The item is relatively small, almost a toss away. Under the guise of election reform the Reform Michigan Government Now! proposal would “prohibit illegal immigrants from registering or voting” (as the UAW PowerPoint summarizes it).
Who could be against that? By definition you need to be a citizen to vote. Rather obvious, really. Unless, of course, our county clerks actually are registering large numbers of illegal immigrants. Were that the case, you would think Mike Cox would be all over this problem; the silence from his office certainly suggests that something else is going on.
So what motives would there be for this clause?
Motive 1: The Sweet Smell of Xenophobia. At the most obvious, RMGN is selling its reform based on xenophobia, on the fear of “illegal immigrants.” But not just any illegals — it’s not that the coffee shop conversations worry about Canadians or Irish sneaking in, it’s Hispanics. So we build a wall; we criminalize the worker (and force her to have her baby in jail); we abuse them. Or go to the conservative site and read the discussion, the casual contempt. The clause, then, can be seen as an appeal to a resident popular prejudice, one with more than a whiff of racism to it. As a Democrat, does this make sense? Hasn’t the anti-illegal immigrant stance o the Republican Party alienated the political affections of Hispanics and sent them to our side of the street?
Why then are we helping the other side out?
Historically, such a stance is not that foreign to some wings of the Democratic Party. It was, after all, the party of the segregationist South. On occasion, unions have barred access based on race. And the blue collar neighborhoods of Macomb north of 8 Mile have (home of the so-called Reagan Democrats) have their own complicated relationship with race.
Motive 2: “Protect” the ballot. It may be that this measure is there to tap the resentment expressed the recent voter ID measure. But as repeated reports have shown, this concern about voter fraud has been repeatedly shown to be a non-problem. Instead, it appears to be the creature of Republican operatives designed to raise the barriers to voting directly, or by creating doubts in potential voters. Not surprising, many Democrats and others concerned with civil liberties have raised objections to such measures: these have the intent of barring the poor and racial minorities from voting — populations that coincidentally tend to vote Democratic.
Again, should we suppose that RMGN would support such a flawed policy from the other side? Does it even make sense given the operational success of the voter registration drives of the past two cycles?
Motive 3: Trap Cox and Land. I suppose we could come up with a rather Machiavellian interpretation, that such a measure is designed to somehow embarrass Terri Land. Or perhaps to encourage Cox to overplay his hand as Attorney General. I suppose. I love the idea of setting up the other side. But since they already have helped us out with Voter ID and the like such a motive would be too clever by half.
So then, should we consider the phrase is there only as a matter of stupidity?
So much frosting
There is another motive — the obvious one — that such language is there merely as so much frosting. A gratuitous piece of nonsense put in the Constitution as a cynical appeal to the prejudices expressed above. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak. But this is a cynicism that sells us out, it is not only a playing false with others, but with ourselves.
A Betrayal of Civil Rights. First, there is the indulging of racism for political gain. Here, RMGN is little better than any of the odious proposals of the Republicans. In a state already marked by some of the most segregated neighborhoods in the country, does an appeal to racism make any kind of long-term sense?
The darker truth is that if the authors of the measure would consider a whiff of racism acceptable in their proposal, then what part of civil rights is really safe? Intended or not, Mark Brewer has put it all on the table. The protests about ending Affirmative Action? Forget, we didn’t really mean it.
A Betrayal of our Politics. But dreadful as that betrayal is, there is another that is worse. Institutionalized cynicism corrupts our politics. At its heart is the notion that other side can be played as a sucker. What is left in our politics is not an appeal to the voter as citizen who cares about the community, but merely the manipulation of so many political consumers. This is the politics of power, as Simone Weil noted, where people are reduced to things, or in this case a transaction.
At the shallowest, such a view guarantees that the deadlocks of the present continue to the future. Manipulation does not build consensus (and does Michigan ever need that, right now). Instead logic of power argues against the work of compromise, as RMGN’s gerrymandered partisan districts demonstrate. If this politics looks familiar, it should. This market-based politics of fifty percent plus one is the politics of Karl Rove and company.
More deeply, such a view undercuts why we do politics in the first place: we do so because in some measure, we seek to act together. The democratic (Democratic and Republican) vision is that we share our communities and so work to determine our life together. Left and right, we care because we believe there is some good we can accomplish together. Institutionalizing cynicism only corrupts this civic vision, and in doing so, it corrupts the vision of our best self.
Thus in this one clause, Reform Michigan Government Now sells out the democratic values we have worke so hard to establish in our election cycles. Michigan deserves better. We deserve better.