Republican leaders, worried about their party’s lack of success among ethnic minorities, are reaching for just the wrong remedy. The GOP, they say, should stress symbolic ethnic outreach, while downplaying its principled opposition to affirmative action, bilingual education, and multiculturalism. As a result, “diversity” is now a watchword in GOP candidate selection, choice of convention speakers, and House leadership battles. But to no avail. The Republicans’ electoral catastrophe in California last November demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of the strategy of “me-too” diversity-mongering. Rather, it is staunch adherence to conservative principles that turns out to be good politics as well as good policy.
Underlying the GOP rout in California was a demographic trend that is ominous for Republicans: The 1998 elections were the third in a row that saw California’s increasingly numerous non-white voters — already 35 percent of the electorate — shunning Republican candidates up and down the ticket in unprecedented numbers. Against such a tide, Republicans could not afford mistakes.
Dan Lungren’s campaign for governor recognized the challenge and followed every textbook prescription for outreach to California’s vast Hispanic and Asian and smaller black populations. Lungren emphasized his friendliness toward immigrants, campaigned vigorously in minority neighborhoods, spent considerable time and advertising money on Spanish-language media, and ducked or actually opposed any ethnically charged issues such as Proposition 227, “English for the Children,” the ballot measure overwhelmingly passed in June 1998 that replaced the long-standing system of bilingual education in California schools with intensive English instruction. But none of these efforts seems to have attracted minority voters. Lungren ran a weak campaign, and the day of his humiliating 20-point defeat, two exit polls put his share of the Latino vote at 17 percent and 23 percent respectively; his support among Asians and blacks was similarly dismal. He could probably have done about this well without spending a dime on ethnic outreach.
As for the Republican statewide slate generally, it was far more ethnically diverse than its Democratic counterpart — the eight candidates included two Latinos and Matt Fong, the Asian-American challenger for Barbara Boxer’s U.S. Senate seat — yet fared little better than Lungren among minorities. Just two GOP candidates won, both white male incumbents who massively outspent weak Democratic challengers and still barely eked out victories. Apparently, non-white Californians just don’t trust Republicans, even those who campaign on or personify inclusiveness. Furthermore, squishy Republican rhetoric may have annoyed the conservative California base, which stayed home in droves, making way for what may have been the greatest Democratic landslide since 1932.
What went wrong? Until 1994, statewide and national Republican candidates could regularly count on 40 percent or more of the Latino vote in California, and their strength among Asians often exceeded their white support. Pete Wilson’s 1990 campaign for governor against Dianne Feinstein, for example, attracted 47 percent of Hispanics, 58 percent of Asians, and just 53 percent of whites, a fairly typical achievement for Republican candidates. (Black support for Republicans in California was usually close to its national level of 15 percent, but since California’s population is only 7 percent black, the political impact was minimal.)
All this changed in 1994, first with the GOP’s support for Proposition 187, the ballot initiative to eliminate public schooling and other government benefits for illegal immigrants and their children, then with the emergence of the immigration issue as a centerpiece of state and national Republican party politics. The party favored curbing illegal immigration. Initially, legal immigrants (who deeply resent their illegal counterparts) seemed to support the drive to rein in illegal border-crossings. But the tenor of the public debate soon shifted. The rhetoric, images, and policy proposals put forward by both sides seemed to expand the targeted group to include the 90 percent of resident immigrants who are legal and, by implication, all Americans of Asian or Latino ancestry. Gov. Pete Wilson rode Prop. 187 to a landslide reelection in November 1994, but when he told reporters that the measure was intended to help send “Jose” back to Mexico, a lot of voters named “Jose” got angry. (“Jose,” symptomatically, has now become the most common boy’s name in both California and Texas.)
Then in 1995 and 1996, congressional Republicans led by Sen. Alan Simpson and Rep. Lamar Smith came close to pushing through the most sweeping restrictions on immigration since the nativist backlash of the 1920s. Extremist groups, such as Voice of Citizens Together (VCT), which had led the charge for Prop. 187, began loudly to denounce third- and fourth-generation Mexican-Americans as agents of the reconquista, intent on returning the Southwest to Mexican rule. And in the final stages of the Dole presidential campaign, millions of dollars’ worth of television advertisements running in California denounced the nefarious role of illegal “Asian money” in funding Bill Clinton and the Democrats, even though the sums involved were a small fraction of the total, and subsequent investigations revealed that comparable amounts of illegal “Asian money” obtained by RNC chairman Haley Barbour had helped finance the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 (not to mention the billion or more in Korean money that has funded conservative media outlets including the Washington Times over recent decades).
