Pandering to the Majority? Michael Gerson's View of Democracy in America

By Stephen Steinlight on November 4, 2011

No other contemporary issue in American social policy has anything remotely approaching the same capacity to unhinge the 4th Estate as immigration policy. The subject transforms ostensibly rational, civil members of the chattering classes into wide-eyed fanatics who regurgitate self-righteous moralistic rants in what has become a form of ritualized tribal behavior especially among the left-liberal post-Americans that form a solid majority in this coterie. But the putative conservative pundits that take the same line on immigration policy, such as Michael Gerson, produce essentially identical screeds. Their over-wrought carbon-copy treatments make embarrassing, unpersuasive reading, but as millions can testify the consequences are even worse if one tries discussing the subject in unfamiliar company: it can produce genuinely barbaric autonomic behavior. A parallel that immediately comes to mind is a classic of American popular culture: the "Niagara Falls" routine perfected by the Three Stooges in which the mere mention of that old honeymoon destination triggers a violent psychopathic response in a man whose sweetheart betrayed him there – which leads to the usual splendidly idiotic free-for-all.

The elite punditry that dominates the opinion pages in the nation's newspapers of record are seasoned veterans who've made an art of concealing the extent of their partisanship. The appearance of balance is often achieved by articulating a modicum of condescending agreement with an opponent on a tertiary point on the periphery of the issue being addressed or the position being attacked. This insincere genuflection to fairness – always strategically cost-free – is understood to be a negligible price to pay for playing a powerful – and dishonest – role in shaping public opinion. But the need to make even throwaway concessions isn't acknowledged – or it simply can't be emotionally managed – when "slowly they turn" to the subject of immigration, something to be venerated rather than analyzed.

Like his fellow True Believers, the Washington Post's Michael Gerson is a perfect knight of faith. He views the quest for amnesty and open-borders' immigration as nothing less than a crusade, and one he has personalized, alternating, Jekyll and Hyde-like, between sanctimonious posturing and vilification. The religious connotation of "crusade" is pertinent. Across the spectrum of American religious and denominational life, the governing bodies have endorsed the positions Gerson and his fellow pundits espouse. The campaign by organized religion to promote these policies counts among its most important constituencies the second-largest in America, the Born-Again/Evangelical movement to which Michael Gerson belongs, including the churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention. But a survey released in December of 2010, one of the largest ever done of the attitudes of American to immigration policy with respondents organized according to religious affiliation, shows there is a vast divide between the leadership and ordinary believers, between the pulpit and the pew, one reflective of the larger divide between the fiscal and political elite and ordinary Americans with regard to this issue. In his own faith community, Mr. Gerson's views on immigration are shared by a mere 6 percent of communicants; 94 percent fundamentally disagrees with him. ("Religious Leaders vs. Members: An Examination of Contrasting Views on Immigration")

Thus the Evangelical crusade, as is the case with the others, would look very odd indeed were it treated cinematically. A wide-angle shot à la David Lean wouldn't disclose an epic spectacular venture so much as a comedic satire of one. At the head march the leaders of the constituent denominations of the National Association of Evangelicals and those of the Southern Baptist Convention while behind them trudge a miniscule percentage of a flock of some 60 million American Born-Again Christians. This army would have one of the highest proportions of generals to common soldiery in all of history or, to sustain the medieval metaphor, noblemen and knights to base-born varlets.

To be a perfect knight of faith, Gerson and his fellow crusaders in the media have entered into a bargain of sorts that betrays their calling. They have renounced critical thinking, skepticism, openness to intellectual multiplicity, an appreciation for complexity, and a respect for fact – qualities and responses to the world that ought to define their professional lives – for unreflecting commitment. They have closed their minds, rendering them impenetrable to any idea that might complicate or challenge their faith.

