Perhaps you’ve heard that since October, at least 44,000 Central American children have been apprehended at our border with Mexico. This represents a fourfold increase from a comparable period in 2012-13, and it’s not crazy to call the situation a “humanitarian crisis,” as Speaker John Boehner regularly does. These days, if you google “border crisis,” this is the first image that comes up. Strange beds, eh?
But let’s think three moves ahead. At some point, all these kids are going to be deported back to their home countries. No need to waste time arguing over that eventuality. They will survive in American discourse as symbols. I’m here to tell you that their symbolic value may not be exactly what some have planned it to be.
It’s not hard to imagine how these kids will be used in future (and present) Republican Party commercials. One, they show that President Obama is unwilling and unable to protect the border. What a godsend to their pre-existing literature, when Obama’s actual deportation record is about 400,000 per year, compared to President Bush’s 250,000 per year. Two, they show that the failure of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the federal government, suggesting that states should take over that role (as Arizona SB 1070 implies). Never mind that Republican starve-the-beast policies have left our immigration system about as effective as a firehouse with one man and two Dalmatians. Three, and I quote Representative Louis Gohmert, elected Republican from Texas, “This administration wants to talk about other people having a war on women when they will not defend the women that are being sexually assaulted by illegal aliens in this country.” I don’t even know how to deconstruct that; fill in your own reaction. Four, county sheriffs and various other people getting cable-news airtime have called the children potential predators, gang members, disease carriers…it’s kind of hard to imagine 44,000 Canadian kids being described the same way.
That leads to how one imagines this crisis playing in future Democratic Party commercials. They will point to heartless Republicans doubling down on symbolism that equates the brown kids to the black crude oil that, thanks to BP, came out of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It’s dark, it’s dirty, it’s blackening our shores, we need to get rid of it. The Democrats – and their allies in the media – will point out that when protestors say, “Jesus wouldn’t have broken the law,” when Governor Rick Perry says “We either have an incredibly inept Administration or they’re in on this somehow,” no elected Republican steps up to argue. They will fit the crisis into a larger narrative of Republicans’ supposed hostility to the “browning of America” and to Latinos more specifically, pointing out that Mitt Romney got 27% of the Latino vote compared to George Bush’s 40% in 2004. They will conveniently forget their own complicity in the enforcement of draconian, Republican-led immigration policies.
However, these 44,000 child refugees have a symbolic value that goes way beyond what either party will tell you. They symbolize the absolute, complete, utter failure of our two-party system, a system that was feared and abjured by pretty much every signer of the Declaration of Independence. The minute these kids arrived, they became pawns in a zero-sum game of Republicans vs. Democrats, where what’s good for one becomes bad for the other. Could the Democrats have stood up and tried to find a more creative solution than mass deportation? Perhaps, but that would have handed the Republicans an “amnesty” club with which to bludgeon Democratic candidates in this year’s crucial midterm elections. Could the Republicans have found another way to confront the problem of these children that didn’t revolve around “It’s Obama’s fault”? Perhaps, but if they give an inch in their ground game, they risk becoming Jeb Bush – a laughingstock.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Other countries aren’t like this. Germany has five major political parties, and to get anything done, people generally need to get three of them to agree – but it’s not always the same three. Even the U.K. has had a coalition government since 2010, of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Now, when it comes to the core argument regarding more and less government, or more and less taxes – yes, we can expect a good deal of bifurcation between the Mores and the Lesses. But on just about any other problem, emphatically including sudden border crises and immigration in general, the term “strange bedfellows” was pretty much invented to describe the problem-solving coalitions that result in any democracy outside of ours. Strange bedfellows are one of the main reasons that Marine LePen’s anti-immigration Front National party can’t win a national election – because strange bedfellows in the rest of France keep it at bay. But strange bedfellows are also the reason that her party, France’s third-largest, wields influence in other aspects of French policy.
We don’t have the populist party we say we want, and we don’t have strange bedfellows, not really, not since the 2008 bailout, when – for just a moment there – the hard left and the hard right came together to oppose a bailout plan that Bush, Obama, McCain, Pelosi, Hank Paulson, and everyone else supported. Since that moment six years ago, despite numerous, numerous opportunities, the far sides of the aisle have treated each other like cancer, and bipartisan legislation has pretty much been restricted to moments of peeling off so-called moderates from the other side. A perception of moderation is why Eric Cantor got primaried, and why his loss indicates further hardening of the zero-sum game. But…does anyone imagine this absolute absence of problem-solving is the way George and Martha Washington pictured our country 250 years ago? Watching the news is like watching George and Martha, but not those charmers from colonial Virginia, instead the ones from Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, memorably incarnated by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1966 movie. After many years of fraught co-existence, all they do is fight; all their energy is devoted to seeking advantage over the other instead of making their (and others’) lives better. If anyone needs stranger bedfellows, it’s George and Martha. And polls indicate that Americans are sicker than they’ve ever been of both the George and the Martha that dominate our politics. We’ve been watching this play for 150 years; maybe it’s time to watch another one? For the sake of the kids, if nothing else?
A populist party, unlike the Democrats or Republicans, might offer an entirely different symbolic value for those 44,000 Central American kids, one that neither the Demos nor Repubs can bother to mention on their always-at-war websites. A populist party could mention how the kids in that photo symbolize how great our country still is. In a time when we can’t crack the world’s Top 30 on just about any desirable metric – upward mobility, life expectancy, long-term health care, math results, you name it – people still sacrifice life and limb to come here. America still has tremendous potential, if we would bother to unlock it.