SANTIAGO - If Mitt Romney’s Mexican father had been deported or had not been able to enter the United States in July 1912, the Republican candidate would not have been born in Detroit in March 1947, Bain Capital would not have existed and, most probably, the citizens of the state of Massachusetts would not have an almost universal health care coverage as part of the system Romney put into place when he was governor from 2003 to 2007.
However, even more significantly, the five-year-old boy who came to the United States fleeing the Mexican Revolution, George W. Romney, who was made fun of and called “mex” by his classmates in Los Angeles, would never have become the CEO of the American Motor Corporation. He would never have been governor of Michigan, where he worked to advance civil rights and racial equality, and he never would have run for president.
Twelve million Latinos are expected to vote in the upcoming U.S. elections. Considering that John McCain lost to Obama in 2008, getting only 31% of the Latino vote compared with 40% for George W. Bush four years earlier, why doesn’t Romney talk more about his family history of immigration and success to seduce Latinos? There are three basic reasons.
The first reason is the most obvious: Mitt Romney does not have Latino heritage and the reason that his family was in Mexico is related to polygamy, a theme that is too subtle and controversial for electoral campaigns. But the next reasons are even more revealing: his party is divided on immigration.
The section of the party that is most mobilized and ideological is so opposed to immigration that the party’s official government platform includes an extension of the wall along the entire U.S.-Mexican border and putting into place a complex system of electronic verification so that employers can check the immigration status of employees.
Finally, the Republicans, but also some Democrats, are suffering from amnesia in these times of economic scarcity. They forget that the presence of immigrants is vital in many sectors of the economy, that they drive growth in good times by decreasing the prices of many services and creating a breeding ground for entrepreneurs who create a more dynamic economy. There is no way to describe this posture other than as disloyal to those who contribute so much more than is recognized to American prosperity.
President Obama doesn’t seem ready to become the enthusiastic hero of Hispanic Americans, nor is he prepared to reaffirm the country’s tradition of open borders. It seems that he is betting that the 65% support that he has among Latinos voters, according to recent polls, is enough. The truth is that the Democratic leader has not been able to advance the subject of immigration during his term.
The Dream Act did not pass Congress. Last August, he announced the first real measure related to immigration: a temporary amnesty for young, undocumented immigrants under 30, who can apply for a work permit. Given the ideological climate in the U.S., which resembles that of Latin America in the 1960s, Obama has been accused of issuing “imperial edicts” by the hardline wing of the Republican Party.
More modern, more practical
Unfortunately, in this subject as in others, the fantasy of an “American exceptionalism” (‘the notion that the U.S. plays a special role in world affairs’) drives both Democrats and Republicans to extreme and unreal positions.
As much as the U.S. cannot welcome the whole world into the country, it also cannot close itself off like a medieval fortress. The U.S. needs a migration policy that is modern and practical. The current laws lead to situations that are absurd to the point of being comical. A society with one of the most complicated security systems in the world refuses to recognize millions of people who are citizens for all practical purposes. Those people can spend a quarter of a century living a normal life and then suddenly be deported, by chance or because of a local political campaign. They are deported with their children who are U.S. citizens, with all the rights that come with that, and who are foreigners in their parents’ country.
That is only one example of the distortions caused by the lack of a coherent national policy on immigration. Such a policy should be created immediately. It should be generous with the people who have been living in the shadows and contributing to the creation of wealth in the country. It should be realistic and consider the undeniable attraction of the richest economy on earth that is surrounded by poor countries to the south. It should be clean and fair, and should get rid of racist and religious elements in its application and punishments.
Is this asking too much? It shouldn’t be, not for the politicians of the country that is called on, again and again, to take the lead in solving world problems that are much more complicated than this one. That immigration is not being discussed with clarity and reason during the campaign is understandable, but it is a bad sign in terms of the quality of American internal politics. And it is also a bad sign in terms of the importance those politicians give to the Latin American nations that the immigrants are coming from.
The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.
The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.
This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.
Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.
Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."
The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.
Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.
Governing under threat
As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.
Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:
There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.
Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:
I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.
Another, this time in South Africa, said:
What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.
In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.
Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.
It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.
New Zealand's parliament in Wellington
Compassion and education
While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.
Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.
A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.
Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.
Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.
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