From Melting Pot to Centrifuge: Immigrants and American Politics

On a typical day in the 1890s, thousands of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York. For many, learning English and acculturating to America would be the work of years, even decades. But often it would be a matter of only a few weeks or even days before they received a visit from a Tammany Hall ward heeler or before friends or family brought them along to some event at the local precinct hall. Long before many of those newcomers fully understood what it was to be American, they knew quite well what it meant to be a Democrat or a Republican.

Today—just as it was a hundred years ago—the foreign-born share of the American population is at a peak. The recent wave of immigration differs both demographically and politically from that of a century ago, of course. Today’s immigrants originate in Latin America and Asia, not in southern, central, and eastern Europe. But how quickly and how well immigrant newcomers are absorbed into American society may depend less on where they come from than on what they find when they get here. Once at the center of U.S. politics from the moment they arrived, immigrants are now much closer to the fringes. That is no accident. The centripetal forces drawing immigrants into electoral politics in 1900 have been succeeded by a set of strong and persistent centrifugal forces that discourage the full electoral participation and political assimilation that earlier generations of immigrants enjoyed.

Nineteenth-century immigrants arrived to find important political groups eager to satisfy their material needs. Political parties, especially the many urban political machines, needed immigrants’ votes and did their best to get them—accelerating the newcomers’ political assimilation in the process. Today, the American political system, less in need of new immigrants’ votes, does little to bring them into the world of campaigns and elections. Three big changes in American politics—the diminishing role of the parties, the rise of a new kind of campaigning, and (ironically) efforts to get more minorities into government—have left immigrants on the outside looking in.

A Golden Age of Party Politics

At the end of the 19th century, American politics was emphatically organized around party politics. In the late 1800s, parties dominated all aspects of electoral life, including candidate nominations, campaign strategies and tactics, voting, and the allegiances of voters. Voting in the 1880s meant casting a public, party-line ballot at the polls. Candidates were nominated in private party meetings—the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms”—and most voters happily cast a straight ticket for one party or the other.

Immigrants entered politics through the enthusiastic embrace of political parties. The two major parties, highly competitive in national politics, often desperately needed new voters, whom they mobilized through a series of inclusive tactics. The primary means of contact was person-to-person, and voter turnouts were astoundingly high by today’s standards—more than 80 percent in presidential elections and 70 percent in off-year congressional elections.

All this made the arrival of immigrants a welcome event for urban party organizations. Parties moved immigrants into active citizenship by facilitating their naturalization, identifying and promoting leaders from immigrant communities, creating a cultural bridge to politics for the newcomers, and providing career ladders for advancement within party organizations.

The result was a remarkable record of political assimilation, described by Henry Jones Ford in 1911: “The nationalizing influence continues to produce results of the greatest social value, for in coordinating the various elements of the population for political purposes, party organization at the same time tends to fuse them into one mass of citizenship, pervaded by a common order of ideas and sentiments…. This is probably the secret of the powerful solvent influence which American civilization exerts upon the enormous deposits of alien population thrown upon this country by the torrent of emigration.”

Today, parties undertake remarkably few of the functions they performed for immigrants 100 years ago. A spate of Progressive reforms, brought about in response to the all-too-frequent corruption of elections by parties, set in motion a long decline in party power that persists to this day. Primaries, not caucuses, now decide party nominations. Patronage government employment gave way to civil service reforms. The ballot is now secret, and voters can split their ticket between the parties. Personal registration requirements were enacted to discourage vote fraud. Many states adopted initiative and referendum systems to allow direct public votes on matters of policy, thus bypassing party-dominated and frequently corrupt state legislatures. The big winners in these reforms were the Progressives themselves, a socially and economically elite group of reformers. As political scientist Jerome Mileur explains: “In the end, what the Progressive political reforms achieved was not to make America a ‘true’ democracy…but to change the rules of the political game so that the Progressives and their conception of national purpose might triumph.”

Immigrants are, in some respects, the victims of these reforms. A complex and demanding voting system and more limited opportunities for government employment all distance the political system from immigrants. The decline of parties has also made politics much more difficult for newcomers to fathom. In place of two parties and straight-ticket voting—a simple choice for immigrants new to the language—our electoral politics now is beset with a plethora of players and a confusing clutter of messages.

