Quick Note on Symbolism and Respect

by Reihan Salam

One of my working hypotheses is that respect matters in political life. That is, if a voter doesn’t believe that you respect her, she is less likely to vote for you, regardless of your views on various issues. The “macaca” incident may have made it harder for George Allen to persuade Asian American voters to support him, as it seemed to betray a lack of respect for Asian Americans. That was certainly my takeaway from the incident, and I am a highly ideological conservative. Todd Akin’s rape remarks led many women to believe (correctly) that Akin was insensitive and insane, and in many cases it confirmed a pre-existing narrative about Republican indifference or hostility to women’s interests. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

So now we have this idea that the main thing Republicans need to do, per the Growth and Opportunity Project, is actually talk to, and listen to, Americans who belong to various minority groups. Recently, Neil King Jr. profiled Rep. Steve Pearce, a conservative Republican who represents a heavily Latino district in southern New Mexico. And though there is no guarantee that Pearce will continue to have success in the district, he appears to have done well because he spends a great deal of time campaigning among Latino voters. 

There is absolutely something to this. But my suggestion is slightly different, albeit related: I think that America’s national iconography needs to change, and that Republicans can be a leading part of this process. After a political defeat, there is a tendency to fight the last war, yet the better option is always to leapfrog the opposition. Right now, many on the right believe that embracing comprehensive immigration reform is the only war forward for the GOP, as immigration is a gateway issue. Though I reject the dominant model for comprehensive immigration reform, I wouldn’t reject this argument out of hand. 

Regardless of where you are on the question of comprehensive immigration reform, it really is important to acknowledge that the United States has changed in ways that are irreversible, even if we did reject legalization for unauthorized immigrants. Over 17 percent of people residing in the U.S. are Hispanic or Latino. Roughly 10 percent are of Mexican origin. Our takeaway from this could mean that conservatives need more Latino candidates, etc. Another more important takeaway, however, is that conservatives ought to do a better job of including the story of the Mexican influx in the larger story we tell about U.S. history, whether we’re in South Texas, a region in which Mexican and Mexican American influence is pervasive, or New York City, where it is not. This should be true particularly for conservatives who oppose the dominant model for comprehensive immigration reform, as it essential that this opposition not be mischaracterized as or confused with disrespect.

This could mean many different things. At the very least, I think it should mean that when Republican candidates celebrate Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock, they should also make reference to the Hispanophone and Mexican contributions to the American story, or perhaps even the post-1965 arrivals from Asia and Africa. But I think the Mexican piece of the story deserves pride of place. There should also be a foreign economic policy dimension to this effort: robust economic growth in Mexico is an enormous opportunity for the U.S., and though treating Mexico as an equal partner is unlikely to have an enormous impact on the political attitudes of Mexican Americans, my guess is that it would have a positive atmospheric effect. (More importantly, it is the right thing to do on substantive grounds, but that is a separate issue.)

Some will argue that symbolism is cheap, and that this approach won’t amount to much. My first reply is that symbolism is indeed cheap, which is why it’s so appealing, but also that symbolism is more important than is commonly understood. The GOP is America’s nationalist party. Though Democrats also embrace patriotic iconography, they tend to seem less “authentic” in doing so, perhaps because Democratic elites tend to be more cosmopolitan in orientation and they prefer inclusive national narratives over exclusive ones. So for the nationalist party to recognize and assert that the Mexican contribution to American nationhood is vitally important would be a valuable signal. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.