There are two obvious ways to save the bankrupt liberal talk-radio network Air America: Get Al Franken some new, funny material, and hire a Lou Dobbs. I say "a Lou Dobbs" because the CNN host himself is probably too expensive, but his limousine populism is pretty easy to rip off: "Blah, blah, blah. Corporations are out to get you, Washington has sold you out, the fat cats have declared war on the little guy," and so on.
The only hitch for liberals is that the "and so on" deals with illegal immigration, the issue that serves as the glue for American populist anger today. But liberals and Democrats won't say anything serious on the topic. And in fairness, conservative Republicans have a hitch of their own: The leadership of their own party doesn't want them to do anything about it.
This weird logjam, as the word implies, has a lot of logs to it. The first log is corporations, which like illegal immigrants. Corporations generally support Republicans and centrist Democrats, and that makes the pols wary of tackling the issue head-on.
Then there's a whole set of logs on the left. Identity-politics fanatics have welcomed the undocumented to the Coalition of the Oppressed. Major universities, editorial pages of leading newspapers, some Christian denominations, Latino activists and various allied groups have bought into the idea that there's something fundamentally icky about trying to stem the tide of immigrants who come here illegally.
There are other random logs. Libertarians believe in free trade of workers and wheat alike. Many neoconservatives of Jewish or Irish Catholic descent fear that the heroic narrative of America as a nation of immigrants will be desecrated if the U.S. performs one of the minimal requirements of a modern nation-state: control its own borders.
Jam all the logs together and you have campus leftists aligned with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Nancy Pelosi with George W. Bush, and MoveOn.org with the Wall Street Journal, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder to block serious immigration reform.
With the important exception of working-class Latinos (legal and illegal), one thing that unites all of these people is that they are members of the economic and social elite. It doesn't matter that most of them can't stand each other on most issues. When it comes to immigration, they're joined at the hip.
The worry is that this leaves a lot of room for populists, rabble-rousers and opportunists to exploit immigration. Dobbs gets good ratings, so CNN - normally home to lily-livered moderate liberalism - gives him free rein to do his blow-dried populist act. A politician with a similar act can't be far off.
That's why I hope the GOP will succeed at heading off the slide into demagoguery. The political incentive is clearly there. Already, most congressional Republicans are running essentially on the motto coined by David Frum: "Stop the Bush amnesty plan - vote Republican." And just this week, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., an immigration hard-liner who co-authored the 700-mile border fence bill, announced that he's running for president. If immigration weren't such a huge issue, it's inconceivable that the idea would have even occurred to him.
Hunter is dismissed by liberal critics, but a responsible political class would recognize the danger that the kindling of immigration could become a bonfire if ignored.
That's one reason why I reluctantly came out in favor of a fence on the border. Sure, the symbolism to the world is bad. But it would send Americans the message that elites are serious about an issue millions of Americans care about, and justifiably so.
The conservative argument against illegal immigration is grounded mostly in civics: What kind of nation should we be? Who gets to be a citizen, and how do we decide such things? The liberal argument is enmeshed largely in statist and egalitarian economics. As with Dobbs' rants, it's of a piece with protectionism and economic populism. If the GOP takes the issue off the table, conservative economics is less likely to be poisoned by such thinking. If the Democrats seize the issue, populist economic policies will be the price Americans pay for border security.
For example, my own views on illegal immigration don't at all conflict with my desire for continued robust legal immigration. Left-leaning economic populists can't make this case because their argument hinges on immigration's alleged negative effects on wages. Air America liberals and Democrats are jealous of right-wing populism. They'd be politically smart to steal conservative thunder by tackling illegal immigration, but if they succeeded the result would be a Dobbsian nightmare.
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