Arizona's recent passage of what is widely perceived as a harsh anti-immigrant bill reflects a growing tendency--in both political parties--to focus on the here and now, as opposed to the future. The effort to largely target Latino illegal aliens during a sharp recession may well gain votes among an angry, alienated majority population, but it could have unforeseen negative consequences over time.
In terms of the Arizona law, this is not simply a case of one wacko state. The most recent Gallup survey shows that more Americans favor the law than oppose it, with independents and Republicans showing strong support. Despite the negative coverage in the media, the Arizona gambit could somewhat pay off in November. A weak economy tends to exacerbate nativist sentiments, something that has been constant throughout much of American history.
But there is a distinct danger for the GOP here, not only in Arizona but in the rest of the country as well. As Bill Frey of the Brookings Institute points out, there is a growing gap between the electorate, which is still largely white and older, and the much younger, far more rapidly growing Latino population. In Arizona Frey says the "cultural generation gap" between the ethnicity of seniors and children is some 40%, meaning that while 83% of senior are white, only 43% of children are. Nationwide, Frey estimates the gap in the ethnic composition of seniors and youths stands at a still sizable 25 points.
Arizona's large disequilibrium in the ethnicity of its generations is a product, in part, of the state's historic pull to white retirees. Yet its formerly booming economy, based largely around construction and tourism, required a massive importation of largely Latino, low-wage labor, much of it illegal. As a result over the past two decades, Arizona's Latino population has grown by 180%, turning what had been a 72% Anglo state to one that is merely 58% white.
You don't have to go very far--in fact just across the California border--to see what awaits Arizona's nativist Republicans. The Grand Canyon state's future has already emerged there. In the 1970s and 1980s California's generally robust economy made it a primary destination for immigrants from both Asia and Latin America. Comfortable in their Anglo-ness, papers like the Arizona Republic were dismissing California as a "third world state," particularly in the wake of the 1992 LA riots.
Like their Arizona counterparts today, many white Californians then were sickened by pictures of mass Latino participation in looting during the riots. Many were also concerned with soaring costs of providing social services to a largely poor immigrant population. Sensing an opportunity, in 1994 Gov. Pete Wilson--locked in tough re-election battle amid a deep recession--endorsed Proposition 187, a measure designed to prevent illegal aliens from accessing public services. The measure passed easily, with support from both whites and African-Americans. The strong backing among Independents and even some Democrats helped Wilson win re-election with surprising ease.
But the long-term consequences of 187 reveal the longer-term consequences for the GOP. During the Reagan era and even the first Wilson term, Latino voters split their votes fairly evenly between the parties. But after 1994 there was a distinct turn toward the Democrats, with the GOP share at the gubernatorial level falling from nearly half in 1990 to less than a third in subsequent election. In some cases, right-wing Republicans garnered even smaller portions of Latino voters.
This is a classic case of the past waging war on the future. Since 1990 Latino and immigrant population has continued to grow. Overall, the percentage of foreign-born residents, according to USC demographer Dowell Myers, has grown from roughly 22% to 27%. One-third of Californians in 2000 were Latino; Myers projects Latinos will constitute almost 47% of the state's population in 2030.
The political consequences will only get worse for Republicans. Latino population voting power already has doubled from roughly 10% of the total in 1990 to 20% in 2006.
This Latino population will become increasingly active and engaged. It is, for one thing, ever more English-fluent, and increasingly dominated by the second and third generations. This group could become permanently estranged, like African-Americans, from the GOP. If that happens, notes longtime Sacramento columnist Dan Weintraub, Republicans could "all but become a permanent minority party in California."
And the rest of the country will feel these trends; between 2000 and 2050, the vast majority of America 's net population growth will come from racial minorities, particularly Asians and Hispanics. Already one out of every five American children--tomorrow's voters--is Hispanic.
Of course, as Latinos integrate and intermarry, they may become less particular in their world view and share more in common with other middle-class Americans. Yet memories of slights against a particular group can overcome even economic self-interest. Blood often proves thicker than bank accounts. The tendency of Jews, a largely affluent and entrepreneurial tribe, to back often harshly anti-business Democrats has its roots in old world scars left from the pogroms in czarist Russia as well as the right-wing genocide in Nazi Germany. Some older voters recall the rabid anti-Semites once prominent in the American far-right as well as the more genteel exclusionism practiced by more refined upper-class Republicans.
In the future, today's images of shrill, anti-immigrant right-wing activists could resound for coming generations of Latinos as well as Asians and other newcomer groups. It could essentially deprive the Republican Party of voters who might otherwise consider the GOP option, handing the Democrats a permanently expanded base, not only in southwest but in much of the country.
None of this is necessary or good for the country. Political competition for ethnic groups is a healthy thing for national interests and for the individual groups. Lock-step support by African-Americans may make them powerful within the Democratic Party, but it also means they can also be taken for granted when push comes to shove. And, of course, when they are in power, Republicans have little real political stake in confronting the serious issues facing black America.
All this is particularly disturbing since competition for Latino voters should be intense. Heavily employed in construction and manufacturing industries, they have been badly hurt in the recession and their interests were not particularly addressed in the Obama stimulus plan. Many are also socially conservative, supporting, for example, California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage.
In coming months other proposed steps by the administration and its congressional allies, such as the proposed cap-and-trade legislation, could prove very tough on industries that tend to employ Latinos. Climate change-inspired moves against single-family homes--already in place in California--conflict directly with the aspirations of many Latinos as well as other immigrants who, unlike the usually affluent, homeowning white population, are still seeking the chance to buy their own home.
But instead of fighting for their economic interests, the Arizona law has handed the Democrats a golden opportunity for to engage their own demagogy on race issues. Instead of having to defend their plans to restart the economy and reorient them to middle and working class needs, Democrats now can play to narrow racial concerns among Latinos while further bolstering the self-righteousness of their affluent, white, left-wing base.
The reversion to racial politics prompted by the Arizona law ultimately does no good for anyone except "base-oriented" partisan campaign consultants, nativists and ethnic warlords. With all the long-term economic and social challenges that face this growing country, Phoenix's folly marks an unfortunate step backward to our more shameful past and away from a potentially promising future.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.