About two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Obama’s immigration policies. The polling reveals extreme partisanship: 60% of Democrats and 8% of Republicans approve of the president’s approach.
And yet, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the current administration’s policies. In response to the increasing flow of children and women immigrants seeking asylum, Obama is escalating deportations and authorizing more detention facilities. This is completely consistent with the president’s tendencies over the last several years.
Many news articles have reported record deportations under Obama, while his anti-immigration critics have argued that a sensitivity to novelties in classification expose a president lax on border enforcement. Adjusting for all this, it appears that the truth is somewhere in the middle: Overall, the Obama administration has conducted deportation policies qualitatively similar to the last administration’s. Whether one concludes a slight decline or increase, the more important fact is that there has been no radical shift since he took office, and certainly not one toward liberalization. Obama’s proposal for reform last year was in fact quite reminiscent of Bush’s plan. Although conservatives tended to find Bush too liberal on immigration, a June 2007 poll showed that 45 percent of Republicans favored their president on these policies, down from 61 percent just a few months before.
How is it that two presidents can behave in a fairly similar manner and yet garner such very different reactions among voters who identify with the two parties? Surely this phenomenon is not unique to immigration. Although the figures have moderated quite a bit, in the immediate aftermath of the first NSA revelations last year, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the agency’s surveillance programs, while Republicans were about equally divided; back in 2006, Democrats opposed NSA wiretapping 61 percent to 37 percent, while Republicans approved it 75 percent to 23 percent.
It would appear that the biggest changes in American politics that arrive when one party displaces the other in power do not concern what the government actually does as much as what the populace thinks about what it does. The voters flip-flop more than the leaders, who all tend, on most issues anyway, to gravitate toward governing from the center. The implication for those with principled stances on the issues is troubling and somewhat counterintuitive. Because in the long-term the government’s activities tend to respond to and be constrained by public opinion, rule by one party rather than the other tends toward a paradoxical dynamic: A Democrat in power will be defended by partisans and condemned by opponents no matter how hawkish the policies in war and civil liberties. Similarly, a Republican in power will be defended by partisans and condemned by opponents no matter how spendthrift the economic agenda. This helps explain why Bush was able to get away with so much deficit spending and domestic government expansion, and yet be celebrated and tarred as a free marketer, while Obama can deport, bomb, and indefinitely detain while being celebrated and tarred as a bleeding heart dove.
On the other hand, of course, both parties also do have their own pet projects. The Democrats have greater ambitions of domestic entitlement aggrandizement and the Republicans do appear more ideologically committed to wars abroad. These differences, taken with the countervailing effects of political opposition, mean that we can’t make any sort of solid predictions other than a fairly confident assumption that the vast majority of government activity and its trajectory of growth will continue, with only somewhat minor differences in specific areas, regardless of the party in charge, at least so long as mainstream American political ideology continues fundamentally to embrace government in its most modern incarnation, tempered only by partisan hypocrisy as seen in these kinds of polling results.
So for the pundits wondering what all of this means for the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, to which they seem obsessed in relating every news item, all I can say is that mass deportations, the destruction of families, inhumane mass detentions, invasive border searches, and an overall horrific immigration policy will probably be safe no matter who wins or loses at the ballot box. For those who find this projection unsatisfying, I urge you to try to convince your neighbors of your political principles, and to stick to fundamentals. Nothing short of a widespread change in attitude will secure substantive reforms anyway.