How do you resolve a fundamental national impasse that embodies policy, conflicting visions of fairness, and deep but mixed feelings about the available options? That is the question that confronts this country regarding immigration.
There are really only a limited number of options available.
In some circumstances intractable conflicts are ultimately resolved, one way or another, by force of arms. This is the basis of Edward Luttwak's classic international relations article, "Give War a Chance". He argues that,
Since the establishment of the United Nations and the enshrinement of great-power politics in its Security Council, however, wars among lesser powers have rarely been allowed to run their natural course. Instead, they have typically been interrupted early on, before they could burn themselves out and establish the preconditions for a lasting settlement.
Or, as Luttwak puts the matter more directly,
An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.
Of course in a constitutional democratic republic like the United States, the closest equivalent we have to war is politics. Obviously, our "political wars" do not produce the same amount of actual carnage as real ones, but the parallel and their lessons are still instructive.
This is the basis of Mickey Kaus' recent shout-out for political polarization. He writes,
Instead, polarization is useful, in an almost evolutionary sense, because it can help resolve unresolved issues like incomplete health care coverage, or illegal immigration. Both are pressing problems. They need to be solved. Until they're solved, elections will continue to be about them, at least in part. But they're not going to get solved in the center… . They're much more likely to get solved — or at least resolved — when one side in a polarized contest wins, brutally defeating both its polarized opposition and the champions of mindless bipartisanship. (bold in original text, underline added)
Kaus proposes as an illustration his view that, "Sweeping Democratic victories in 1932 produced the New Deal. A lopsided Dem majority (plus reaction to the JFK assisination [sic]) gave us civil rights laws, Medicare, and the Great Society."
He's right, to a point. However that model is of little help with our current immigration impasse. There is no consensus now, nor is there one in the offering.
And President Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. One of the most basic mistakes that President Obama made was to believe that he could be a transformational president as a result of pursuing major health care legislation when the public, as they were in Roosevelt's time, was deeply concerned with the economy.
It was that concern that resulted in Roosevelt's sweeping 1932 victory and that produced a Depression-linked transformation of public expectations regarding government stewardship of the economy.
Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs produced no such transformation of public expectations. Indeed those policy's increasingly evident failures resulted in a conservative resurgence that eventually spread widely through the more moderate, "independent" segments of the American electorate.
The failure of Johnson's policies to achieve their stated purposes is part of the process by which we arrived at the current stalemate of strongly held views, including those regarding immigration.
Luttwak writes, "Imposed armistices, meanwhile — again, unless followed by negotiated peace accords — artificially freeze conflict and perpetuate a state of war indefinitely by shielding the weaker side from the consequences of refusing to make concessions for peace."
But what if, as in immigration policy, it isn't clear which is the weaker side? What if the American political system is structured to delay and even avoid sweeping and "final" defeats?
Well, then you have wars of attrition.
NEXT: How to Break the Immigration Impasse (2): Federal Wars of Attrition or view a list of the entire series.