Change, Immigration and the “Bold Colors” of Conservatism - Ed Hubbard on Immigration Rhetoric
I have found, as I wander through this world of political commentary, that our political message is often lost when the reader or listener perceives harsh or disrespectful language in an article or debate. Recently I saw an article on BigJolly.com by Ed Hubbard where he discussed the harsh rhetoric of conservatives in last year's Houston mayor's race and the long lasting impact it might have on future elections. I thought the same message needed to be addressed about how we comminicate on the issue of illegal immigration so I asked Ed if he would make some comments on that topic. Ed Hubbard is the President of Clear Lake Area Republicans and a long time Republican activist in Harris County. Here are his remarks...
Change, Immigration and the “Bold Colors” of Conservatism
By Ed Hubbard
After I posted on another blog about some intemperate remarks made by local Republican activists during last fall’s race for Houston’s Mayor, I was asked to address a similar rhetorical problem we conservatives seem to continually confront when discussing illegal immigration. It has taken several months for me to put my thoughts together about this dilemma, but I think I am ready to share my thoughts.
Let’s face it, the more we talk about this issue, the more we seem to alienate an important segment of voters, many of whom share our principles about government and society—and yet, we know that this issue must be discussed and addressed in order to preserve for all of our children the very exceptionalism that has inspired so many people to come here, both legally and illegally, over the generations.
Why are we in this rhetorical predicament, and how should we get out of it? Unfortunately, the circumstances, which have created the current debate over illegal immigration across our border with Mexico, tear at many of the fault lines within the conservative temperament. So, the answers to these questions are not easy to describe or implement.
First, conservatives in any society distrust change, even though change is one of the few constants in human life. We tend to be torn between, on the one hand, the impulse to reflexively say “no,” because we know that some changes are unwarranted and destructive; and, on the other hand, the need to engage in the process of necessary and inevitable change in order to guide it in a way that preserves and strengthens society. This tension that tears at conservatives tends to be aggravated in America, because we are trying to preserve a society that has been built upon the radical ideal of individual liberty (and the personal responsibilities that, together with freedom, comprise liberty); and we know that the practice of liberty involves the constant, undirected activity of millions of free people, which breeds change at almost the speed of light.
Second, we see illegal immigration over the last 40 years as being one of many activities or initiatives that have changed our society in countless ways, and which sometimes have created unintended consequences that have damaged the uniqueness of our society as much as they have improved the opportunities of many to live out their dreams as free individuals. The frustrating, cumulative effect of the damage we’ve seen leads us to simply say “no” to a continuation of these activities or initiatives, including the present immigration policies that have led to so much illegal immigration. We say “no,” not because, as many on the left characterize, we fear a racial or ethnic change in our country’s demography, because we know that every wave of immigration has changed our demography while enriching our society. Instead, we say “no,” because we simply can not figure out how to guide the current wave of illegal immigration toward a path that strengthens and preserves our society without a process of assimilation—a process that the modern left abhors because it fails to honor their view of “diversity,” and that we see as amnesty that rewards behavior that violates the rule of law.
Third, and finally, we have learned over the last generation to speak about our positions in what we believe are the “bold colors” that Reagan challenged us to use a generation ago. Although the first two fault lines create significant hurdles for conservatives when addressing illegal immigration effectively, it is this last fault line, when applied to the immigration debate, that drives so many of our neighbors away from working with, and voting for us. Further, this wound is “self-inflicted,” because we have misinterpreted what Reagan meant all those years ago.
