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More Fourth of July, less Cinco de Mayo. Is that the prescription for the Democratic Party?

Hillary Clinton and other Democrats believed they could win the election by following the California model of celebrating diversity and embracing pro-immigration policies. But some liberals now believe the party is scaring away white voters resentful of immigration.
1 Jul 2017 – 02:41 PM EDT
Did Hillary Clinton's Spanish-langauge campaign ads help Donald Trump? Crédito: David Maris/Univision

Donald Trump and many other Republican politicians have visited the border with Mexico to reinforce their anti-immigration message. But in 1993, it was three Democrats who went to the border to voice their concerns.

That night, in San Ysidro, California, Senator Diane Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer and Attorney General Janet Reno took a walk along the border with Border Patrol agents and looked over a table full of fake Ids used by undocumented migrants and smugglers.

In a news conference afterward, they criticized Mexico. The U.S's southern neighbor “is doing nothing to enforce its border,” said Feinstein, adding that Mexican migrants were a burden on the California state budget.

Today, it's hard to imagine Democrats making those kinds of statements.

Their shift is explained in part by the rapid growth of Hispanic voters in California, a state that suffered an outbreak of anti-immigrant fever two decades ago but today embraces its ethnic and linguistic diversity. Democrats are appealing to the new voters with friendly messages, while Republicans are now more anti-immigration than Feinstein ever was.

Democrats around the country have followed the example of California, where whites became a minority in 2001, hoping that demographic changes will bring them certain victory, so long as they can mobilize their rapidly growing base of Hispanic voters.

But not all liberals agree. After Trump's defeat of Hillary Clinton in November, some have criticized the party and the Democratic presidential candidate for believing that they could win an election by appealing to minorities and taking a pro-immigration stance. They believe those kinds of messages scared away white voters and maybe pushed them to support Trump.

The debate was fueled by a recent article in The Atlantic magazine written by New York City University journalism professor Peter Beinart to suggest that the next Democratic presidential candidate should favor assimilation and respect for U.S. Immigration laws.

Univision Noticias interviewed Beinart one week after the publication of his article, which even drew the attention of the ultra-right Breitbart. It pointed out that a “leftist magazine” had echoed some of it own policy proposals on immigration.

Racial identity politics

Beinart's article asked Democrats to abandon their taboos on immigration, like questioning the costs of immigration. He pointed out that about 10 years ago leftist figures like journalist Glenn Greenwald, economist Paul Krugman and future president Barack Obama publicly questioned the levels of immigration.

"When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment," Obama wrote in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. "When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration," he added.

Beinart urged Democrats to put English language lessons at the center of their immigration agenda, suggesting that the strategy will satisfy some of Trump's supporters.

The professor added that he knew his proposals would be met with resistance within the party, especially because of the fear of losing the support of Hispanic voters. “In politics, there's always the risk that if you have a handful of marbles and you want to grab more, some may fall,” he told Univision News.

The debate has been limited, for now, to analysts outside the party. The party's leadership has not questioned the use of “identity politics” or the endorsement of pro-immigration policies, but clearly there are tensions about the route ahead. Progressives close to socialist Senator Bernie Sanders say they want to lure white workers back with a more populist economic message.

Columbia University professor Mark Lilla also urged Democrats to stop “celebrating” diversity in an article published in the New York Times in December.

"One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end," Lilla wrote.

And in March, Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, predicted in a column published in the Los Angeles Times that the Democrats' policies on immigration “will lead them to an electoral disaster.”

The lesson of California

In principle, the California example seems to show the need to ignore Beinart and Lilla. By defending migrants and playing ethnic politics, Democrats won an overwhelming control of state politics in the last decade.

The party has a 19-point lead in voter registration and a supermayority in both chambers of the state legislature, and the campaign for the gubernatorial election in 2018 is basically a fight among Democrats. Republicans have not won a statewide race since 2011.

