We are at a remarkable moment. We have an open, 2,000-mile border to our south, and the entity with the power to enforce the law and impose safety and order will not do it. Wall Street collapsed, taking Main Street’s money with it, and the government can’t really figure out what to do about it because the government itself was deeply implicated in the crash, and both political parties are full of people whose political careers have been made possible by Wall Street contributions. Meanwhile we pass huge laws, bills so comprehensive, omnibus and transformative that no one knows what’s in them and no one—literally, no one—knows how exactly they will be executed or interpreted. Citizens search for new laws online, pore over them at night, and come away knowing no more than they did before they typed “dot-gov.”
It is not that no one’s in control. Washington is full of people who insist they’re in control and who go to great lengths to display their power. It’s that no one takes responsibility and authority. Washington daily delivers to the people two stark and utterly conflicting messages: “We control everything” and “You’re on your own.”
All this contributes to a deep and growing alienation between the people of America and the government of America in Washington.
This is not the old, conservative and long-lampooned “I don’t trust gummint” attitude of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s something new, or rather something so much more broadly and fully evolved that it constitutes something new. The right never trusted the government, but now the middle doesn’t. I asked a campaigner for Hillary Clinton recently where her sturdy, pantsuited supporters had gone. They didn’t seem part of the Obama brigades. “Some of them are at the tea party,” she said.
None of this happened overnight. It is, most recently, the result of two wars that were supposed to be cakewalks, Katrina, the crash, and the phenomenon of a federal government that seemed less and less competent attempting to do more and more by passing bigger and bigger laws.
Add to this states on the verge of bankruptcy, the looming debt crisis of the federal government, and the likelihood of ever-rising taxes. Shake it all together, and you have the makings of the big alienation. Alienation is often followed by full-blown antagonism, and antagonism by breakage.
Which brings us to Arizona and its much-criticized attempt to institute a law aimed at controlling its own border with Mexico. It is doing this because the federal government won’t, and because Arizonans have a crisis on their hands, areas on the border where criminal behavior flourishes, where there have been kidnappings, murders and gang violence. If the law is abusive, it will be determined quickly enough, in the courts. In keeping with recent tradition, they were reading parts of the law aloud on cable the other night, with bright and sincere people completely disagreeing on the meaning of the words they were reading. No one knows how the law will be executed or interpreted.
Every state and region has its own facts and experience. In New York, legal and illegal immigrants keep the city running: They work hard jobs with brutal hours, rip off no one on Wall Street, and do not crash the economy. They are generally considered among the good guys. I’m not sure New Yorkers can fairly judge the situation in Arizona, nor Arizonans the situation in New York.
But the larger point is that Arizona is moving forward because the government in Washington has completely abdicated its responsibility. For 10 years—at least—through two administrations, Washington deliberately did nothing to ease the crisis on the borders because politicians calculated that an air of mounting crisis would spur mounting support for what Washington thought was appropriate reform—i.e., reform that would help the Democratic and Republican parties.
Both parties resemble Gordon Brown, who is about to lose the prime ministership of Britain. On the campaign trail this week, he was famously questioned by a party voter about his stand on immigration. He gave her the verbal runaround, all boilerplate and shrugs, and later complained to an aide, on an open mic, that he’d been forced into conversation with that “bigoted woman.”
He really thought she was a bigot. Because she asked about immigration. Which is, to him, a sign of at least latent racism.
The establishments of the American political parties, and the media, are full of people who think concern about illegal immigration is a mark of racism. If you were Freud you might say, “How odd that’s where their minds so quickly go, how strange they’re so eager to point an accusing finger. Could they be projecting onto others their own, heavily defended-against inner emotions?” But let’s not do Freud, he’s too interesting. Maybe they’re just smug and sanctimonious.
The American president has the power to control America’s borders if he wants to, but George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not and do not want to, and for the same reason, and we all know what it is. The fastest-growing demographic in America is the Hispanic vote, and if either party cracks down on illegal immigration, it risks losing that vote for generations.
But while the Democrats worry about the prospects of the Democrats and the Republicans about the well-being of the Republicans, who worries about America?
No one. Which the American people have noticed, and which adds to the dangerous alienation—actually it’s at the heart of the alienation—of the age.
In the past four years, I have argued in this space that nothing can or should be done, no new federal law passed, until the border itself is secure. That is the predicate, the common sense first step. Once existing laws are enforced and the border made peaceful, everyone in the country will be able to breathe easier and consider, without an air of clamor and crisis, what should be done next. What might that be? How about relax, see where we are, and absorb. Pass a small, clear law—say, one granting citizenship to all who serve two years in the armed forces—and then go have a Coke. Not everything has to be settled right away. Only controlling the border has to be settled right away.
Instead, our national establishments deliberately allow the crisis to grow and fester, ignoring public unrest and amusing themselves by damning anyone’s attempt to deal with the problem they fear to address.
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Why does the federal government do this? Because so many within it are stupid and unimaginative and don’t trust the American people. Which of course the American people have noticed.
If the federal government and our political parties were imaginative, they would understand that it is actually in their interests to restore peace and order to the border. It would be a way of demonstrating that our government is still capable of functioning, that it is still to some degree connected to the people’s will, that it has the broader interests of the country in mind.
The American people fear they are losing their place and authority in the daily, unwinding drama of American history. They feel increasingly alienated from their government. And alienation, again, is often followed by deep animosity, and animosity by the breaking up of things. If our leaders were farsighted not only for themselves but for the country, they would fix the border.