Coalitions and Linking Issues

Immigrant rights protest

Sunday’s New York Times features an interesting profile of John Tanton, a Michigan physician who has been crusading, effectively, for limited immigration and against reform for more than three decades.

Jason DeParle reports that Tanton, a prodigious fundraiser and organizer, had been active in Planned Parenthood and Zero Population Growth when he grew increasingly concerned with immigration.  He was critical in founding several anti-immigrant groups (Numbers USA, Federation for American Immigration Reform [FAIR], and Center for  Immigration Studies), and has pressed his views with increasing vigor–and venom.

There is much that’s interesting in DeParle’s piece, but what most intrigued me was Tanton’s initial effort to recruit allies from the left of the political spectrum.  Tanton imagined potential supporters from environmentalists and labor, and worked to use arguments that would appeal to them (population pressure was an environmental threat; immigrants would drive down wages), but–despite early support from Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Warren Buffet–was largely unsuccessful.  McCarthy and Buffet also distanced themselves from Tanton, his groups, and his politics.

And those politics became increasingly venomous.  Shelving the environmental and labor arguments, Tanton became increasingly open to arguments about cultural preservation and the racial inferiority of darker skinned people.  Tanton became so toxic that even anti-immigrant activists have begun to distance themselves from him.

There’s certainly a story about one man’s journal told in psychological terms.  That’s not my story.

I’m more struck by how supporters of issues tend to cluster in ways that are not directly related to the content of the issue.

Certainly, labor and environmentalists could have gone into the anti-immigrant camp.  Environmentalism has a history that includes conservative ideology, and labor certainly has a….mixed…history on racial justice and immigration.

And there is a conservative ideological position that supports fairly open borders, so that capital has access to labor.  Recall that President George W. Bush presented a comprehensive immigration reform package that included a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States, and that Senator John McCain worked for it in Congress.  Bush ultimately gave up, and McCain worked hard to distance himself from his own positions so that he could get the Republican nomination for President.  Not much later, facing a primary challenge for his Senate seat, he fixated on building a great wall between the United States and Mexico.

More than that, there’s something odd about the clustering of positions  on abortion, taxation, climate change, war in Iraq, and immigration should cluster the way they do–but they do.

Successful activist organizations work in groups, and they depend on building coalitions across issues and forging alliances within political parties.  The Presidential primary system that became institutionalized in the 1970s gave issue activists disproportionate influence in enforcing ideological discipline.  Thus, George H.W. Bush abandoned support of abortion rights in 1980 when he agreed to run on a national ticket with Ronald Reagan; Jesse Jackson, preparing for a presidential run in 1984, dropped his anti-abortion stance the previous year and made abortion rights a central plank in his campaign for liberal women voters.

I assume that Bush and Jackson thought carefully about their positions on abortion, thought about what they knew about the world and the people they cared about, and searched their souls before staging those political turnabouts.  We also know, however, that they had to shift policies if they wanted to be credible within their respective parties.

The clustering of issues within the political parties makes building issue-based coalitions across parties increasingly difficult.  But outside Congress, in the states and in neighborhoods, the same dynamic is at work, reinforced by social norms and an odd American norm of avoiding political arguments with friends.  Oddly, this makes the vitriol and intolerance for those who disagree with us–because they disagree on almost everything–much worse.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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