As seemingly happens after every Republican defeat, the usual suspects in the GOP and their counterparts in the community of Republican “consultants” emerged to lament that the GOP lost mainly because it was beaten soundly among Latino voters. That defeat, they argue, can be traced to the GOP’s long opposition to a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would both grant an amnesty to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and liberalize immigration rules more generally by such measures as giving a green card to any post-graduate in science or engineering.
Unless the GOP embraces such reforms in the near future, they argue, the party is doomed to lose still more heavily in future elections as more Latino and Asian voters enter the electorate and as white voters shrink as a proportion of its total. A new Republican organization, representing this point of view — which is also the view of big business, many GOP donors, and the extended Bush family — is to be established. Indeed, Jeb Bush will publish a book next April arguing the case as best he can. Since Mr. Bush recently held a reception for veterans of earlier Bush campaigns, his book sounds like an early campaign manifesto for a new open-borders GOP led by himself.
It’s hard to know where to start in commenting on this farrago. Crafting a sensible immigration policy that would benefit both native-born Americans and new arrivals, with U.S. citizens enjoying some priority concern over others, should surely be the right starting point. If we are to judge by that criterion, giving green cards to foreign Ph.Ds at a time of very high graduate unemployment will strike us as questionable rather than obvious. Ditto to facilitating the entry of extended family members with early access to welfare rights at a time of over-extended social and entitlement spending and endemic fiscal crises. One could add many such examples.
In practice, though, they are irrelevant: good public policy is taking a back seat in these discussions to crafting an immigration policy that will help the GOP to win elections. (Interestingly, establishment-media commentators seem happy with this preference as well as biased in favor of the comprehensive reforms advanced by the GOP “moderates.” One might almost imagine they want the GOP to win the next election.) If this debate is to come down to the political impact of immigration, however, the best place to start is with the electoral arithmetic.
No one has the slightest excuse for being surprised either by the demographic changes in the U.S. electorate or by their likely political consequences. Ever since it became clear in the early 1990s that the 1986 immigration amnesty had legalized many more illegal immigrants than its drafters had predicted and that it was acting as an incentive to more illegal immigration rather than stemming its flow, anyone could see that immigration policy, unless it was sharply corrected, was likely to produce a long, steady, and substantial shift of net votes to the Democrats. National Review began devoting a lot of ink to the general topic of immigration around the time of the 1992 election. But it was just after the 1996 presidential contest that we focused in particular on its electoral consequences. Following that election I wrote an article examining how previous elections would have turned out if the ethnic make-up of the American people had been that projected for 2050 by the Census Bureau (in its Middle Series):
Current demographic projections forecast that the ethnic makeup of the U.S. in 2050 will be as follows: non-Hispanic whites, 53 per cent; blacks, 15 per cent; Hispanics, 21 per cent; and Asians, 10 per cent. If that had been America’s ethnic shape in this  election (and if ethnic groups had voted as they actually did), Clinton would have won 56 per cent of the popular vote instead of less than half. Indeed, applying those same criteria to the last seven presidential elections . . . Democrats would have won every election except 1972 — and even then George McGovern would have got a respectable 47 per cent of the vote instead of his derisory 36 per cent.
For masochists in the audience, the hypothetical Democratic share of the vote would have been 59 per cent in 1976, 49 per cent in the three-way race of 1980, 52 per cent in Reagan’s landslide year of 1984, 53 per cent in 1988 (Hail to the Chief Dukakis!), and just shy of a popular majority in three-way 1992, when Perot would have taken 16 per cent. It goes almost without saying that there would have been no Republican Congress throughout this period — as, indeed, there mostly wasn’t.
So enjoy the Republican majority while it lasts — oh, say, another 15 years. Max.
I was over-optimistic. The GOP’s statistical run of luck ran out three years earlier in 2008. Nonetheless, I claim this piece as the first sighting of the GOP’s looming demographic doom.
A few issues later, in June 1997, Peter Brimelow and Edwin S. Rubenstein wrote an NR article entitled “Electing a New People,” which we put on the cover under the prescient words: “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” Taking the 1988 election as its starting point when the Republican share of the popular vote was 53 percent — coincidentally, also the party’s average vote share in the six elections from 1968 to1988 — this article applied the same demographic evidence about the ethnic make-up of the future electorate to forecast how many votes the GOP was likely to win in all the elections between 2000 and 2052. They concluded that the GOP would attain minority status in 2008 and slip inexorably down thereafter to reach 45.2 percent in 2052.
Brimelow and Rubenstein got the changeover date right, but their assumptions of demographic change driven by immigration were, if anything, too cautious. The GOP’s share of the 2012 national vote — which, astoundingly, is still being counted — looks to end up a full percentage point below their 49.5 estimate, maybe even closer to two points.
Five years later John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeria published their well-known book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, in which they argued an essentially similar demographic case in great detail (adding single women and academics to Latino and Asian immigrants as drivers of politically crucial demographic change). They too concluded that 2008 would be the year the Democratic majority finally emerged. And so, though serious qualifications apply, it seems to have proved.