When Gerson addresses the issue – one cannot truthfully say, "When he thinks about it" – it is in crude Manichean terms: political choices or political players are white or black, good or bad. Supporters of open borders are virtuous while the positions taken by opponents must stem from villainy, with xenophobia, racism, and political expediency the most oft-cited sins. His opponents are inevitably painted as grotesque caricatures, resembling only superficially the sort of symbolic figures that people the world of Dickens' novels. But unlike Dickens who fills his novels with a multitude of larger-than-life grotesques who, in bumping up against each other, reveal the radical essence of a huge variety of human traits and psychologies to achieve the Dickensian formula for complexity, Gerson employs the device to belittle those who disagree with him, asserting they are incapable of reason or ethics.

This self-righteous condemnation of immigration policy opponents is on full display in a recent Washington Post blog item, ("Bad Romney is Back"). Gerson's crude Manichean view of the issue is broadcast rather than camouflaged. He couldn't be reticent or feign even-handedness if he tried. It's reflected in the title of the piece and simplistic polarity that defines it. The "good Romney" used to say positive things about "comprehensive immigration reform." The bad Romney has changed his views. In what is perhaps the most emphatic position in the piece, the last sentence in the first paragraph, Gerson makes a statement he evidently mistakes for good pastiche of the bitterly ironic Swift. He quotes one of Romney's defenses of Bush's 2005 "comprehensive immigration reform." Romney stated, "I don't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from our country." Gerson then adds sardonically such a sentiment would now qualify Romney "as an immigration moderate in some Republican circles."

Though it is infuriating to have to make the effort, it is critical to pause and censure Gerson for indulging in the ugliest form of mainstream media mendacity regarding the motives of his opponents on immigration. Though this appalling falsehood has been exposed on innumerable occasions, it seems to have nine lives and must never be permitted to pass without a sharp rejoinder. He is repeating what he surely knows is The Big Lie, the biggest of Big Lies in the immigration debate. No one opposed to amnesty or open borders has ever believed in or has advocated this fascistic policy. Not even the most vociferous foe of illegal immigration would countenance treatment of the illegal population that would be so fundamentally anti-American. No one in the political camp opposed to "comprehensive immigration reform" has ever promoted government behavior reminiscent of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Given Gerson's hysteria over this subject, if there were someone he could quote making such a remark he most certainly would have done so long ago, and it can be taken for granted that's he is looking all the time. Gerson's repetition of language about "rounding up 11 million people" was and is no more than a vile insult to opponents and a chimera meant to frighten and so deeply offend the moral sensibility of the public that it would grudgingly support amnesty as an alternative.

But that was when Romney was guided by the better angels of his nature. The newer evil incarnation, the political opportunist, began to emerge in 2007 when, according to Gerson's piece, he attacked Rudy Giuliani for supporting sanctuary cities (Gerson does not even bother anticipating the objection that such cities represent the wholesale violation of the rule of law); criticized Huckabee for granting an in-state tuition discount to illegal aliens (again, he fails to note most believe this benefit falls among the "magnets" that draw illegal immigrants); and after initially supporting McCain on immigration, Romney rightly understood this was a stealth amnesty.

Gerson is especially outraged that Romney has recently attacked Gov. Rick Perry of Texas for pandering to the Hispanic vote by following Huckabee's lead in offering in-state tuition to illegal aliens (that it's unavailable to legal immigrants and provided at taxpayer expense are also unworthy of mention.). Perry's support for this program is especially hypocritical given the tough talk he likes to indulge in. He signals he's being a macho hombre by studiously dropping all "ing" endings from his progressive verbs when speaking about getting rid of the "magnets" that draw illegal immigrants into the country. To the untutored, it would seem the discount on in-state tuition is a very attractive one, as is getting on the assembly line for free deliveries and birthright citizenship at Parkland Hospital in Dallas where illegal aliens bear, at taxpayer expense, some 22,000 American citizens annually. Also, for reasons that don't add up, Gov. Perry strongly opposes making E-Verify mandatory, despite the fact that it is by far the best method available for employers to ascertain whether their workers are legal or not. Unsurprisingly, the evil Romney is an enthusiastic supporter of E-Verify. Perry was also an early and strong critic of Arizona's SB1070. Indeed, apart from macho-sounding references to "putting boots on the ground" and the occasional throwaway jingoistic comment that we'll send the army into Mexico (to renew the chase for Pancho Villa?), Perry appears to oppose just about every attempt to secure the border, including the preposterous assertion that fencing the border represents too great a technological challenge for the most technically advanced nation on earth.