In recent years California has also took many steps to recognize undocumented migrants under state laws, including issuing them drivers licenses, offering them assistance with university tuition and professional and occupational licenses and even some health benefits.

California residents have not only accepted the concept of multiculturalism but promote it. In November, 73 percent of voters agreed to eliminate a regulation from the 1990s that ended bilingual education in most public schools. And in September, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law for the first time requiring ethnic studies in public schools.

“The idea that Democrats can win over white voters by taking more moderate positions is not true,” Daniel Ho Sang, a political scientist at the University of Oregon, told Univision News.

California does not reflect the rest of the country, they say, noting that whites became less than half the population of that state in 2001. Demographics show that isn't likely to happen in the rest of the United States until 2055.

Ho Sang and others believe that the current situation in the United States matches the battles over immigration and culture that California experienced in the 90s, when Republicans won several elections by appealing to the resentment of white voters against Hispanic migrants.

At the start of the decade, the Democrats' policies were much like those of Republicans, Ho Sang wrote in his book “Racial Propositions.” Democrats did not even take a pro-immigration stand when the debate hit its peak in 1994 with Proposition 187, which denied public services to undocumented migrants. The measure was approved but was later thrown out in court.

Republicans proposed several other initiatives during that time that appeared to be aimed at Hispanics. Proposition 209 in 1996 barred affirmative action in public contracts, jobs and education. Proposition 227 in 1998 ended bilingual education in public schools.

In response, Hispanics in California mobilized in favor of the Democratic Party, even as party leaders and candidates tried to avoid comment on the propositions.

During the first decade of the 21 st Century, the debate in California changed completely. The Democratic Party saw itself pushed toward identity politics by young Latino activists who started to win elected positions. Republicans realized the damage they had suffered because of their anti-immigration policies, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship without that kind of rhetoric.

California suffered significantly when the Great Recession exploded in 2007, but immigrants were never criticized as scapegoats.

While identity politics has wide acceptance among California Democrats today, some Republicans in the Golden State think this way of politics is having a negative effect. Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant, said it has led to a “balkanization” of politics in the state that is “dangerous and unsustainable.”

The breaking point

Beinart told Univision Noticias that he agrees California is a model for what will eventually happen in the country, but that the United States is now going through its own Proposition 187 moment.

Social studies suggest that tolerance increases as contacts among ethnic groups increase. At some point white voters will accept diversity, but the question is at what point will the nation see that “tipping point,” said Beinart.

Beinart cautioned that whites in California are more liberal than others elsewhere. “In the short run, Democrats could suffer a lot,” he said.

In 2001, whites became less than half the population of California. Demographers say the United States will follow suit in 2055.

Hispanics make up 10 percent of eligible voters in 11 states, and less than 5 percent in another 27. They make up a majority in only nine Congressional districts, and make up less than 10 percent in another 275 districts.

Gary Segura, with the Latino Decisions polling firm that worked for the Clinton campaign, is one of several Democrats who argue that the party should not change its policies

Segura believes that Democrats will not win white votes by hardening their stance on immigration because polls show that a large majority of voters – from 65 to70 percent – approves of finding some way to grant citizenship to undocumented migrants. Some conservative Hispanics might desert the party, however.

“There are Latinos who would not vote for Democrats if it were not for the party's positions on immigration,” said Segura, who also teaches at the University of California Los Angeles.

Another risk for Democrats who want to stop using Spanish in campaign ads is that Hispanics may drift away as they seek to reaffirm their identity. Some Hispanics raised in the United States say that under the Trump administration they feel more proud than ever when they speak Spanish in public.

Beinart argued that the secret is in finding a balance between celebrating the identity of minorities and promoting inclusion and a national identity.

In the run up to the 2020 elections, he added, Democrats must find another candidate like Obama, who captured the Hispanic vote even as he emphasized the unity of all Americans.

“Obama found a framework for a U.S. National identity that, unlike Trump's, did not make people feel that they were excluded. Rather, it made them feel like they had a common goal.”