How the GOP Can Market Limited Government to Immigrant Voters and Win


Over at NRO, Reihan Salam raises some pertinent issues about my recent column suggesting that Republicans need to learn from Canada's Tories as to how to market limited government principles to immigrants — rather than fearing that immigration reform will create an unbeatable constituency for the Democratic welfare state. (Canada's Tories Show How the GOP Can Win Immigrant Votes.) Indeed, so successful have the Tories been in wooing immigrant voters that Canada's liberals are now complaining that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a conservative, is pushing for more open immigration policies to gain a permanent vote bank!

Quoting John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker's book The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Salam retorts that the conservative shift among Canada's immigrants is a function of an immigration policy that favors high-skilled immigrants — which is what he has been advocating for America all along. He says:

[T]he shift to the political right has not been universal among foreign-born Canadians. Rather, it is concentrated among relatively affluent suburban voters of Asian origin who have lived in Canada for ten years or more. Canadian immigrants who've lived in the country for a shorter period of time and who live in low-income households are far less inclined to back the CPC.

So basically we know that affluent, upwardly-mobile, tax-sensitive Canadians of Asian origin living in intact families are willing to back a center-right political party that scrupulously avoids taking a stance on contentious social issues and that is famously (some would say infamously) pragmatic on matters of macroeconomic policy and that presents itself as a defender of the country's single-payer health system. It is not obvious that this should lead us to conclude that immigrants living in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or indeed less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, a nontrivial number of whom have children outside of marriage, will enthusiastically support a U.S. political party that, among other things, is committed to rolling back the expansion of the Medicaid program and the new health entitlements under the Affordable Care Act as well as other redistributive measures, and that favors substantial cuts in marginal tax rates.

Fair enough. But the problem is that the GOP has managed to alienate not just Hispanics allegedly collecting welfare and living below the poverty level. With a few exceptions like Cuban and Vietnamese Americans, it has alienated every ethnic minority: high- or low-skilled; Asian or Hispanic; rich or poor; on- or off-the-dole; with intact families or without them — as I have written here, here and here. For example, more than 85 percent of Asian Indians voted for Barack Obama, and 65 percent generally vote Democratic even though they are the richest minority in the country, have strong families and low welfare use. Clearly, the problem is not with immigrants, as Salam and other conservatives suggest, but the GOP itself.

Salam notes that shift to the political right among Canada's immigrants is concentrated in "relatively affluent suburban voters of Asian origin who have lived in Canada for ten years or more." But he doesn't say if Canada's less affluent, low-skilled immigrants are rejecting the Conservative Party overwhelmingly or by small margins or perhaps even supporting it by a small margin? This matters because the GOP doesn't actually have to win the Hispanic vote to be electorally competitive if whites lose their demographic dominance and Hispanics grow to become the largest non-white group — about 30% of the population—by 2050 as projected — just not lose it in an overwhelming fashion.

After all, George Bush managed to pull over 40% of the Hispanic vote and won. By contrast, John McCain and Romney got only 35% and 29% respectively and lost. Over the 15 years that Republicans have hemorrhaged Hispanic support, Hispanics didn't get poorer or more welfare-dependent or more hostile to limited government principles—the GOP got meaner and more anti-immigrant, reaching its apex with Romney's notorious remark during a GOP primary debate that his preferred strategy to deal with unauthorized Hispanics would be to get them to "voluntarily self deport."

Such sentiments drive not just Hispanics into the Democratic camp but even the immigrants that Salam finds desirable. Why? Because as a recent survey by College Republican National Committee survey found, immigration is a "gateway issue" that signals a party's overall commitment to tolerance. Immigrant bashing of one group makes all immigrant minorities uncomfortable, even ones that are not the GOP's intended target. And the fact that the GOP continues to hold immigration reform hostage to first sealing the border only solidifies the image of the GOP as an anti-immigrant, anti-minority party — even when they might not disagree with the GOP about curbing welfare abuse or imposing reasonable border controls etc.