While Gerson viciously attacks Romney's alleged Machiavellian politics and ethics, he gives a free pass to Perry who seeks the presidency on the basis of a mythological "Texas miracle" of job creation. Not only does even modest analysis reveal the record to be middling at best, in two respects it shows the governor's narrative to be extremely troubling, and this despite the state's great natural advantages with its oil industry. A recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies, cited by the canny Romney in the Republican primary debate in Nevada reveals that 40 percent of the job growth of the "Texas Miracle" went to illegal aliens in the midst of the worse unemployment since the Great Depression, a devastating indictment of lax enforcement of immigration laws in the state governed by the man who disparages E-Verify and border controls at every turn.

It is also the case, though Perry of course fails to mention it, that the great bulk of the job-creation is in the low-wage sector.

The major sins of omission in Gerson's writing about immigration are matched by those of commission. For one, Gerson accuses Romney of the most benighted form of bigotry and xenophobia for raising perfectly appropriate questions. He attacks Romney for having made an issue of Perry's cozy relationship with Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico. It should be noted that Perry laid himself open to this attack by having Fox appear in a political advertisement praising him. Given the troubling, extremely meddlesome role the government of Mexico has played vis-à-vis immigration – not just turning a blind eye to illegal immigration but promoting it for the money illegal aliens send back to Mexico while freeing Mexico of any responsibility for their welfare; encouraging strong irredentist attitudes among Mexicans; informing Mexicans in the U.S. that Mexico is their "protector," telling Mexicans in the US that their first loyalty will always be to Mexico; and using its huge consular establishment in America to intervene illegally in our internal affairs, Perry made himself fair game for Romney's attack.

While failing to note, even in passing, Mexico's key role in the immigration crisis – Gerson contents himself with describing Mexico as a "strong ally" – he concludes his piece with an extremely sleazy and scorching attack on Romney in the context of Mexico, associating him with the most vulgar and ugly form of xenophobia: "So why is Fox's statement supposed to be disturbing or sinister? Because Fox is a foreigner? Because he has a Mexican accent?" Following this viciousness, the ever-condescending, self-righteous Gerson tosses Romney a life-line or, rather, a bone. Romney is only dissimulating for political gain: he can't really mean what he's saying. Romney isn't an evil demagogue like Tom Tancredo. "Mitt Romney is better than this. He just needs to act like it."

But Gerson's most significant failing by far – and I would hazard it's present in any other of his pieces on immigration – is a conceptual one which reveals his misunderstanding of the nature of American democracy. It is a fundamental misapprehension that flows naturally from his elitist worldview, one in which the majority is perceived as a Hamiltonian "Great Beast." The problem is particularly pronounced among today's media elite, the majority of whom subscribe to a post-American globalist vision and regard placing primary emphasis on America's interests – and certainly view patriotism itself – as an ugly anachronism, a species of jingoistic nationalism that is forever on the cusp of morphing into nativist populism or even fascism.

One of his principal attacks on Romney – and by extension, any politician that disagrees with him on open-borders' immigration – is that, "Romney has consistently used immigration as a wedge issue in Republican primaries." That sentence literally jumps off the page and demands attention. His curious misuse of the term "wedge issue" is critical. When we think of a "wedge issue" in American politics we normally conceive of a highly controversial one with the capacity to fractionate political groups, forming a "wedge" between them. Sometimes a "wedge issue" can, at least in theory, risk fragmenting a traditional political consensus within the body politic as a whole. Such "wedge issues," sometimes called "Third Rails" or "Hot Button Issues," are most often avoided like the plague by politicians because they alienate large constituencies and can rebound against them with a vengeance. If politicians address them at all, they speak of them with reticence or evasion which often takes the form of code language that permits plausible denial and leaves plenty of wiggle room to escape being identified as a socially irresponsible "divider" if they are charged with this offense in pluralistic American society.

