New Times political columnist Matt Bai is the political version of economics writer David Leonhardt: Both are neoliberal commentators (slightly to the right of the paper's reporters) who serve as the paper's conscience on their chosen issues. The front of the Sunday Week in Review featured Bai's latest "Political Times" column, "I'm American. And You?" where Bai attacked as "nativist impulse" two conservative proposals: A push by some Republican lawmakers to repeal the 14th amendment, giving citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil; and conservative opposition to building a mosque near Ground Zero.
It's gotten bad enough that Bai actually cited, as an example of the good old tolerant days of the Republican Party....George W. Bush!
Once, in what seems like another eon of Republican politics, George W. Bush dreamed of building a multiethnic party that would achieve dominance in a nation where the words "majority" and "minority" were losing their meaning. Mr. Bush was adamant, in the days after the terrorist attacks of 2001, that American Muslims not become the targets of public resentment, and he later pushed a plan to offer illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship.
Republicans are now taking a decidedly different approach. Last week, a group of senior Republican senators called for hearings on repealing the 14th Amendment; that's the one that affords children born on American soil automatic citizenship. At the same time, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich were among those posting outraged Twitter updates over the decision to allow an Islamic center and mosque near the site of the fallen trade center towers.
After admitting one or two valid points made by the right, Bai goes on offense:
It's hard, though, to make a thoughtful case for anything in 140 characters or in a 30-second cable TV clip, and the way that some Republicans happily pounced on these debates could reasonably be characterized as political opportunism. (Rick Lazio, the Republican running for governor of New York, darkly suggested that radical entities might be behind the building of the mosque, as if the most publicly scrutinized building on the East Coast might strike someone as a good place to locate a sleeper cell.)
Bai twice accused the right of having "nativist" tendencies (Merriam-Webster defines it neutrally as "a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants," but the connotation is more clannish than that mild description allows).
A nativist impulse underlies this type of political appeal, and it is not new. It springs, perhaps, more from human nature than from any defect in the American character; when our way of life feels imperiled, we tend to cast a wary eye toward those who embody otherness. At moments throughout our history, when there loomed the perception of a threat to the established order of things, we have sought clarity on the issue of who fully belongs in the society and who doesn't.
Sometimes the threat is economic or cultural. The 1850s, for instance, saw the rise of the American Party - more commonly called the Know Nothings, because that was their response to any inquiries about their secret activities. Like us, they found themselves stranded in a fast-changing society, its economy transformed by emerging railroads and this gizmo called the telegraph.
If that's not enough, Bai threw in a more recent breach of civil liberties committed by an (unlabeled) Democrat president:
At other times, the societal peril has been physical and imminent. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, for instance, Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers oversaw the forced relocation of more than 100,000 immigrants of Japanese descent. Most were citizens, made suspect by their customs and their language.
Bai politely suggested that Democrats who moved to the Republican column along with Ronald Reagan may have been racially motivated.
These trends have opened the door, once again, to nativist appeals - some more subtle than others. And because of the political realignment that began in 1980 (when the term "Reagan Democrats" - meaning ethnic whites - entered the lexicon) and reached its apex in 1994, when the South tipped into the Republican column, the voters who are most susceptible to such appeals reside, at this juncture in our politics, primarily in the Republican base.
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