Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Interest Group Logjam on Immigration Policy

In my classes this semester I've been using the current immigration reform stalement as an example of hyperpluralist politics in the U.S. Hyperpluralist theory claims that the interest group system is out of control. All group demands on government are legitimate, and government's job is to advance them all -- a situtation that often leads to confusing policies or outright political gridlock. The political scientist Theodore Lowi called this "interest group liberalism."

Jonah Goldberg,
in an essay earlier in the week, provides a nice example of how the logjam on immigration is explained as a case of hyperpluralism:

This weird logjam, as the word implies, has a lot of logs to it. The first log is corporations, which like illegal immigrants. Corporations generally support Republicans and centrist Democrats, and that makes the pols wary of tackling the issue head-on.

Then there's a whole set of logs on the left. Identity-politics fanatics have welcomed the undocumented as the Coalition of the Oppressed. Major universities, the editorial pages of the leading newspapers, some Christian denominations, Latino activists and various allied groups have bought into the idea that there's something fundamentally illegitimate or icky about trying to stem the tide of immigrants who come here illegally.

There are other random logs. There are libertarians who think that the principles and benefits of free trade apply to the unrestricted movements of workers just as surely as to wheat and transistors. There are neoconservatives of Jewish or Irish Catholic descent who believe that the heroic narrative of the United States as a nation of immigrants will be desecrated if the U.S. actually performs one of the minimal requirements of a modern nation-state and controls its own borders.

Jam all the logs together and you have campus leftists aligned with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Nancy Pelosi with George W. Bush and with the Wall Street Journal, all standing shoulder-to-shoulder to block serious immigration reform.

With the important exception of working-class Latinos (legal and illegal), one thing that unites all of these people is that they are members of the economic and social elite. It doesn't matter that most of them can't stand each other on most issues. When it comes to immigration, they have settled on a marriage of convenience.

The worry is that this leaves a lot of room for populists, rabble rousers and opportunists to exploit immigration — as Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk have done across Europe. This vacuum is unsustainable. More than anything else, politicians like popular issues. Eventually someone will figure out how to claim the emotional power of the immigration issue, for one party or the other.
For Goldberg, CNN's Lou Dobbs is the current immigration debate's most vocal populist. Yet in moving forward, Goldberg notes that the conservative emphasis on preserving civic culture allows room for continued immigration to the country. With their economic nationalism, it's harder for populists to make the same case.

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