Ira Chernus  




Congress is set to make it legal for the U.S. government to kidnap and torture pretty much anyone, any time, anywhere. Now our lawmakers are moving on to other things. There’s a homeland security funding bill to pass. And there’s the ever-vexing problem of immigration.

Hey, here’s an idea: Why not deal with both issues in the same bill?  Actually, the Republicans have already thought of that. They’re attaching immigration “reforms” to the homeland security bill. If Democrats want to stop the GOP’s anti-immigrant measures, they’ll have to vote against funding the Department of Homeland Security.

As the Washington Post informs us, “Homeland Security Bill Is More Style Than Substance, Analysts Say.”  Even at the conservative Heritage Foundation, senior research fellow James Jay Carafano admits that "most of it, quite frankly, is a lot of political theater." 

Which is exactly why it makes sense to put new immigration laws in the homeland security bill.  It’s all part of the same theatrical drama:  “Are We Safe?”, starring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, written, produced, and directed by Karl Rove.

You know the basic plot:  The United States of America, the innocent ingenue, is threatened by evildoers on every front. If we don’t fight ‘em in Baghdad, we’ll have to fight ‘em in Boston and Baltimore. If we don’t pay Boeing $2.5 billion to build a “virtual wall” around the whole nation, the terrorists will engulf us. If we don’t build a stout wall on our southern border (the House wants it 700 miles long, but the Senate, every mindful of cost, is looking at a mere 400 miles), we’ll be swamped by an even bigger tidal wave of foreigners who can’t speak the English language. In the final act, we find out if America has the will and resolve to keep itself safe.

It’s a theater of fear -- and a theater of the absurd. But with a devastating loss looming in the Congressional election, Rove has no other card to play. So he is betting that his production will pack in the voters of middle America, where fear and insecurity run rampant.

Advocates of draconian immigration laws talk about issues of justice and fairness and the financial woes of U.S. citizens. But beneath it all, the immigration issue sparks such powerful feelings because it conjures up images of hordes of people -- people of color, no less -- invading our land. The immigration laws are supposed to prevent that. They are supposed provide a stout wall to regulate the flow of foreigners in the country.

But Americans encounter more and more people every day who speak a foreign language. So it’s easy to persuade them that the immigration laws aren’t working. The literal walls in places like El Paso and Chula Vista don’t seem to work either. The border, which is supposed to protect us against every danger, is full of holes. Anyone at all can breeze through -- and perhaps end up living next door. Why, who knows? They might even be terrorists. So let’s spend more billions on homeland security and walls on the border.

Of course it’s all irrational. The foreign language speakers that most U.S. citizens meet are doing poorly paid service jobs like mowing yards or flipping burgers. There’s no way to know whether they are here legally or illegally. In either case, it’s almost always obvious that they are hard-working, pleasant, totally harmless people. (The crime rate among illegal immigrants is said to be startlingly low.) It’s equally obvious that these folks perform useful services for wages that few citizens are willing to accept. Even citizens who support strict anti-immigrant legislation usually acknowledge that they personally live more cheaply because we have so many illegals working for low wages.

Yet all those logical considerations are overriden by emotion. The emotion is triggered by old images -- the “lazy foreigner,” the “dirty foreigner,” the “alien” -- that are woven together into a widespread cultural story. Robert Reich aptly calls it “the mob at the gates.”  People who worry about open gates, crumbling walls, and porous borders are obviously insecure. They need to feel safe, and they feel that the boundaries they’ve counted on for protection are no longer doing the job.

It’s hardly surprising that people who have seen the Twin Towers fall and heard for five years that the enemy still threatens would feel insecure. In one recent poll, 78% of Americans said they expect another terrorist attack on U.S. soil within the next year. 60% expect it in the next few weeks!

From now until election day, Republicans will be whipping up that anxiety, painting a picture of a global network of “terrorists” busy killing our friends and planning to kill us. They’ll build their campaign around the “I” words: Iraq (“the front line in the war on terrorism”), illegal immigration, and insecurity. If violence in Lebanon and Palestine sparks again, they may very well add another “I” word: Israel.

The Republicans won’t have to spell out the connections. They can just drop hints and count on millions of insecure Americans to connect the dots by themselves. Insecure people are quick to see threats everywhere and to link those threats together, often unconsciously, into a single network of impending danger. Republicans have been relying on this technique to dominate the White House for over a half a century, and in the last few years they’ve used it to dominate Congress too.

In poll after poll, most voters endorse the Democrats’ position on every major issue but one:  “Which party can best keep America safe?”  Yet that one issue trumps all the others for a small but pivotal group of voters. It can send enough of them over to the Republican side to give the GOP victories.

So what’s a Dem to do? Some try to outdo the Republicans at their own game, insisting that the dangers are real but the Democrats can actually keep up stronger protective walls. It may work, sometimes, in the short run. In the long run, though, it’s a game the Democrats can’t win. When they focus on insecurity they whip it up, and that plays right into the only strength the Republicans have, as Karl Rove well knows. He wants to goad his opponents into an endless debate about who is tougher against terrorists, immigrants, and all of our supposed enemies.

The real challenge for the Democrats is to resist getting sucked into that debate. They have to redirect the political debate to a very different question: Which party can create a better life for the average American. It shouldn’t be that hard, if the Dems are willing to focus confidently on their own strengths:  good-paying jobs, decent health care and education for all, serious environmental protections—all those things that the polls tell us a majority of Americans really want and care about. If the name of the play is “How Can We Have A Better Life?”, Bush and Cheney won’t even get bit parts.