DMI Blog

Dan Ancona

Getting Immigration Very, Very Wrong

There are two recent polls on immigration that, while commissioned by ostensibly-progressive groups, both read like they were commissioned by conservative groups. These polls represent an ongoing failure of leadership opn this issue. The assumptions and policy directions these polls imply would be disastrous for hard-working immigrants and the current middle class. They are also a roadmap to electoral carnage for individual candidates and any political party should it widely adopt these positions and language.

This weekend's defeat of an anti-immigrant demagogue in former Republican Speaker Denny Hastert's district illustrates the danger and opportunity here. Not all foes of a diverse society will be quite as stunningly hypocritical as the loser of this election, who managed to employ undocumented workers as he was scapegoating them for general economic woes during his last election. But clearly, there are better and worse ways to talk about this issue.

The first of the wrong-direction polls was a Carvillle/Greenberg Democracy Corps poll from December 07, titled Winning the Immigration Issue. The use of the word "Winning" here maybe be confusing to the political neophyte. This is "winning" in the traditional corporate-centrist sense of the word. It refers to "the political act of coming up with any old story on an issue that can't be thought through while attempting to change the subject." Less is known about the second poll; it was leaked to the Huffington Post earlier this week and apparently commissioned by the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the Center for American Progress. Since so little is known about the shadowy CCIR/CAP ambush poll, it stands to reason it's as a bad or worse than the DemCorps' birdcage liner, so the rest of this analysis will lump them together. (If those who commissioned or ran either poll would like to clarify anything around this, they are most welcome to do so in the comments below or via email.)

These two polls reek of a baseline mortal fear of this issue, which seems to have been engendered of the roughly 20% of the citizenry that has followed Lou Dobbs over the cliff and become completely unhinged over this issue. They are a colossal mistake - not just a step in the wrong direction, but a turbo-powered slingshot in the wrong direction. They are miles from even the vaguest sense of a moral center. They may be the worst political advice offered to candidates from anywhere on the political map in recent memory. Any political party that attempts to capitalize this language for short-term political gain is facing a demographic wall of doom that will be upon them sooner rather than later.

To start to understand the electoral, economic and moral dimensions to how flawed this research truly is, a little background is required. First, keep in mind how voters make decisions about who to vote for. From the Rockridge Institute's Thinking Points, Chapter One: it's values, connection, authenticity and trust. Issues do play a role; campaign narratives can turn on them. But how a candidate talks about the issues matters more. When leaders speak from their moral center, voters respond.

Second, consider this framework for understanding progressives and conservatives, based on but slightly different from the Lakoff model:

Conservatives are mainly about

1) maintaining and enforcing moral orders and
2) the kind of freedom that comes from property rights.

while progressives are basically about

1) strengthening interdependence & mutual responsibility and
2) expanding substantial freedom

(Substantial freedom is, roughly, all the other kinds of freedom beyond property rights, starting with cognitive freedom.) There are a number of benefits to this framework. For one, it doesn't rely on confusing family metaphors. Second, it doesn't do a disservice to either side. On some level it's perfectly reasonable to make maintaining moral orders a political priority. It has certain ramifications for society, most of which seem to have not been thought through, but on the surface at least it's not an unreasonable thing to want. Ditto for property rights freedom. It seems great, up until the point where your society starts making fancy cars a higher priority than paying teachers a wage they can live on.

Consider the words of one candidate running for high office that isn't afraid to speak from a moral center on this:

We need to sit down as Americans and recognize [immigrants] are God's children as well. And they need some protection under the law; they need some of our love and compassion.

Who said this - some latte-drinking, birkenstock-wearing, sushi-eating urban liberal. Right?

Nope. It was John McCain.

With that background in mind, there are three categories of problems with the approach these polls take: gaping distance from the progressive moral center, misunderstanding of how to communicate with voters, and a lack of courage on challenging outright falsehoods.

Wrong on principle. Since progressivism is not a rigid ideology, but instead a flexible tissue of principles and ideals, progressives have many individualized moral centers. But one commonly shared and deeply resonant center is that of interdependence, the state of being both independent and connected. As MLK put it, "we are all woven into a single garment of destiny."

Acknowledgment of this valuing of interdependence seems utterly absent from this research approach. The authors of these studies are clearly aware of the options they have in how to approach the issue:

As you will see in this report, voters want to know first, that leaders ‘get it’ – that they share their common sense frustration with the problem and second, that they will act against employers, on the borders and on government programs to get things under control. But most in the broad public hold positive views of the new immigrants and will support an inclusive American response, including a path to citizenship for the responsible, tax-paying and law-abiding – if they believe first that America has acted to get this national problem under control.

