offensive as it may sound to today’s sensitive ears, it was only 11 years ago that a young and rising United States senator wrote the following about immigration:
“When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”o
That senator was Democrat Barack Obama from Illinois.
The quote comes from his 2006 autobiography, “The Audacity of Hope.” After getting our attention with that blunt description of his feelings, Obama goes on to argue against following those feelings as some people do, to justify denial of “rights and opportunities” to immigrants who want to become Americans.
I had forgotten about that quote until I ran across it in an important essay posted by liberal analyst Peter Beinart in The Atlantic this past week, as Democrats tried in vain to win a couple of congressional seats in traditionally red districts in Georgia and South Carolina.
Titled “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration,” Beinart’s piece describes a Democratic Party trying to recover from President Donald Trump‘s upset victory, yet too hung up on the culture wars commonly known as “political correctness.”
Of course, one could just as easily say the same about the Trump era’s Grand Old Party, too gridlocked, so far, by its own internal right-versus-far-right conflicts to pass major legislation, despite its control of both houses of Congress.
Still, Republican gridlock is thin consolation for the Democrats’ long losing streak in President Obama’s years. His two presidential victories distract us from Democratic losses of more than a thousand state legislative seats and governorships and two-thirds of the country’s legislative chambers.
In some ways, I think Beinart is too hard on the Democrats in accounting for such losses. I trace the collapse of compromise on immigration to 2008 when I saw Arizona Sen. John McCain, on his way to winning the GOP presidential nomination, booed at the Conservative Political Action Conference convention for advocating comprehensive immigration reform. He later abandoned that cause, and efforts by both parties to revive it have failed.
Yet, let’s give credit where it is due. Republicans were singing the blues in similar fashion when Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012 and other Democratic victories threatened the long-term future of the Republicans as a national party. Instead, grass-roots groups like the tea partymovement scored victories at the state and local level that have led to the GOP’s current dominance.
Which brings me back to how Obama’s quote illustrates to me why he managed to succeed twice at something on which Hillary Clinton failed twice: winning the presidency. His feelings of “patriotic resentment” sound like an honest description of concerns that many people feel. Although today he might be castigated by ideological purists as “racist” or at least committing a “microaggression,” it is through expressing such sincerely held feelings that honest dialogue can begin — and, one hopes, lead to useful compromise and progress.
In the best of all possible political worlds, candidates from both parties calm such irrational fears by educating voters with real facts, not just alarm. Unfortunately we do not live in that best political world these days. Instead, we are treated to Trump’s craven slander of immigrants in the U.S. illegally as an invading tide of “murderers” and “rapists.”
Yet, if you don’t allow candid discussion of real issues, phony hot-button issues will take center stage. Think of the difference it would have made if Clinton had expressed, as her husband used to say in his 1992 presidential bid, how “I feel your pain.”
Today’s post-Trump Democrats are divided. One side says they must abandon “identity politics” that appeal to every left-out group but working-class and middle-class whites, who feel left behind by economic and cultural change.
The other side says, no, giving voice to traditionally left-out women and minorities is a core belief and essential to the turnout the party needs to win elections — especially when they don’t have a big draw like Obama on the ballot.
I think both sides of that debate are right. Democrats have been most successful when they have given voice to bread-and-butter working-class concerns, regardless of race or tribe. They can do it again, if they really want to win.