Demographic change driven by immigration throughout this period was not, however, a natural event like an avalanche or an earthquake. It was the outcome of official U.S. policy that set an average annual inflow of one million legal immigrants, extended an amnesty to several million illegal immigrants, kept the border largely porous, enabled the judicial and administrative dilution of deportation policy, and allowed another 12 million illegal immigrants to enter America in a relatively short time. These outcomes were not inevitable. A different policy of reducing the numbers of legal immigrants, changing the criteria from extended family-reunification to greater emphasis on needed skills, and denying employment to illegal immigrants through employer sanctions was easily available. Indeed, a broad program of reform on these lines — see its proposals here — was proposed in 1997 by a congressionally mandated bipartisan commission under the distinguished Texas congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, and initially accepted by a nervous Clinton administration.
If implemented, this reform program would have ensured slower demographic change, a more assimilable inflow of immigrants both economically and culturally, fewer and less onerous social problems and fiscal burdens, and an electorate that had been less skewed against the GOP by public policy. We would probably be discussing a narrow Republican victory today if that had happened. But such policies were in fact defeated by a bipartisan coalition of big business, labor unions, churches, Democrats, Republican donors, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Republican consultants, several conservative organizations, and the leadership of the Republican party through several incarnations.
The role of Republicans and conservatives in this self-inflicted but perhaps fatal wound was crucial. Democrats plainly wanted to continue the policy of almost-open borders. But they knew it was deeply unpopular with their own base in both the white and black working class. So they were always insistent on having strong GOP support for any bill that would legalize it retrospectively and confirm its continuance practically (as the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills of recent years have all done). That was essential to give them “cover” against an electoral backlash from Democrat voters (who, in establishment media lingo, promptly became part of “the Republican base”).
Democrats were therefore delighted with President George W. Bush, who went further than supporting amnesty and almost-open borders. He took the lead in advocating them — indeed, as Mark Krikorian has documented on the Corner, President Bush and his allies went still further, employing hate speech against those who doubted the wisdom of amnesty, dubbing them “bigots” (inevitably) and much else.
And if the GOP gave the Democrats cover on loosening immigration control, some conservatives gave the GOP cover. Much though I like and generally agree with such conservative activists as Linda Chavez, Spencer Abraham, and Grover Norquist, it was their intellectual support for almost-open borders that almost established them in 2006 and 2007 — just as they had been important in preventing legislation based on the Jordan Commission’s proposals a decade earlier. Almost all of them are now members of the new GOP coalition that is gradually assembling to propose a new round of liberalization measures. Since they were wrong before — indeed, since their opposition to the Jordan Commission helped to create the current demographic crisis for Republicans — we should surely look on any new proposal from them with a distinctly jaundiced eye.
Their headline proposal is, of course, the legalization of the 12 million illegals already here. (Other proposals we’ll come to later.) Here, their argument is that Latinos, Asians, and other voters will never support Republicans in any number if we make illegal immigrants who share their ethnicity feel unwelcome and even threatened by deportation. That argument is not entirely false. Some ethnic voters, whether U.S.-born or legal immigrants, will be strongly influenced by this, others weakly, but it will be one of several factors pushing such voters as a group towards the Democrats. Other factors will push them towards the GOP; for instance, Republicans generally get between a quarter and a third of Latino votes. Those voters have their reasons too.
Nothing at all will change if the GOP — as some of its “moderates” argue it should — supports an amnesty for illegals, allowing them to stay in the U.S., but denies them citizenship and the vote. Democrats and Latino activists will merely ground their charge that Republicans are anti-immigrant in the citizenship issue rather than the illegality one. Republicans will face exactly the same criticism as now, but against a background of wider publicity, without the solid “rule of law” argument they can cite when they oppose amnesty. Indeed, they would find themselves arguing the unsustainable case that immigration and citizenship should accommodate a permanent class of migrants without political rights. Eventually either the GOP would yield to political clamor and consent to citizenship for the amnestied or the courts would insist on one by degrees. So the end result of amnesty would be citizenship for 12 million poor, mainly Latino, migrant workers with a grudge against the GOP.
Here is a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation of what that alone might mean. Let’s assume that only two-thirds of former illegals become U.S. citizens — that’s 8 million new Americans with the vote. (Given the Democrats’ determination to protect voter fraud, that might also mean somewhat more than 8 million new voters, but we won’t consider that in what follows.) Since these voters are poorer and less assimilated than Latinos as a whole, they will likely skew more Democratic than their ethnic fellows. Republicans would be optimistic if they counted on winning more than one-fifth of them — i.e., 1.6 million voters. On a 100 percent turnout, that would give the Democrats a net advantage of 4.4 million votes. On a more realistic assumption that these new voters would have a lower than average turnout — say, 50 percent — that would give the Democrats an net additional 2.2 million votes over Republicans. Those assumptions are fallible, admittedly, but they are not unrealistic.
So the bar that any advocate of amnesty has to meet is as follows: He must demonstrate how amnesty will ensure that the GOP also gains at least a net 2.2 million votes, plus one, as a result of the reform. I will examine some of their claims to this effect — and other aspects of this question — on Wednesday.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.