problem is that xenophobia has already sunk in, such that the shock of even hearing the word "amnesty" guarantees you’ll never get heard. One reaon for this is because the economic argument — "taking our jobs" — is just part of the picture. A major part of this discussion is a not-too-subtle appeal to bigotry — which is the whole reason the issue has been raised.

It’s another Republican boogieman serving, as always, the Republican cheap labor agenda. Gin up some fear of "furriners," who — horror of horrors — speak Spanish, and use that fear to keep those NAFTA refugees more easily exploitable. In this way, blue collar xenophobia is used to keep the very conditions in place that drive the economic competition. The proof that this is precisely the game being played lies in the Bush adminstration’s dismal record of actually enforcing existing law regarding employment of undocumented immigrants. In two words, they don’t.

A Republican strategist once did us all the great service of explaining the boogieman strategy. Lee Atwater is supposed to have observed that elections are decided by the 20% of the electorate "who think that wrestling is real." The year he said that, 1988, we were presented with Willie Horton. Two years later, Jesse Helms won reelection using his "angry hands" commercial, where some white guy "needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority." The domonization of Clinton started in 1992, and has continued nonstop to this day. Today’s boogiemen — "terrorists," "immy-grants," and "homos" — are just the latest examples of the parade of masked villains to cross the wrestling ring of US electoral politics.

So listen up. There is no shortage of "wrestling is real" voters, out there, and these right-wing bastards are going to continue to do what works. They have no shame. They have no conscience. They want the power, and they will use villains straight out professional wrestling to get it. Period. They can’t be bargained with, they can’t be reasoned with, they can’t be shamed, and they can’t be moved by appeals to their "better angels." You’ve got to beat them — which means you’ve got to figure out how to stop them from turning YOU into one of those masked villains.

If you advocate "amnesty" — I don’t care how good an idea it is — you are playing right into their hands. Period. Say "amnesty" and you LOSE. It’s that simple. Busby said "amnesty," and she lost. Her race was a preview of things to come. The immigration issue is "masked villain" politics, which is why it was THE issue Bilbray won using. THEY ARE GOING TO DO IT, AGAIN. If you don’t want to wake up November 7 saying, "I just can’t believe we lost" — like we did in 2004, and 2002, and 2000 — you’d best start figuring out how to defeat the "wrestling is real" strategy. Because until you figure out how to defeat it, you will continue to face it. Period.

At this point, we need to plumb the depths of "anti-immigration" hysteria, and the way Republicans are exploiting it. First of all, learn rule one of elective politics. What YOU think doesn’t mean JACK SHIT. Stop being a consumer of opinion. What counts is what a majority of voters think — most of whom don’t share your values, your priorities, or your belief system. You absolutely must start imagining how things look to PEOPLE WHO DON’T THINK LIKE YOU. Sure, everybody should think just like you. But they don’t. And they’re not going to start. Ever. Get over it.

While we’re at it, learn about the existence of a really neat phenomenon that makes being effective a whole lot easier. You see, there is this thing called "time." Things change over time — especially with agents working to change them. So while everybody doesn’t think like you, over time, a few might be persuaded to move your way. They’re not going to do it all at once, overnight, but over a few years — with a concerted, well designed campaign — you might reach the point where you can take a more straightforward approach to your issues. We’re not there yet. By a mile. Get over it.

Meanwhile, there is THIS YEAR. Which means that you have to persuade the voters in THIS ELECTION. You don’t get to run against the voters you want. You have to deal with the one’s you have — and lot of the voters you have include a lot of bigoted xenophobes who think that wrestling is real. As of this moment, the Republican party has cornered the market on those folks — as they have going all the way back to 1988. That’s why we lose. You don’t have to win all of those folks over. You just have to peel away enough of them, to give you a majority. You don’t have to come up with your own "masked villain" — though it doesn’t hurt, if you can find a genuine villain, like say, "cheap labor conservatives." All you have to do is dilute the impact of THEIR masked villain.

Here’s how you do that. The goal — simple to describe, harder to implement — is to shift the blame for the problem back to the cheap labor conservatives, where it belongs. Dave925, for example, suggests that "enforce the law" be item one on the agenda. As I said, this administration doesn’t enforce it — imposing no sanction on employers who hire NAFTA refugees. The hypocrisy is obvious. No "amnesty" for NAFTA refugees, but what amounts to amnesty for their employers. Why? So their employers can exploit them — at the expense of both American and immigrants workers. It’s standard issue "have it both ways" politics.

Is that it? Of course not. That’s just the beginning. That’s the "first of all" statement, prefacing what follows. That’s where your Democratic talking head says to Chris Matthews, "well first of all Chris, I think we can start by enforcing the laws on the books. Did you know the Bush administration has only brought two prosecutions against employers for hiring undocumented workers?" The number is actually three, and you actually WANT to be corrected. "Oh, I’m sorry, is it three," just highlights how small a number it is.

At this point, you need to start raising awareness of why the Republicans don’t prosecute anyone, and at the same time oppose amnesty — though you never allow the word "amnesty" to cross your lips. They’re profiting from the labor of NAFTA refugees, in part because those NAFTA refugees are in no position to complain about being taken advantage of. Let’s go back to our talking head. "The thing people need to remember Chris, is that there are two victims when employers take unfair advantage of NAFTA refugees. The first victim of course, are the American workers who can’t compete with workers forced to work cheap because they are essentially ‘outlaws.’" Notice that the "first" victim is Americans. "And of course, those NAFTA refugees themselves are denied basic protections like the minimum wage, overtime pay, and any sort of benefits." Thus do we start to build a little solidarity between American blue collar workers and their Mexican brethren.

Will that sense of solidarity be aroused in every blue collar American? Probably not. But we don’t need them all. We just need enough to counterbalance the "bigot vote." This plants a seed, by the way, for your average blue collar American to soften his stance on "amnesty" — which word we still aren’t saying out loud. It seems that being hardassed toward Mexicans, actually undercuts his own position in the job market. And remember, the "hardassed" Republicans, are not terribly hardassed, when it comes to the employer who hires NAFTA refugees over Americans.

Now that the table’s set, announce your plan. "Our plan Chris, solves both problems. It takes the enforcement decision away from the Republicans in the White House, by creating a new category of discrimination in the EEOC. By outlawing employment discrimination based on immigration status, we empower American workers themselves to enforce our basic workplace protections. Both NAFTA refugees and American workers are empowered under these provisions to bring a complaint against any employer who takes unfair advantage of either."

Did I ever say the word "amnesty?" Why no, I didn’t. Am I for it, or against it? I don’t believe I said. One thing I’m definitely against is exploitation by unscrupulous employers — which wins me votes from both immigrant voters, and their native fellow workers. As for "amnesty," that can wait. You see, once this framing sinks in — employers are playing both sides against each other — opposition to amnesty will soften. Eventually, a Democratic President and/or Congress will be able to slip it through quietly — if that’s what they want to do.

This is how you reseize the initiative. We’re not just complaining about their failures. We’re putting our own plan on the table. That plan "protects American workers," and highlights the failure of the Republicans to protect them at the same time. It pushes ammesty to the sidelines, but does so in such a way that we never actually oppose it. Meanwhile it overtly gives something to NAFTA refugees short of actual "amnesty" — throwing a bone to legal immigrant voters. In short, it offers something to NAFTA refugees now, and leaves the door open for amnesty later.

That my friends, is how you negotiate a minefield.

Crossposted at Daily Kos.

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