The first reverberations from the Paris attacks into the U.S. presidential campaign have focused on how to confront ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the terrorism is also pouring gasoline on the arguments already blazing over America’s identity in a time of rapid demographic change.
Even before Paris heightened fears of homegrown or imported terrorists, the 2016 election campaign had raised a series of issues that explosively mix national security with America’s changing racial and ethnic composition.
Illegal immigration, the debate over policing practices sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, and now the uproar over admitting Syrian refugees have all divided the political parties along consistent lines. On each front, Democrats argue that inclusion and sensitivity to minority concerns will advance America’s values and interests. Republicans are warning that these Democratic priorities threaten public order and safety, and are raising those alarms in language that many whites may hear as promises to push their concerns to the fore.
These three issues—illegal immigration, policing, and Syrian refugees—raise distinct policy questions. But each connects through the same high-voltage current. On all of them, the conservative case implicitly presents a dynamic in which more diversity means less security. That contrasts starkly with Democrats, from President Obama down, who defend more diversity as a source of national strength.
Led by Donald Trump, many Republican presidential candidates have argued that illegal immigration threatens Americans both with street crime and terrorist infiltration. While the Democratic presidential contenders have all endorsed citizenship for undocumented immigrants, most Republican candidates are promising crackdowns, ranging from mass deportation to punishing (mostly Democratic-run) cities that don’t fully comply with federal immigration enforcement.
On crime, the Democratic candidates have praised the Black Lives Matter movement’s demands that police reform their interactions with African-Americans. Led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, more Republicans (echoed twice recently by FBI Director James Comey) are contending that those demands undermine law enforcement and unleash crime. Prominent conservative writer Matthew Continetti recently proposed that Republicans should argue that Hillary Clinton “would release convicted felons into your neighborhood even as she takes away your Second Amendment right to self-defense.”
Now, the Republican contenders all reject Obama’s plans to admit Syrian refugees, as a cascade of GOP governors (joined by one Democrat, in New Hampshire) have pledged to resist resettlement in their states. Trump, characteristically, moved the furthest, suggesting America may need to consider shutting down some mosques. All the Democratic contenders have continued to support resettlement.
This gulf is polarizing a series of complex choices that demand subtle judgments. It’s dangerous and demagogic to sweepingly portray undocumented immigrants, challenges to police tactics, or Syrian refugees as security threats. But it’s also misguided to reflexively exclude security concerns from these debates. Although studies suggest that undocumented immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than the public overall, some cities have erred by too broadly prohibiting cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Similarly, while the need is unmistakable for changes in policing practices, even many Democratic mayors are searching for ways to balance heightened scrutiny of law enforcers with effective crime prevention. Humanitarian groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops correctly noted this week that refugees already face more rigorous screening than other immigrants; still, it’s reasonable to demand that Syrian refugees face the toughest possible vetting.
These converging disputes over immigration, police reform, and refugees echo the racially tinged partisan collisions over crime that flared from the 1960s until Bill Clinton’s presidency. On issues from the death penalty to prison furloughs, Republicans at the time tarred Democrats as sublimating public safety to the interests of lawbreakers—while often picturing those lawbreakers as nonwhite men.
Shifts in both public attitudes and America’s demographic balance have left Democrats better positioned today than before to contest these arguments in the political arena. But these renewed confrontations threaten to widen racial divides at a time when many older, blue-collar, rural, and religiously devout whites are already expressing unease with America’s transformation into a kaleidoscope society, without any dominant group.
The coalition of young people, minorities, and socially liberal whites that has repeatedly delivered the presidential popular vote to Democrats since 1992 is one that celebrates the nation’s growing diversity as “integral to our ascendant values,” Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg argues in his new book, America Ascendant. In an interview, Greenberg said he doubts that the attacks in Paris will prompt this “new American majority … to rethink the fundamental embrace of a diverse country and tolerance.” But he expects the renewed focus on terrorism will further inflame the groups already most resistant to the changes and “give force to those arguments in the Republican Party.”
With Democrats defending diversity and Republicans stressing security, the 2016 election seems certain to generate biting partisan arguments on the issues where the two considerations converge. And that will make it ominously tougher to find the balanced approaches necessary to both protect and respect all of America’s communities.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.