The older I get, the more I comprehend that one of the ways of understanding how contemporary American politics works is the vast gulf that often exists between elite opinion and motivations in this country and the opinions of most Americans. Case in point, illegal immigration. At a time when the American economy is on the rocks and we have a federal debt that can never be repaid short of debt repudiation or ruinous inflation, which is another name for debt repudiation, the political class is focused on a Senate bill to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, amnesty. Leaving aside the merits of the bill, which I suspect is one with Nineveh and Tyre as far as the House is concerned, it is an odd priority until one looks at it as elite opinion does in this country. My favorite living historian, Victor Davis Hanson, does so in a recent column:
Take illegal immigration. On the facts, it is elitist to the core. Big business, flush with cash, nevertheless wants continued access to cheap labor, and so favors amnesties for millions who arrived without English, education, or legality. On the other end of the scale, Jorge Hernandez, making $9 an hour mowing lawns, is not enthusiastic about an open border, which undercuts his meager bargaining power with his employer.
The state, not the employer, picks up the cost of subsidies to ensure that impoverished illegal-immigrant workers from Oaxaca have some semblance of parity with American citizens in health care, education, legal representation, and housing. The employers’ own privilege exempts them from worrying whether they would ever need to enroll their kids in the Arvin school system, or whether an illegal-alien driver will hit their daughter’s car on a rural road and leave the scene of the accident. In other words, no one in Atherton is in a trailer house cooking meth; the plastic harnesses of missing copper wire from streetlights are not strewn over the sidewalks in Palo Alto; and the Menlo schools do not have a Bulldog-gang problem.
Meanwhile, ethnic elites privately understand that the melting pot ensures eventual parity with the majority and thereby destroys the benefits of hyphenation. So it becomes essential that there remain always hundreds of thousands of poor, uneducated, and less-privileged immigrants entering the U.S. from Latin America. Only that way is the third-generation Latino professor, journalist, or politician seen as a leader of group rather than as an individual. Take away illegal immigration, and the Latino caucus and Chicano graduation ceremony disappear, and the beneficiaries become just ordinary politicians and academics, distinguished or ignored on the basis of their own individual performance.
Mexico? Beneath the thin veneer of Mexican elites suing Americans in U.S. courts is one of the most repressive political systems in the world. Mexican elites make the following cynical assumptions: Indigenous peoples are better off leaving Mexico and then scrimping to send billions of dollars home in remittances; that way, they do not agitate for missing social services back home; and once across the border, they act as an expatriate community to leverage concessions from the United States.
Nannies, gardeners, cooks, and personal attendants are increasingly recent arrivals from Latin America — even as the unemployment rates of Latino, African-American, and working-class white citizens remain high, with compensation relatively low. No wonder that loud protestations about “xenophobes, racists, and nativists” oil the entire machinery of elite privilege. Does the liberal congressman or the Washington public advocate mow his own lawn, clean his toilet, or help feed his 90-year-old mother? At what cost would he cease to pay others to do these things — $20, $25 an hour? And whom would he hire if there were no illegal immigrants? The unemployed African-American teenager in D.C.? The unemployed Appalachian in nearby West Virginia? I think not.
Go here to read other examples of the divergence of elite opinion from popular opinion. One of the advantages of democracy has traditionally been a responsiveness to public opinion. On the whole that is a good thing as it gives out warning signals that some government policy is rousing opposition in the land or some sort of problem must be addressed. Unfortunately we live in a time when the organs of media, academia and the entertainment industry almost entirely embrace the values of the overwhelming majority of elites, from whose ranks they tend to be drawn. What most Americans think matters little to them so long as elections can be manipulated so as to place in power those who share their goals. This is a dangerous situation for a polity that prizes itself on being a democracy and the elites in our society ignore it to their eventual peril. The line from the Kipling poem Tommy comes to mind:
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool, you bet that Tommy sees!