The tea party fights back on immigration

A couple of weeks ago I reported that the prospects for immigration reform in the United States were looking reasonably positive after the draft reform bill passed its first hurdle in the Senate. I quoted Jon Chait’s view that the bill’s opponents were “going through the motions.”

Now it doesn’t look so good. John Boehner, Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, indicated last week that he was reluctant to allow a reform bill to come to a vote unless it had the support of a majority of Republicans. And that’s always been an unlikely outcome; there are probably enough Republican votes in the House to pass a reform measure with the support of Democrats, but no-one seems to think they’ll be a majority of the Republican caucus.

Frank Rich says he’s “convinced that immigration reform is dead.” I’m not so sure – the Republican Party badly needs to do something to win back some Hispanic votes, and its elites have beaten its rank-and-file into submission before (that’s how it got its last two presidential candidates). But it does seem as if the opposition to the bill has finally got some momentum on its side.

That’s a sign of how much strength the nativist element still commands in the GOP. For them, a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants means rewarding the “invasion” of “illegals” from Mexico, who threaten their cherished picture of a white English-only America.

Which makes it topical that a new study of the “tea party” movement – Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America, by Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto – has just been released. I haven’t seen the full version, but there’s an extensive review of it by Michael O’Donnell in the New Republic, and you can read an earlier version of the argument in this paper from 2011.

Parker and Barreto’s key finding is that opposition to Barack Obama, rather than any policy position, is the main factor uniting tea party supporters. In O’Donnell’s words:

The problem is not merely that Obama is a black man, but that he symbolizes everything that Tea Partiers dislike about the direction of the country. Thus Obama’s skin color is part of the equation, but so are his international background, his exotic-sounding name, his past work on behalf of the inner-city poor, his urban and openly intellectual affiliations, and the demographic change that he represents. As the authors put it: Tea Partiers believe that Obama is “conspiring with liberals and minorities to subvert the American way, ultimately stealing the United States from them, its rightful heirs.”

The media did a great disservice in 2009 when they took the tea party at its word and characterised it as a movement primarily about taxes, government spending and states’ rights. Tea party supporters may hold genuine views on those subjects, but clearly they are not what motivate them. No amount of concern about the deficit will impel someone to part company with reality in the way the tea partiers do. (Even the birthers are making a comeback.)

Back in 2010, also talking about immigration, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon wondered “How often are we expected to find it a revelation that the teabaggers are a bunch of cranky old racists whose anger that the world is passing them by boiled over when the country elected a black President?” It’s still a good question.

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