What Gerson and other mainstream liberal pundits are incapable of grasping – or, if they do, are incapable of admitting, is that immigration is most emphatically not a "wedge issue. (For another example of a great many pieces that repeat Gerson's error see a recent one: "Mitt Romney's risky immigration play" by Maggie Haberman in Politico.)

How can immigration policy be denominated a "wedge issue" when the overwhelming majority of Americans from virtually every demographic sociologists and pollsters bother to study are in agreement on the subject?

Earlier, we cited CIS's major poll of the opinions of Americans towards immigration policy that grouped respondents by religious or denominational self-definition in what remains a deeply religious society. Asked whether they support attrition to solve the problem of America’s illegal population, overwhelming majorities from each group responded in the affirmative, leaving no room for doubt as to what constitutes what can be called, without fear of contradiction, the national will when it comes to solving the immigration issue. Fully 94 percent of Born-Again or Evangelical Christian likely voters support attrition; 89 percent of Mainline Protestants support it; 89 percent of Roman Catholics support it; and perhaps most surprising because of their reputation for liberalism, fully 79 percent of self-identifying Jews support attrition. A "wedge issue"? Those that failed to endorse the belief that the best approach to solving the problem of the illegal population are strict border control and tough internal enforcement of immigration laws to promote self-deportation constitute a tiny, indeed an infinitesimal minority. There is no "wedge". That this absurd argument is made reflects nothing more than the arrogance of a tiny minority of opinion makers whose views clash with that of the great majority.

Anticipating the Objection Over Hispanics

It will be objected this overview leaves out Hispanics who, allegedly, are a decisive political force it would be suicidal to neglect; all think alike; have a political agenda focused on immigration to the exclusion of all other issues; and they can safely be predicted to vote in overwhelming numbers for President Obama. All of these propositions are debatable, and none is immutable.

Hispanics may have very significant political clout in the future. It's certainly undeniable that their political power will grow. But while their current political clout makes a difference in several states, it is still relatively unimpressive nationwide, and it's by no means certain it will ever be the decisive force some have predicted – the image of the sleeping giant is the standard cliche. The outcome of the debate over immigration will go far towards determining the extent of that future political power.

The Hispanic share of the national vote in 2008, an election that saw increased voter turnout across the board, was up by a mere one percentage point from 2004; according to exit polls, Hispanics increased their share of the national vote to 9 percent from 8 percent.

In the mid-term elections in 2010, Hispanics accounted for 6.9 percent of all voters, up from 5.8 percent in 2006. But this modest increase in what is an indisputably tiny percentage of the overall electorate also reflects an increase in the number of Latinos who are eligible to vote but did not. This actually contributed to a slight decline in the voter turnout rate among Latinos from 32.3 percent in 2006 to 31.2 percent in 2010.

Hispanics vote at the lowest rate of any ethnic/racial/cultural group in the United States, and this tendency, as among other racial minorities, is more pronounced in congressional elections than in Presidential ones. But it is by no means titanic in the latter. Looking at the presidential election in 2008, despite representing nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population, the fact that such a high percentage of the Hispanic population are illegal aliens plus the high percentage are under voting age caused Pew to predict a turnout of just 6.5 percent.

Pew has yet to make predictions regarding turnout for the 2012 presidential election, and while hazarding guesstimates is risky, it would clearly require a good deal more voter enthusiasm than currently appears to be the case to bring the Hispanic percentage of the overall national vote to the 10 percent plateau. (Must one actually point out that means 90 percent of the electorate is non-Hispanic?) While in recent years, Hispanics have voted heavily Democratic, according to the punditry largely a result of their anger about immigration, it's also the case that outreach by Republicans has been self-defeating in its inadequacy, and where Republican candidates have made greater efforts the results are encouraging. In the run-up to 2012, it should also be noted there is substantial disappointment with and even anger at Obama and the Democrats for giving amnesty so little salience, for over-promising "immigration reform" and under-delivering: it came last and received the least attention as a legislative priority. The anger is reflected in the threat repeatedly made by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL): Hispanics may well sit the election out.