In March, 1975, just after the Democrats thumped Republicans in the mid-term, post-Watergate elections, Reagan spoke to that year’s CPAC conference about the challenge facing conservatives and the GOP. In many ways the speech was Reagan’s first major attempt to articulate the ideas that, two years later, would form his platform for a “New Republican Party”. As background he noted that, even in the wake of the Democratic landslide, polls showed that a vast majority of Americans viewed themselves as conservative, and agreed on ideas and policies that would halt the centralization of economic and regulatory power in Washington. Within this context, Reagan said the following:
"Our task is to make them [the American people] see that what we represent is identical to their own hopes and dreams of what America can and should be. …
Shorn of all side issues and extraneous matter, the problem underlying all others is the worldwide contest for the hearts and minds of mankind. Do we find the answers to human misery in freedom as it is known, or do we sink into the deadly dullness of the Socialist ant heap? …
Americans are hungry to feel once again a sense of mission and greatness. …
Our people look for a cause to believe in. Is it a third party we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all of the issues troubling the people? …
Reagan followed these statements by outlining the economic, regulatory, security issues that conservatives would have to address boldly over the next few years. And then he ended the speech with these words:
"A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency, or simply to swell its numbers.
I do not believe I have proposed anything that is contrary to what has been considered Republican principle. It is at the same time the very basis of conservatism. It is time to reassert that principle and raise it to full view. And if there are those who cannot subscribe to these principles, then let them go their way."
Unfortunately, it is the ending of this speech which too many of our fellow conservatives have chosen to remember when they refer to Reagan’s admonition to speak in “bold colors”—and to remember it uncoupled from the rest of the text (and from a lifetime of his speeches and writings). In the world of many conservatives today, “bold colors” doesn’t equate with clarity, but with colorful language that is meant to provoke controversy and conflict rather than inspiration and unity. This propensity to create controversy and conflict has led conservatives to promote ever-narrowing political agendas over the last two-decades as our memory of Reagan has faded into legend.
What Reagan actually was trying to discuss was how to create a movement that would inspire the vast majority of Americans to unite and fight for the principles—those conservative principles—upon which they agreed, and then to implement those shared principles into public policy. His goal was not to drive away and divide friends and allies with our rhetoric, but only to allow those who disagreed with us to know what we stood for and to find another way and party to promote views that supported a centralized state. Otherwise, he saw our principles as a magnet that attracted the majority of Americans, and that would inspire us to meet our challenges head-on and based on our principles.
Remember, five years later, in accepting the Republican nomination in Detroit, he ended his speech with these bold words:
"Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity."
To truly follow Reagan’s admonition to speak with the clarity of “bold colors” when we discuss illegal immigration, the best of our conservative temperament should be called upon. We must remember that the vast majority of those who have crossed the Rio Grande over the last generation came here because they “yearn to breathe freely.” We must remember that a country that held out the promise of the Statue of Liberty toward those immigrants who would cross the vast Atlantic Ocean to “breathe freely,” should not talk as if we want to deny that same promise to those who cross the Rio Grande to similarly breathe free.
Rather than scold, we must seize the challenge to talk clearly about solutions
• that treats Mexico as an equal sovereign and valued neighbor, and that resolves our mutual border-security issues based on mutual respect;
• that will guide us into a demographically diverse future by preserving the principles of the Declaration and the processes of the Constitution for that diverse posterity; and
• that will find a way to re-establish and enforce the rule of law while assimilating new neighbors into this “island of freedom,” which we’ve been blessed to inherit from the past and to bequeath to the future.
To do all of this we need to talk with a clarity of vision that inspires and unites our neighbors who value our shared principles, rather than in language that, though colorful, divides and destroys our ability to build the relationships upon which a society of free people must depend if they are not to become wards of an anointed elite and their government bureaucracies.
And, finally, we need to remember that our neighbors are listening to us, even when we think we are talking amongst ourselves.
As I was sitting at a recent luncheon debate over immigration policy, I could not help but notice the hard-working men and women who waited on our tables and served the meals we were eating, and I could not help but wonder what they thought of this debate. Just as in days when other waves of immigrants lived in communities of neighbors from the “old country” as they assimilated, so too are many recent legal immigrants from South of the Rio Grande living, working and worshiping with recent illegal immigrants, who may be their relatives as well as their neighbors. Whether we agree with their choices or their actions as to how they got here, or whether they should stay, these people are their neighbors—and ours, too. We need to start talking and acting based on that knowledge if we are ever to gain the trust from the voters to solve this problem according to the best of our principles.