The 900-pound gorilla standing in the middle of the California governor’s race that no one dares mention is not Arnold Schwarzenegger but the issue of immigration. Actually, quite a few do mention it, but so far not one of the major candidates has done so. The only people who talk about it are the candidates who have no chance of winning.
Mr. Schwarzenegger, whom most observers say is the likely winner, doesn’t utter much of a peep about immigration, legal or illegal, except to take what is now almost a dangerously right-wing extremist position that illegal aliens shouldn’t get drivers’ licenses. Since he supported Proposition 187, widely viewed as an immigration restriction measure, and since the head of his campaign is former Gov. Pete Wilson, who won re-election by wrapping himself in Prop 187, the muscleman’s silence on immigration is a bit odd.
But it’s no more unusual than the silence of every other major candidate. Last week the Washington Times reported that “Many of those running in the California recall election are pushing for curbs on illegal immigration – almost everyone, it seems, except the major candidates” and “from [Democratic Gov. Gray] Davis, to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to independent Arianna Huffington, the candidates who have grabbed most of the attention are largely silent on illegal immigration”—not to mention the legal variety. [[Top recall hopefuls quiet on illegals, By Stephen Dinan, August 28, 2003]]
Those who do campaign on it include Douglas Anderson, a mortgage broker, pornographer Larry Flynt, and others who advocate controlling illegal immigration and protecting the border, but the main and probably most serious and responsible immigration control advocate in the race is school teacher Joe Guzzardi, who actually knows something (indeed, quite a bit) about the issue. He writes a local newspaper column about it and, when Jay Leno invited all 135 gubernatorial candidates onto his show, had the good sense and taste to decline.
Mr. Guzzardi has no illusions he will win, but he also has no intention of lowering himself and the major issue facing his state and the country to the same level as the porn kings and New Age goofballs who will perform in Mr. Leno’s circus.
So why don’t the major candidates mention immigration, especially since polls show that 70 to 85 percent of Americans want it reduced and controlled? One answer, offered to the Times by political scientist Ricardo Ramirez, is that no one demands they deal with it.
“The mainstream candidates aren’t focusing on immigration, and a big reason is the public isn’t focusing on that,” the professor says. That’s probably true, but it really doesn’t explain an awful lot, and in an important way, he has it backwards.
The art of serious political leadership is to tell voters what they should know and think. In most cases, the “public,” the “people,” the “electorate” don’t tell the leaders what to do because the leaders are telling the voters. On the immigration issue, the “public isn’t focusing” because the leaders refuse to discuss it at all.
The leaders, in other words, have not made immigration an issue, and one reason they haven’t is that they’re either afraid to do so (that would be “racist” or “xenophobic” or some other label stationed at the gates of public discussion to keep out unwanted ideas), or they’re compromised on it—they owe too much to or want the support of groups that want mass immigration to keep coming—agribusiness, the teachers’ unions, the Hispanic lobby, the Thought Police in general.
The term political scientists use for the degree to which voters will vote for or against a candidate because of his position on a particular issue is “saliency.”
Immigration does not have high saliency, you see, because while voters may be opposed to it, it’s not what causes them to cast a vote for or against a candidate.
But the saliency concept is also a bit of a vicious circle. The reason immigration lacks saliency is that candidates don’t talk about it. And another reason they don’t is that until recently mass immigration, while undesirable, was not a serious national danger. What should have changed that was a couple of airplane crashes on Sept. 11, 2001.
What 9/11 showed is that by letting just anybody and everybody into the country, we were inviting the very sort of massive terrorist attacks that actually happened—as well as the crime, drug dealing, ethnic and cultural conflicts and other problems associated with immigration.
And that means that even major candidates ought to be talking about the immigration crisis and what we should do about it.
The fact that they don’t and won’t tells us a lot more about what’s wrong with the major candidates—and the condition of American “democracy”—than it does about the voters they say they want to lead.