Opinion

Obama, immigration, and the 'Southern Strategy in reverse'

The Democrats seem to be banking on an electorate that remains hyperpolarized along racial lines

President Obama's executive action on immigration is, as The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf so pithily put it, "the right thing in the wrong way."

Granting a broad amnesty to illegal immigrants in the U.S. is good policy, and the just thing to do. I have tremendous respect for the perspective of my fellow conservatives, who warn that legal status for millions of often low-skilled immigrants could have a deleterious impact on the working class, already buffeted by the forces of globalization, economic sluggishness, and the class warfare of sexual liberalism. That is a robust empirical claim, but one that is ultimately unfalsifiable. So I err on the side that both my Christian and free-market beliefs point to: More immigrants is good. If nothing else, we should grant amnesty to demonstrate the poised generosity that is the hallmark of a confident civilization.

But the way in which President Obama is doing this is absolutely horrendous. It is hard to come up with words strong enough to condemn this unilateral decision. Say what you will about Congress' inability to pass an immigration bill, but the Constitution does not include a secret "If Congress is stupid, the president gets its powers" clause. The term "the imperial presidency" is becoming uncomfortably literal. That is the most important takeaway from this event.

All of that said: The politics here are fascinating — and depressing.

Now, on the surface, the politics might seem obvious: Obama is ingratiating the Democrats with Latino voters, and also essentially trolling the Republican Party, putting them in a position in which they will have to remind everyone in America that most Republicans hate the idea of amnesty. As The Federalist's Ben Domenech notes, this move by Obama hobbles immigration moderates like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio, who might be running in 2016, and who will now be implicitly associated with Obama.

But there's more to the politics than this. Obama's action is part and parcel with a deeper phenomenon that RealClearPolitics' Robert Tracinski has called the "Southern Strategy in reverse."

The Southern Strategy refers to the national GOP's decision in the 1970s to court Southern whites at the expense of minority votes, a strategy which, in many tellings, included the use of coded racial language to appeal to this group. The idea was that by winning supermajorities of white, working-class voters, the Republican Party could essentially write off other groups and still gain a majority.

Much has been said about the "emerging Democratic majority" and its coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, and upper-middle-class coastal elites. But, as Tracinski and the highly regarded political analyst Sean Trende note, this strategy also requires supermajorities of minority voters — and requires that the electorate be and remain polarized along racial lines.

As Tracinski wrote, "because [this strategy] hitches the Democratic Party's future to voting based on racial and ethnic loyalties, it is basically a strategy that consists of playing the race card from now until the end of time." In a particularly scathing line, he said, "The Democrats have to hope for one Trayvon Martin case after another to keep voters aligned by race."

Or, you know, failing that, how about an unconstitutional amnesty?

I rejoice that this move will make the lives of millions of people much better. But everything else about it is shameful and stinks to high heaven. And it will make our politics more toxic, more racially charged, and more polarized than ever before. That is change no one should believe in.

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