Just after House Speaker John Boehner affirmed the eventual need for Republicans to embrace immigration reform, a commercial for a carbonated beverage, of all things, demonstrated how difficult that process is likely to be.
Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl ad featured a series of multicultural images set to “America the Beautiful,” sung in seven languages. It turned out to be a national Rorschach test. The immediate reaction of some — myself included — was a lump in the throat. There is something moving about hearing American ideals of brotherhood, reverence and sacrifice praised in other tongues. It is the universality of these longings that makes them powerful. For the same reason, I get misty when I hear “Amazing Grace” sung in Tsonga, Swahili or Kituba. Some hopes belong to everyone.
The immediate reaction of others — measured by Twitter and talk radio — was that the ad represented an aggressive and divisive multiculturalism and that American national songs should be sung in English (though conservative blogger Erick Erickson smartly noted that “E Pluribus Unum isn’t in English either”). Fox News radio host Todd Sarnes called Coca-Cola “the official soft drink of illegals crossing the border.” Former congressman Allen West (R-Fla.) declared America “on the road to perdition.”
This is already making too much of a Twitter tempest. But it does illustrate a vivid difference in disposition. Some looked at those images and saw an affirmation of the universality of American ideals; others saw a violation of the particularities of American culture, such as the use of English. Some saw exceptionalism and strength; others adulteration and threat. It doesn’t take the application of electrodes in a psych lab experiment to understand that these are deep, preconscious responses.
As a policy issue, immigration reform is complex, with serious arguments about the economic effects of migrants on the native-born working class and serious questions about more adversarial forms of multiculturalism. But it is this immediate reaction, this habit of mind, that has large political implications.
After decades of participation and reflection, here is my proposal for the most basic truth of politics: Human beings know if they are welcome at a party or not. I imagine there are good evolutionary reasons for this — an offered mastodon steak or an offered Cosmopolitan cocktail might easily be an ambush. For this reason, effective ethnic politics (and not just ethnic politics) is actually a form of hospitality: Please make yourself at home. “People don’t care how much you know,” said my old boss, the late Jack Kemp, “until they know how much you care.”
Sometimes politics really is this simple. After all the arguments about economics and assimilation, people understand if they are viewed as a threat to the predominant culture. They know if their voice is not welcome in the national chorus. And this does have implications for political philosophy. Kemp — the GOP congressman and vice presidential candidate who described himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative” — passionately believed that human beings, as a rule, are economic and social advantages, the ultimate sources of energy, creativity and wealth. This included anyone, of any background, who happened to be in front of him and smothered by his enthusiastic attentions. Kemp strongly rejected the notion — common in every generation — that the current cohort of immigrants are somehow inferior to immigrants past.
I’m sorry to wax nostalgic — but not really. I saw how a Republican politician could treat immigrants and minorities as if they were valued national possessions. And I saw Kemp’s frustration with the direction of his party. “We sound like we don’t want immigration,” he said. “We sound like we don’t want black people to vote for us. What are we going to do — meet in a country club in the suburbs one day?”
The shift to a more welcoming GOP message toward immigrants won’t happen in a single rush. It is not reasonable to expect Boehner to buck much of his conference without broader reinforcement. This will take donors and business groups willing to support pro-reform House and Senate candidates against tea party challenges — reducing the political risks of rationality. And it will require a presidential candidate in 2016 who offers something more than walls topped in barbed wire and self-deportation. Some optimistic, inclusive, Kemp-like leadership would be helpful cover for many Republicans who wish to do the right thing, the politically smart thing, on immigration reform.
But the most important change that is needed is the hardest to achieve: A genuine welcome to the party. And an honest prayer: Dios derramó su gracia sobre ti.