Liberals are confident that they own the future, but conservatives have a chance to shape a better tomorrow. Ramesh Ponnuru notes that, even though the conservative voter base of white, married Christians is in relative demographic decline, American public opinion has been fairly stable over the last twenty years on a large number of issues. While the conservative voting base might be in relative decline, there are pools of center-right individuals whose votes could be tapped. The challenge of demographic change is not one of dealing with a liberal country. It is the challenge of fitting together the pieces of a majority conservative coalition.
The two most obvious sources of allies for conservatives would be the “missing white voters” of the 2012 cycle and moderately center-right nonwhite voters who supported Obama in that same election.
The missing white voters were largely secular, working-class and economically stressed. They might have voted for Obama in 2008 (which was virtually an ideal environment for a Democratic candidate), but many of them stayed home in 2012. These voters don't trust liberals, but they also distrust the business-first orientation of the GOP. They don't see anything in the current political conservatism that will plausibly deal with their concerns about job security (and how they might keep their health insurance in case of a spell of unemployment.) They aren't impressed by Republican claims that everything will get better for everybody once we cut taxes on the high-earners who “built that.”
Moderately right-leaning nonwhites are another pool of potential conservative voters. The average nonwhite voter is to the left of the average white voter, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Whether the issue is size of government, or taxes, or abortion, a larger fraction of nonwhite voters are (moderately) on the conservative side of the issue than voted for Romney.
Absent overwhelmingly favorable circumstances, liberals follow an effective game plan. They demoralize one segment of the population and secure the support of another segment of the population that is ideologically closer to the opposition. This should not be a cause for liberal confidence. It represents a conservative opportunity.
Unfortunately, this opportunity has been—and continues to be—wasted. The Republican Party (the electoral vehicle for the center-right) should have spent the last three years trying to win over the missing white voters and right-leaning nonwhites. Instead, the Republican establishment has driven the two groups apart.
It started with the 2012 Republican National Committee “autopsy” that advocated “comprehensive immigration reform.” Among the Washington class, that meant upfront amnesty, delayed (possibly forever delayed) immigration enforcement, and expanded future low-skill immigration (largely through guest worker programs.)
Focusing on amnesty and increasing low-skill immigration while doing nothing to address the GOP's feeble message for low-earners was an insult to working-class voters who were opposed to vast future low-skill immigration. It was just another way for the GOP to be the party of business-first. If anything, it was made worse by the document's smarmy, we're-just-doing-this-to-win-elections tone. The insults have continued with every false promise to build the “dang” border fence a decade or two after Congress passes upfront legalization.
The arrogance and dishonesty of the GOP establishment was Donald Trump's opportunity. He has been the scourge of the GOP lobbyist and donor classes, and immigration has been his chief issue, but his references to illegal immigrants as “rapists,” his bombastic promises to make Mexico pay for the border fence, and opposition to birthright citizenship all indicate a white identity politics that limit his appeal. A majority American conservatism will be one that wins swing working-class white voters and larger shares among right-leaning nonwhites.
Winning larger shares among both groups is going to have to involve some kind of compromise within the center-right regarding immigration. The Republican establishment plan of giving the Chamber of Commerce everything it wants is not compromise. Too many people within and outside the conservative base are so opposed to Washington-style, comprehensive immigration reform that continuing to push that approach rips the center-right apart and empowers demagogues. Adopting a program of deporting the most current unauthorized immigrants isn't going to work. Among other reasons why it won't happen: less than forty percent of Americans support such a policy.
An immigration compromise would focus on the insecurity of working-class Americans of all ethnicities—regardless of whether they were born in the United States or elsewhere. There would be no mass deportations, but unauthorized immigrants would only be legalized after border and internal enforcement were in place. The law should change so that future immigration flows favor skills and language proficiency. Economists are divided about the impact of low-skill immigration on the wages of low-skill natives, but even economists who favor increased immigration agree that future low-skill immigration reduces the wages of current low-skill immigrants. Can we agree that low-skill immigrants (and low-skill natives for that matter) have enough problems without facing wage decreases, courtesy of our immigration system?
The irony is that the burden of this compromise does not fall on either immigration restrictionists or unauthorized immigrants. Immigration enforcement still happens, and legalization still happens (in that order). Future immigration is better calibrated for a society where there are larger returns to formal education and where families with low-skill breadwinners are struggling regardless of ethnicity. The burden falls on the GOP establishment and conservatives to tell the employer lobbies that the party of lower taxes, lower government spending, and lower regulation will not design an immigration system to ensure that low-skill workers never get a raise.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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