The result was a catastrophic hemorrhaging of Asian and Latino support for Republicans in the 1996 elections and a huge surge in the naturalization of immigrants, who overwhelmingly registered as Democrats, all without any countervailing growth in Republican support among “angry white males.” The Dole campaign and Republicans generally suffered unexpected defeats in California, Florida, and Arizona — states with large immigrant populations — and were weakened elsewhere in the country. Terrified Republican leaders soon dumped the immigration issue as a political loser and abandoned their attack on affirmative action and other positions perceived as “guilty by association.” Newt Gingrich, until then a fierce champion of “English-only” policies, suddenly began supporting increased funding for bilingual education and statehood for the Spanish-speaking commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In California, Dan Lungren performed a similar about-face.
But you can’t unscramble an omelet, and the deep emotions unleashed in 1994 by Prop. 187 — which, had the courts not struck it down, would have expelled hundreds of thousands of immigrant children from California public schools — are still viscerally present in immigrant neighborhoods years after that vote. Such feelings cannot be countered by a few bland 30-second TV spots claiming “I’m-a-nice-Republican-who-likes-Latinos.” Even today, there are reports in the mainstream press (and all the more in the immigrant newspapers) regarding the deportation of legal residents who have lived their entire adult lives in this country to homelands they can barely remember because of, say, a single 15-year-old drunk-driving arrest. Such blatantly unjust results of the Republican-sponsored immigration legislation of 1996 remain a bleeding wound for the GOP.
It is the iron law of politics that a handful of “hot” issues like the cruel expulsion of immigrant children from school and the unjust deportation of longtime legal residents can create a powerful political alignment in a given community that years of political outreach and millions of dollars’ worth of feel-good advertising cannot overcome. Thus, the nativist and anti-Catholic Republican policies of the 1920s caused generations of Jews, Italians, and Slavs to remain unswerving Democrats until the advent of Ronald Reagan. The Republicans have gone far toward similarly alienating Latinos and Asians, especially in California, ground-zero of the immigration wars.
Nationally, the ethnic outlook for Republicans is bleak but somewhat less so. Many large states with huge Hispanic populations such as Texas and Florida avoided the bitter immigration wars when their Republican leaders refused to follow California’s lead on the issue. Local Republican candidates who were on the “right side” on immigration have done quite well among Hispanics. Gov. George W. Bush recently captured nearly half the Mexican-American vote in his landslide reelection victory, despite relying on the sort of outreach effort that would have failed dismally in California’s far more difficult political terrain.
But even in California, political lines and ethnic loyalties are not always predictable. Some of the state’s leading Democrats — including senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer — opportunistically clambered aboard Pete Wilson’s anti-immigration bandwagon in 1995 and 1996 and earned the lasting scorn of Latino and Asian leaders with this political betrayal; Feinstein’s unexpected decision not to seek the governorship in 1998 probably stemmed from this underpublicized fact.
Most interesting of all is the ethnic opening for Republicans in California suggested by the surprising course of the campaign for Prop. 227. When the anti-bilingual-education measure first gained visibility in mid-1997, political pundits said it completed the trilogy of ethnicity-charged ballot measures, the others being Prop. 187 in 1994 and Prop. 209, which largely ended state-sponsored affirmative action in 1996. Republican and Democratic party leaders agreed — the former nervously, the latter with glee — that this “third strike” would further mobilize immigrant voters and cement their loyalty to the Democratic party, which was expected to vigorously oppose the initiative. Frightened Republican leaders, from state party chairman Mike Schroeder on down, dumped decades of ideological support for English in the schools and declared their opposition to a measure they deemed certain to inflame immigrant hostility.
But California’s immigrants had a different view. During nearly a year of intensive campaigning and media coverage, a dozen major nonpartisan statewide public opinion polls showed that Prop. 227 enjoyed a wide and consistent lead among Asians and Latinos, with support often higher among immigrants than among whites. Given immigrants’ eagerness to have their children learn English and their firsthand awareness that the bilingual instruction their children were receiving in the schools was failing to teach them, these numbers were unsurprising. Partly for this reason, prominent Latino Democrats rarely spoke out against Prop. 227 during the campaign, and when they did, their opposition was often more nuanced and equivocal than that of the skittish (and hypocritical) Republican leaders.
