Originally published in Official Artur Davis
A decade ago, the Hispanic political community and the gay rights lobby were in a substantially similar position: both with agendas that were largely under radar, far enough off the grid that their cause was neither a rallying point for friends nor a wedge issue for their adversaries. The demands of both groups were mostly inconsequential in a national election.
Adjust the dial to 2012 and both gay rights and immigration have turned into cultural flashpoints. But the fortunes of the respective constituencies have taken sharply divergent paths. By any measure, gay rights advocates are on the rise. A once far-fetched goal of theirs, repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, survived congressional gridlock to become one of the Obama administration’s signature achievements; an even more implausible seeming cause, full-fledged marital status for same-sex couples, has just won the endorsement of the President of the United States and has become a major policy commitment of that president’s party.
In contrast, Hispanic interest groups are in the midst of a bad run. They are winless at the congressional level in the preceding decade—losing badly in their campaign to open up citizenship opportunities for much of the illegal immigrant population, and failing in a more incremental bid to legalize young undocumented adults who join the military or complete college. During Barack Obama’s term, they have actually lost ground. Alabama and Arizona have passed sharply restrictive laws aimed at making their states all but unlivable for illegal immigrants. The Democratic Party that generally wins Latino votes has been an ambivalent ally, with two major elements of their base, labor unions and African Americans, skeptical of any broad liberalization of immigration laws.
The Hispanic lobby must wonder what went so wrong, and it’s a question worth pondering in the aftermath of the past week. I’ll venture two reasons. First, supporters of immigration reform have simply failed to define and caricature their opposition as effectively as has the gay rights movement. The GLBT constituency has deployed the high-minded approach, evoking comparisons with the civil rights activism of the sixties; the bare knuckled version, branding critics as intolerant bigots; and the thinly veiled knife, insinuating before New York’s gay marriage decision that certain on-the fence legislators might be trying to cover up their own closeted sexuality. At best, the immigration reform effort has shown some of the same brass in slowing the trend of state by state crack-downs, but it has struggled to effectively draw moralistic distinctions around any proactive strategy, whether a moderate measure like the Dream Act, or a more comprehensive rewrite like the 2006 McCain-Kennedy legislation.
A telling example is how the appeal for expanded rights, either marriage or citizenship, has tended to be framed by the respective camps. Supporters of gay rights have styled their appeals as a desire to be absorbed into the broader national community; shrewdly, they have often described marital rights as an assumption of responsibility instead of as a newly acquired freedom. Immigration rights forces, on the other hand, have struggled to brand their case as one of assimilation; all too often, it has been dismissed as a push for more benefits and more government resources in a decade of fiscal scarcity; and as a kind of special treatment rather than fair treatment, amnesty rather than responsibility.
Which leads to the second reason gay progress has outpaced Hispanic progress: opponents of immigration reform have skillfully depicted the cause as either a permissive rewarding of lawbreaking, or as an economic threat to another constituency, low-wage workers who face competition from cheap immigrant labor. It’s a blend that has solidified conservative resistance and eroded potential alliances within the Democratic base. Foes of gay marriage, in turn, have been far less effective in shaping a rhetorical case that can’t be easily slighted: social conservatives have stressed theological arguments that tend to fall flat outside evangelical circles, and more mainline conservative critics have seemed halting and uncomfortable. They have settled for weak deflections like describing Obama’s reversal last week as a distraction from worsening job numbers. Even an articulate phrase-master like Chris Christie has uncharacteristically stumbled around the terms of the debate: effectively defending the advantages of a democratic referendum over a judicial or legislative resolution, but unwisely pondering that southern blacks would have wished for a similar opportunity at statewide votes on their rights in the sixties. (actually: not at all, Governor, not then or now).
To be sure, the case for expanded gay rights enjoys other advantages: the cheerleading of the mainstream media and the entertainment industry, an affluent support base that can fund both allies and rivals to opponents, and the ubiquity of gay Americans in every identifiable demographic. But, arguably, not one of these factors is a new or unique phenomenon, and there are ample enough instances where the media’s blessing and deep donor pockets (the Equal Rights Amendment and environmentalists) haven’t had a lasting impact and where interests with much greater strength of numbers (labor unions) have run out of steam. In fairness, it’s a singular kind of momentum that gay rights proponents have managed to seize and one that has come in a center-right national political environment.
There is a deeper implication that goes beyond the aspirations of the affected communities and their organized loyalists. The nearly half the country that is skeptical of gay marriage but is dismissed as regional, generational, and on the wrong side of history, and the slim majorities of Americans who favor more moderate immigration policies but seem perpetually on the defensive, actually have the same grievance: they are losing ground in spite of their size and their proximity to the middle ground. Each side is paying the price of culture-based politics.
The prism of the culture wars rewards a sharp, even if simplistic, not altogether factual depiction, of the moral terms of the debate (in my previous essay on gay marriage, I mention Ross Douthat’s very smart column on this point). Taking advantage of that prism is the surest technique in modern politics for out-smarting a majority or near majority. It’s all one more reason the middle seems so robust in theory, so ineffectual in practice.