I keep noticing a particular schizophrenic divide in the minds of Americans. It’s hard to grasp what most people actually believe. I try to stay informed with various data from polls and other research, but the overall pattern isn’t always clear. In this post, I’m going to point out a pattern I’ve seen before and have written about before. I’m going to do this by connecting it to the recent issue of immigration. My sense is that this pattern extends beyond any single issue.
Let me lay out the data first.
More Americans identify as conservative than identify as liberal.
But more Americans support or lean toward many of the major liberal positions.
According to some polls, most Americans were against the “socialist” Obamacare.
But it supposedly was based on a proposal made by Republicans in the 1990s.
And, when asked about specific items in the health insurance bill, most Americans supported them.
In particular, most Americans supported public option.
Most Americans support the Arizona immigration law in requiring immigrants (and those who look like immigrants) to carry identification.
But most Americans are against Americans carrying national identification cards and against racial profiling.
And most Americans support civil rights.
Let me dissect the immigration issue. Basically, many Americans are fine with treating latinos differently than other Americans. Of course, majority white Americans don’t like latinos because latinos are threatening their majority position, but I’ve seen videos of blacks who claimed latinos were a threat as well. It’s easy to argue for this kind of law when the person doesn’t think it will apply to them or people like them. Most whites and blacks who support the Arizona law assume that if they visited Arizona they wouldn’t be jailed if they didn’t have their papers on them.
For argument’s sake, let’s turn this situation around. What if all the states along the northern border passed similar laws which said all Canadian immigrants had to carry identification at all times? What if this hypothetical law said that it was legal to ask any person who looked Canadian (i.e., white) to show their identification? Would Sarah Palin support whites being treated in the same way latinos would be treated under the Arizona law? In terms of blacks, the charge is often made that blacks are pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black). What if it became legally required for police officers to pull over all black people because they might be illegal immigrants from Africa?
I see several aspects to this confused thinking of the American people. There is the us vs them mentality. That isn’t specifically what interests me at the moment, but it relates. Seeing latinos as different is a failure to generalize, a failure to see all humans as being considered equal under the US Constitution. Also, it’s a failure to see certain specifics. The person who supports the Arizona law apparently lacks the imagination to see how it could apply to people like themselves. People often forget that, when one person or group has their rights undermined, it undermines the foundation of the rights for all (“when they came for the…”). So, in that sense, the failure is in not generalizing enough. But getting lost in generalizations can also be dangerous… which brings me to another point.
Generalizations make for useful talking points and useful political narratives. I’ve noted in the past that conservatives have been very effective in controlling the narrative. Take my first example of how most Americans identify as conservative despite the liberalism on specific issues. Even the mainstream media often repeats the conservative narrative that America is a center-right country; this is interesting in light of the other conservative narrative about the mainstream media being liberal… which the mainstream media often repeats as well.
I kept hearing the mainstream media (not just Fox News) repeat over and over again that most Americans support the Arizona immigration law. However, they rarely go beyond this talking point. Where are the polls that break down the specific issues of the Arizona law, of immigration reform and of immigration in general? Why isn’t the media looking at the broader context of issues? Why isn’t the media looking at other aspects? Why continually bash the American public over the head with the same limited set of info?
Yes, the GOP probably has won the narrative war as they often do. Most Americans may support the Arizona law. But how many Americans actually understand the Arizona law? How many Americans understand the history of immigration? How many Americans understand the history of US relations with Mexico? How many Americans know that undocumented immigrants cause less crime than the average American? How many Americans have seen the data showing that the War on Drugs is failing an is causing Mexicans to try to escape the violence in their own coutnry that the US government is helping to cause? How many Americans understand that undocumented workers come to the US because business owners hire them and because US and state governments don’t stop nor penalize business owners from hiring them?
I’m willing to bet if you informed the American public and asked them about specific issues related to immigration, a very different public opinion would become evident.
So, what does it mean to be a conservative or liberal in the US? Why, in a country built on immigration, is being anti-immigrant (or having anti-immigrant sentiments/suspicions) a conservative position? What does ‘conservative’ mean if the majority of Americans both identify as conservative and support liberal positions? What does ‘liberal’ mean when, according to Pew data, those who identify as liberals show the strongest support for fiscal conservatism?
In the broad view, Americans are mostly conservatives who are against socialism and for nationalism.
In the more detailed view, Americans are mostly liberals who love their socialist services and are increasingly embracing multiculturalism.
Which represents the real American?
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