The ongoing election season in the US has been fascinating. We have seen the candidates now come down pretty much to John McCain for the Republicans, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democrats – all, I must say, first-rate candidates. I seldom judge candidates on their position on any one issue. Rather, I try to see how comfortable I am with their approach to governing, and with the kinds of people they will listen to and appoint to key positions.
But above all, I try to discern each candidate’s overall style and character. And this time around, I find that a candidate's attitude toward the immigration debates raging in the country is a very good proxy for how I feel about them. I don't mean necessarily their actual position on immigration - which is a very complex subject, with lots of room for different ideas on how to solve it. What I find most revealing and important is the tone with which they approach the immigration issues - is it angry and strident, or is it rational and thoughtful?
A number of media personalities - Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs, among others - have personally taken up the fight against illegal immigration - in particular, against illegal Mexican immigrants. They are very much in the angry, strident camp.
So are a number of politicians. A few prominent Republican presidential candidates who have since dropped out of the race fervently embraced the battle against illegal immigration - most likely as an attempt to appeal to a certain segment of Republican primary voters, given that they seemed to be latter day converts to this position.
To his credit, John McCain is not among them, even though he has been furiously attacked for his stand on the immigration issue by many in the media and in his own party. Whether you agree or not with John McCain ‘s positions on issues - and I certainly disagree with a number of his positions, specially on social issues - you have to respect his style and character. Last summer, he visited the AlwaysOn Stanford Summit, where I participated on a panel. He spoke to us and answered questions for quite awhile. At the time, McCain's campaign was pretty much dead. Yet, he was very gracious, more than held his own, and you could tell that he commanded the full respect of an audience that did not quite share all his positions.
I suspect that a number of the powerful figures in politics and the media that are leading the battle against illegal immigration view themselves as populist leaders. They would tell you that they are fighting for the people. Populist movements sometimes aim to mobilize the people against powerful elites - big business, the rich, government interests. I think that this kind of the-people-against-the-powerful populism is generally quite healthy for society, even if the cause being fought for is not one with which you agree. It acts as a kind of check-and-balance against the big, rich and powerful, and it likely helps to temper their worst excesses. In any event, the powerful can defend themselves quite well, so even when the battle against them is not right or fair, they have enough resources to see it through.
But when populist movements are aimed at poor and powerless groups, you have a totally different story. There is a long, sad history of building populist movements by picking some group – e.g., ethnic, religious, racial - and making them scapegoats for whatever “the people” are angry about. This kind of scapegoating populism can be particularly devastating when applied to powerless minority groups that are inherently less able to defend themselves. Such populist movements are often the seedbeds for fascism.
When economic conditions are tough, demagogues will often arise, point to one group and blame them for whatever anxieties the majority is feeling. This has gone on through human history - including in our own country. The attacks on illegal Mexican immigrants, which are often intermixed with discussions of the plight of the Middle Class, remind me of this sad history. I hear echoes in my brain of the hate speeches I have heard against blacks, Jews and others, some from historical documentaries, some, unfortunately, from more recent history.
It is particularly troublesome when the demagogues are media personalities looking to increase their ratings and politicians looking for votes. With apologies to Saint Matthew, all I can think of when hearing their angry, divisive rants is that " . . . it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a [demagogue looking for votes or ratings] to enter the kingdom of God."