In fact, Obama avoided the issue for as long as he could. When he finally got to it – it was among the very last issues to be addressed in "overtime" during the lame duck session of Congress – it was the only issue where the Democrats didn't get what they wanted. The DREAM Act went down to defeat, a sign of how much politicians fear backlash over the issue. It was this defeat that led Obama to abuse his executive authority by bypassing Congress, which is responsible for legislating immigration law, and ordered the review of 300,000 deportation cases with an eye toward dismissing many, if not most, of them and granting the illegal immigrants in question the right to work – a de facto amnesty.

The president's abuse of power caused considerable anger among opponents of amnesty, but the fact that he had to go through the back door to keep the DREAM Act on life-support (Chairman Smith of the House Judiciary Committee has introduced legislation to undo Obama's move) did not earn enormous gratitude on the part of Hispanics. Even in swing states where their share of the population is significant and a few percentage points could make all the difference – Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico – it will only be a factor in 2012 if two things happen: their historical voting behavior changes significantly and they can summon up enthusiasm for a president who has proven to be a great disappointment to them. Nor is immigration the only issue on the minds of Hispanics. Far from it. Like other Americans, indeed more than many other groups of Americans, they are suffering a great deal of hardship because of the deep recession and the administration's failure to lower unemployment. In a survey by the Pew Research Center prior to the congressional elections in 2010, when Hispanics were asked to rate seven national issues in priority order, immigration came fifth! Education was first, employment second, and concern about the national debt trumped immigration as well. People feeling enormous anxiety about jobs, mortgages, and the national debt may not find Obama the most appealing candidate in 2010, and his lackadaisical and belated response to illegal immigration may not be enough to rescue his tarnished reputation.

It is also conceivable that the right decision by the Republicans in selecting their presidential nominee's running mate could in one bold swift move undo years of ham-handed, condescending Democratic pandering to Hispanics. Like other members of immigrant groups who are still far from being thoroughly acculturated, continue to feel the pull of homeland loyalty, do not feel fully accepted, and are not yet fully home in America, some Hispanics have a tendency to vote for candidates who share their racial/ethnic/cultural identity. It is a matter of seeking security and reassurance in what is known and a question of ethnic pride at least as much as a choice reflecting policy or ideological preferences. In addition, if the presidential candidate is one of their own, it would provide Hispanics an unprecedented opportunity to mainstream their identity and take a huge symbolic step on the path to full assimilation.

The obvious choice is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, someone on most Republican shortlists. A freshman with authentic star power from an important swing state, highly intelligent, eloquent, unusually telegenic as well as charismatic, his conservative credentials are impeccable. He has excellent relations with the Tea Party movement (something that might help Romney shore up their support should he be nominated), and despite his Hispanic cultural roots he opposes amnesty and illegal immigration. This is hardly unusual with someone of Cuban-American heritage; Florida's Cuban-Americans remain solidly Republican and immigration policy is not a priority for them. Several recently-elected Hispanic officer holders in states with large numbers of Hispanics – Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico – are both border hawks, a position Hispanic voters are evidently prepared to tolerate in a Hispanic candidate.

Like many other eventual candidates, Rubio has strenuously denied any interest in being on the ticket; indeed, he's stated he will not run. But such assertions are meaningless at this stage of the political process. It seems inconceivable he would turn down what would likely amount to a draft at the convention, refuse to provide what could be a winning asset to the ticket, and quite possibly end up being the first Hispanic a heartbeat away from the Presidency. If anything has the capacity to change Hispanic enthusiasm about going to the polls, his nomination would be it, and all of those swing states Obama took in 2008 would be in play – with a decided advantage for the Republicans.