In the end, several million dollars in unanswered anti-227 advertising (largely paid for by A. Jerrold Perenchio, the non-Latino Republican billionaire owner of America’s Spanish-language Univision television network) in the final two weeks of the campaign managed to drive Latino support for Prop. 227 below 50 percent. But the measure still ran some 20 points ahead of the statewide Republican candidates, including Lungren, whose public denunciation of 227 ironically was used as a centerpiece of the “No” media campaign. It’s also worth noting that Prop. 227 ran almost as strongly among California Latinos as Gov. Bush recently did among Texas Latinos, despite the gigantic advertising disadvantage of the former and advantage of the latter. Finally, private polling conducted three months after the vote on Prop. 227 revealed that Latino support for the measure had already reverted to the 65 percent range, its level prior to the massive “No” advertising campaign.
In the long run, however, Latino public opinion on Prop. 227 is far less politically potent than the actual effects of the measure in the schools. Unlike Prop. 187 (which was drafted in direct contradiction of a Supreme Court decision, and therefore was largely symbolic) and Prop. 209 (which directly affected only a few thousand college students and government contractors), Prop. 227 has vast practical as well as symbolic consequences.
Over the past few months, Prop. 227 has already altered the life chances of the 1.4 million California schoolchildren classified as not fluent in English. Despite resistance and obstructionism on the part of school districts wedded to the status quo, the number of students enrolled in bilingual programs fell statewide by over 80 percent between June and September 1998, and those bilingual programs that survive appear to have substantially increased their English content as a defensive move. Since children are likely to learn English much more quickly if their schools teach it to them, these changes should reverberate throughout California’s educational system, from kindergarten through college. Recent front-page articles in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere report that former bilingual-ed teachers are astonished at how quickly and easily their students are learning English.
Last year, partly because of the political pressure generated by the 227 campaign, California’s legislature independently voted to require that all students be given standardized tests, in English, in a range of academic subjects, with the scores aggregated and made available school-by-school and district-by-district on the Internet. The results in general were embarrassing — California students ranked substantially below the national average — but the scores of limited-English students were dreadful, with the mean around the fifteenth percentile and huge numbers of students below the fifth percentile. These children could barely read or write a word of English, sometimes after many years in California schools.
If the changes wrought by Prop. 227 succeed in raising immigrant test scores even to the twentieth or twenty-fifth percentile, any residual opposition to “English for the Children” seems likely to collapse. Just as it has recently become very difficult to find prominent California Republicans who admit they supported Prop. 187, prominent Democrats may soon squirm when forced to explain why they opposed teaching immigrant children English in school. And since the Republican party of California endorsed Prop. 227 (over the vigorous opposition of its own top leadership), the language issue may provide Republicans entree to Latinos and immigrants in general.
All non-partisan polls and surveys have indicated that immigrant parents place the highest value on learning English, for themselves and their children. In fact, the single largest source of advertising on Spanish-language television are schools and tutoring services that teach English, while “Aprender Ingles” (Learn English Here) is among the commonest storefront signs in Latino immigrant neighborhoods. Proposition 227 was the most sweeping call for dismantling native-language instruction in thirty years, going far beyond anything ever proposed by Ronald Reagan. Moreover, Prop. 227 was the fruit of a low-budget, grassroots campaign vigorously opposed by the president of the United States, the chairmen of the California Republican and Democratic parties, all four candidates for California governor, every major public and private union, nearly every political slate, and every educational organization. The proponents were outspent in advertising by some 25-1. Yet the measure won by 61-39 percent, one of the largest victories of any contested California initiative in twenty years. Even under the most unfavorable possible campaign-spending conditions, it carried almost 40 percent of the Latino vote and 60 percent of the Asian vote. This demonstrates the drawing power of the English education issue for immigrant voters.
By contrast, the wretched performance of the diversity-conscious 1998 Republican ticket in California shows that generic feel-good Republican advertising aimed at California Latinos cannot overcome the toxic legacy of Pete Wilson and Prop. 187. What would have real meaning for voters, however, is the heartfelt testimony of mothers and fathers whose children were rescued from crippling English illiteracy by the passage of Prop. 227.
Among likely presidential candidates, Steve Forbes campaigned for Prop. 227 last fall, a heartening sign. George W. Bush and John McCain, on the other hand, remain defenders of bilingual programs. Is it too much to hope that in 2000, the Republican ticket will unflinchingly adhere to one of the party’s bedrock (and hugely popular) principles — assimilation through the teaching of English in school — thereby also attracting immigrant families in large numbers back into the party that many of them until recently called home?
Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, was the author of Proposition 227 and led the campaign to pass it in 1998.