Salam maintains that the real lesson from Canada is that the GOP should aim for an immigration policy that favors high-skilled immigrants. But Canada's conservatives have done the opposite: moved their country away from such a policy, a point that Salam acknowledges but doesn't sufficiently grapple with. No longer does Ottawa plan the whole country's labor market based on a point-based system that gave a huge leg up to credentialed foreigners. It lets provinces and employers decide what kinds of immigrants they want and many of them have been choosing what in America would be considered low- or semi-skilled immigrants.

And there are sound policy and electoral reasons for this shift. The policy reason of course is that it does an economy no good to have a glut of PhDs who can't find jobs in their fields and end up driving cabs. And, politically, if avoiding welfare-dependency is the key to keeping immigrants in the conservative camp, then it is far from clear that an out-of-work biochemist from Russia is going to vote for conservatives any more than a fully-employed, dry-wall hanger from Mexico.

It is true that most immigrants don't come to America out of an ideological commitment to limited government — they come here to improve their lives. They have no principled objection to welfare (although they emphatically don't come here with an eye to living off it, conservative tropes about anchor babies etc. notwithstanding). Their politics, like those of a vast majority of Americans, are pragmatic.

But what Canada's conservatives have figured out that the GOP hasn't is that one can't appeal to immigrant voters (or other voters, for that matter) by bandying around abstract principles — and then blaming them if they don't immediately see the light. One has to appeal to them by developing a concrete program based on these principles that's relevant to their daily lives and concerns.

Hispanic immigrants might not turn down food stamps that liberals want to extend to them, but they might have more use for a party that pushes for a usable guest worker program out of a commitment to reducing government-created obstacles to worker mobility. (Instead, Republicans have made protecting the border a sovereignty issue.)

Sikh émigrés who left India during a persecutory chapter in that country's history might gladly accept stimulus dollars that Canada's liberals have been showering on them to build temples. But, as it turns out, they appreciate even more a party that asserts a bedrock commitment to religious freedom and toleration. (Instead, Republicans have made the threat that a multiplicity of religions poses to America's Anglo-Christian character their battle cry. Witness the fear mongering about creeping sharia in America and Bill O' Reilly's perennial crusade about how Christians are allegedly made to feel uncomfortable about expressing their faith in public.)

Chinese and Indian Tiger Moms who take the education of their children extremely seriously might not march on the streets against federal aid to local public schools, but they might well embrace a party that gives them control over their education dollars so that they can send their kids to the school of their choice. (Instead, Republican support for the school choice movement has foundered out of fears about the impact that inner-city minority kids might have on lily-white suburban school districts where their core constituency lives.)

The point is that a more (ethnically and economically) diverse electorate is not necessarily in any greater inherent tension with limited government principles than the current (white) electorate. The tension points are just different. They both present their own opportunities for principle versus populism. Trying to socially engineer an electorate suitable for these principles will do more damage to these principles than engineering a politics suitable to the new electorate.

Developing this politics will be enormously difficult of course, requiring a complete paradigm shift by the GOP. A wholesale uniform agenda that worked for a more homogeneous population will no longer do so. Retail politics is the name of the game going forward. To this end, the GOP will need to get to know each community, understand its issues and concerns and micro target its policies and messaging — just like Canada's Tories have done. That will require it to diversify its grassroots cadres and court different ethnic groups — not sanguinely point to token minorities in high places such Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal as proof of its openness.

The GOP, in short, has its work cut out for it if it wants to remain politically competitive. And folks like Salam, who are considered a voice for reform trying to move conservatives in a kinder, gentler and more moderate direction, could help enormously by counseling the GOP to stop fretting about how amnesty will hurt its political prospects or high-skilled immigrants will help and simply embrace the cause of more generous immigration, as their own principles would dictate. The GOP has missed the opportunity to own this issue, but the more it plays obstructionist, the harder its task of wooing future voters will get.

Indeed, the sooner immigration reform is taken off the table, the sooner the GOP can focus its energies on its political makeover.