Indeed, the current negative publicity campaign pro-Democratic media have sought to generate regarding Rubio's so-called "embellishing" of his family history seems more like a desperation move than anything else. They are attempting to do everything they can, including making a mountain out of an obvious molehill, to try reducing the appeal of a politician they rightly fear.


Having taken a brief detour into Hispanic voting, we'll conclude by returning to our central motif: the elitist Manichean thinking of Gerson and company and note it is both a symptom and cause of their fundamental misunderstanding of "wedge issues." As noted, we are not dealing with a "wedge issue" as the term is conventionally employed. But if Gerson insists on using it, then let's hoist him on his own petard.

When it comes to the politics of immigration, the term "wedge" isn't remotely adequate to describe the socio-political division it conjures. There isn't merely a "wedge;" there's a vast gulf, a deep division, a wide chasm far greater and infinitely wider than any "wedge" could conceivably be. A "wedge" is understood to divide people into groups of significant size on opposed sides.

However, the battle over immigration doesn't do anything of the kind. It pits "We the people" – the overwhelming majority of Americans – to whom the Constitution grants governing power against a tiny group of elitists who for decades usurped decision-making on this issue and wish to perpetuate that usurpation long enough until they are able to make their policy preferences irrevocable.

The leadership of this elite coterie – who are hardly allies on all issues – represent important players among the fiscal elite; the political class, most though by no means all liberal; the chattering classes in all the media; the thought police of political correctness who have seized the academy and turned it into their boot camp; libertarian believers in the false messiah of an imaginary free market in goods and people; Hispanic "leaders" (though it must be noted there are no mass-membership Hispanic organizations and the "leaders" don't "lead" ordinary Hispanics but direct small policy or legal defense shops funded by the big liberal foundations; the leaders of Big Religion; the billionaire foundation culture on the left); and the directors of a vast network of racial, ethnic, cultural, and sexual-orientation political identity groups. In addition, there are the earnest if self-deluded naïfs of the prejudice-reduction industry; the money-grubbing Torquemadas such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) ferreting out the imagined bigots and fascists (read: their political opponents) in our midst; the phony heroes of the multinational human rights empire whose integrity was epitomized at Durban I, II and III; know-nothing "progressive" educators; and all the sleazy traveling showmen of the race-for-profit game, the guilt-trip for dollars scam – many now risibly considered elder statesmen and treated as such by the White House, leading politicians, and the mainstream media.

No matter how infinitesimal a fraction of American opinion it represents, this group has the right to disagree vehemently with the great majority. That's the essence of democracy where the majority does not tyrannize over the minority. It should also be noted that this faction certainly has more than its fair share of capacity to do that given the huge financial resources at its disposal, the power it wields in school and universities, its capacity at least to try to morally bully the God-fearing from the pulpit, the independence of elected officials who regularly fail to represent the views of the majority of their constituents, and its out-and-out control of the mainstream media.

It ought to go without saying that it is infinitely more urgent that the great majority's voice be heard for representative democracy to survive. The reverse must be the rule if our system is to be something other than a pretense and sham. The small unrepresentative elite must cease usurping the people's will, no matter how exalted they find their own motives, no matter how much more clever, moral, and enlightened they imagine themselves to be.

To persist in doing this is to act the part of old-fashioned tyranny. John Stuart Mill's On Liberty notwithstanding, in America in 2011 the greater danger to representative democracy is the traditional version of tyranny: tyranny by the minority, tyranny by the elite. That arrogant anti-democratic vision lies just beneath the morally self-righteous condescension of Gerson and company. This is the essence of his fanaticism: his certainty that he and his ilk, a tiny unrepresentative portion of the nation, know far more than the great majority of their fellow citizens and should, therefore, in essence, govern.

When it comes to the crisis that is immigration policy, the American people have figured out the dangerous and transparent game Gerson and company are playing. It is the principal reason they have voted with their feet, made their disgust clear, and abandoned the mainstream media. More important, they have no intention of permitting him to win.