Immigration Policy and the Real 'Two Americas'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on August 24, 2010

It is easy to get into trouble when you divide this vast, diverse country into two dichotomous parts and claim that distinction explains something enormously significant. If like former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards you argue "we still live in a country where there are two different Americas … one, for all of those people who have lived the American dream and don't have to worry, and another for most Americans, everybody else who struggle to make ends meet every single day," while living in a 28,200-square-foot house, you can legitimately be accused of hypocrisy and trying to foment class warfare for political gain.

Or, if you are a generally thoughtful New York Times columnist, you can easily slip into off-putting reductionism by claiming that when it comes to immigration there are two Americas, "The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether."

Still, there are rare occasions when dichotomous distinctions help unearth and highlight important understandings. And nowhere is this truer in immigration debates than in the distinctions that have emerged between the so-called "political class" and ordinary Americans.

Conservatives have been making the point for years that political "elites" are out of touch with the American mainstream. And it turns out this is not only a political complaint but also an empirical fact. (For earlier research on this, see this 2002 CIS Backgrounder.) Independents have also begun to come to that conclusion was well.

Recently, Scott Rasmussen devised a set of poll questions to measure the extent to which people hold either "Mainstream" or "Political Class" views. They are:

1. Generally speaking, when it comes to important national issues, whose judgments do you trust more - the American people or America's political leaders?

2. Some people believe that the federal government has become a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests. Has the federal government become a special interest group?

3. Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?

Those who answer two or more of these questions in the Mainstream direction are given that designation. Those who answer two or more of these questions in the Political Class direction are so labeled.

Sixty five percent of voters nationwide qualify as Mainstream and that includes 51 percent who also self-identify as Democrats.

Not surprisingly, the distinction between ordinary Americans and those who subscribe the government-knows-best theory of democracy vary substantially on a range of issues, including immigration. For example, most voters (53 percent) say it's better for individual states to act on their own to enforce immigration laws rather than relying on the federal government for enforcement. Forty-one percent take the opposite view. Yet, when that question is viewed through the prism of the "elite vs. mainstream" frame, dramatic differences emerge. Sixty-six percent of Mainstream voters want individual states to enforce immigration law, while an overwhelming eighty-one percent of the Political Class want enforcement done by the federal government.

Or consider further that:

1. Twenty-eight percent of voters agree that the Justice Department should challenge Arizona's new immigration law, while 56 percent disagree and another 16 percent are not sure. Yet viewed through the "elite vs. ordinary American" frame, 73 percent of the Political Class favor such a challenge and while 67 percent of Mainstream voters do not.

2. Or, consider that 71 percent of Mainstream voters want a law like that of Arizona for their home state, while 72 percent of the Political Class does not.

These data confirm that the "Political Class," those who are in charge of running the government and who used to have a monopoly on framing and arguing public policy, are out of step with a majority of ordinary Americans when it comes to immigration reform.

But the larger news in all of this for those who believe that immigration "reform" is necessary, but ought not include a general amnesty is that the "spiral of silence" about immigration reform has been broken with enormous consequences for the American immigration debate.

I will take up that issue in my next entry.