Of these two large choices, the framers of this study choose only the former, the enforcement and authoritarian direction. Instead of focusing on arguments to bring people together around this issue, they strengthen conservative, authoritarian frames by focusing nearly exclusively on this:

Tougher enforcement, therefore, is a key starting point in a Democratic plan... The country is ready to support a party that really solves the problems that have left America hobbled.

Progressives don't see a country "hobbled": we see the beginnings of a vibrant, inclusive multi-ethnic society. One with a long way to go, for sure, but we aren't hobbled by our diversity. We are strengthened by it.

As the DMI Immigration and the Middle Class studies have clearly shown, the presence of a huge, unregulated, easily-exploitable labor pool right below the middle class on the economic ladder isn't good for anyone. It's not good for the immigrants, because they're being exploited, it's not good for the working and middle class, because they have less security, and it's not good for the folks doing the exploiting, because it slowly corrodes their souls. The first guiding principle is that "Immigration policy should bolster — not undermine — the critical contribution that immigrants make to our economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers." These polls don't help us understand how to better make that argument, they're running from it.

And for the trillionth immigration poll in a row, there's not a word about what the economic situations that cause migration are or how we might as a country address those circumstances. Nothing about NAFTA. Nothing about encouraging Mexico to invest in it's people. Nothing about solidarity. Nothing about strengthening a global labor movement similar to the one that built the middle-class here. This is a failure not just of leadership but of imagination.

Wrong on effective leadership and communication When conservatives do in-depth issue-based polling like this, the entire focus is on how to shift public opinion towards the conservative line: what are the best arguments, word choices and underlying mental structures that keep opinion either in place or open for movement. One of the ways they do this is through the consideration of Overton's window, a way of categorizing ideas as they move through public discourse. The steps ideas take are often stated as "Unthinkable, radical, acceptable, sensible, popular, policy."

The true purpose of political research is not to win elections: it's to figure out how to move ideas through this process. Winning elections is simply a byproduct of successfully propagating ideas.

Republican pollster, strategist and wordsmith Frank Luntz understands this perfectly. From his book Words that Work:

"The assumptions implicit in a polling question about policy also govern the answers it generates."

Memo to Mr. Greenberg, Mr. Carville, and the staff of CCIR and CAP: re-read that sentence until it makes sense. Maybe we can make a little plaque for the wall of your war room; it can hang next to the one that says "it's the economy, stupid." Here's the example that Mr. Luntz is discussing: the mid-1990s, a majority of Americans (55 percent) said that emergency room care "should not be given" to illegal aliens. Yet only 38 percent said it should be "denied" to them. The difference in response is attributable to the difference in assumptions.

Additionally, there's a difference between issues that are good for running on and those that are for governing. Drivers licenses for undocumented workers are the perfect example of this; it's a common-sense law and order issue, and while they're ought to be a constituency for it, there isn't. So don't run on it, and fix the underlying problems. That's leadership.

Wrong on the facts. Last, these polls seem to take several untruths and use them as starting points for making the case for more blathering on about enforcement, rather than as the fact-free assertions they are. For example:

"The view that immigrants take more than they contribute is most pronounced among some key demographic segments, including senior citizens and men with no more than a high school education. In congressional battleground districts, a clear majority (54 to 36 percent) believes immigrants take more from the country than they give."

There's been a disturbing recent turn of events in American society, where facts seem to have become even more discardable than usual. The email smears on Obama are another result of the same basic dynamic.

Fear seems to amplify the rate at which people discard facts in favor of whatever they want to hear. It's unclear whether democracy can function in the absence of facts. Telling the truth is part of it, but it's not simply about laying out facts: it has to be about creating a worldview. Narratives, principles and frames are all part of this. But these polls are worthless for establishing any of these.

For a starting point on how to get smart about this issue, look at NDN's latest in their Hispanics Rising series. Lack of an solid and clear progressive narrative about the economy makes it much harder to tell this story. Absent a narrative about why the economy has been so bad for so long for so many people, it's easy for the blamers to start pointing fingers.

The "progressive" groups that funded these studies need to think harder about whether the enforcement-everywhere authoritarian approach to immigration is truly going to do anything help build a functioning multi-ethnic society. These polls should be scrapped and replaced by research that's going to help us map out how get from where we are to where we need to go.

Dan Ancona: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:07 AM, Mar 11, 2008 in Immigration | Progressive Agenda
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