Interest Groups and Narrowcasting

Since the 1960s, interest groups have taken up many of the functions of political parties in elections. Groups now help recruit candidates, give funds directly to candidates, run their own ads on behalf of candidates, and target their own supporters for get-out-the-vote efforts. Parties still deploy considerable funds in national elections, but usually through the contributions of groups and at times in collaboration with groups. Candidates are less dependent on “the party message” for victory, since they must conduct a personal campaign for support in primary elections and another self-directed campaign in the general election. It’s hard for voters to keep track of all the messages from candidates, parties, and groups in the weeks before the election. And immigrant citizens, with their limited exposure to our politics, are particularly likely to react to the clutter with confusion.

A shift in electoral strategy from mass mobilization to activating key blocs of likely voters has also disadvantaged immigrants. Decades ago, parties and politicians mounted campaigns to engage the partisan masses and spared no effort to bring them, by means subtle or otherwise, to the polls. Today elections feature “narrowcasting”—remarkably thorough efforts to find narrow but potentially decisive slivers of the adult population. Polling and focus groups reveal to campaigns who these “swing voters” are and what they want. Then targeted mailings, phone calls, personal visits, and television ads aim to turn these voters out for particular candidates. Immigrants, with relatively little political knowledge and limited records of political participation, seldom fit the profile of a swing voter; so most campaigns ignore them. Expending resources on citizens such as immigrants who are not likely to vote is a waste of scarce campaign funds.

Making Elections Matter

The rise of noncompetitive electoral districts also discourages outreach to new voters. When immigration last peaked, at the end of the 19th century, most U.S. House and state legislative districts saw greater turnover among incumbents, as well as more competitive races. In the election of 2000, only about 35 of 435 House races were electorally competitive. Even the presidential election, the closest in American history, was closely fought in only a relatively few states. During the 1980s and 1990s, 90 percent of state legislators who were renominated won reelection.

Competition declined partly because of the increasing shrewdness with which incumbents pursue reelection, aided at every level by the new campaign tools. But another reason for the decline, particularly in the House, was the 1983 amendment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to mandate the creation of “majority minority” districts. To remedy the chronic underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in the House, districts were redrawn to ensure that the share of racial minority House members of each state’s delegation approximated the share of minorities in each state’s population—in other words, outcomes had to be demographically correct. Though subject to frequent federal court challenge and Supreme Court reinterpretation, the law persists to this day. Implementing it has indeed created more black and Latino House members, but has also packed black and Latino voters into districts that are noncompetitive and overwhelmingly Democratic. High turnouts among immigrants are thus less vital to electoral victory, slowing in particular the entry of immigrant Latinos into the American electoral system.

The parties’ emphasis on “Americanizing” immigrants has also been turned on its head by the rise of identity politics. In this view, as Michael Barone puts it, “America would be made up of separate and disparate ‘multicultural’ groups, fenced off in their own communities, entitled to make demands on the larger society but without any responsibility to assimilate American mores.” In place of two dominant parties encouraging political assimilation, many immigrants now encounter political appeals from interest groups, some with a separatist, multicultural agenda.

Party appeals today focus less on material benefits than on ideological abstractions. Our two major parties are no longer led by practical politicians eager to exchange jobs or services for immigrants’ votes, but rather by ideological activists of the left and right whose agenda and oratory have little resonance in immigrant communities. The very language of politics itself is now so replete with ideological jargon that most immigrants cannot follow it. Political scientist Russell Neuman found that only about one-fifth of Americans can reliably define the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” the coin of the realm in our ideologically polarized politics. As Neuman explains, “the generally held belief among elites that the public understands political abstractions is an optical illusion, generated by the fact that the elite stratum is consumed in a political conversation with itself and only rarely has occasion to discuss politics with the apolitical mass citizenry.” Political abstractions provide ideological benefits to the politically sophisticated, but they engage immigrant political neophytes far less, if at all.

The result, predictably, is that few immigrants vote. This is strikingly the case with the largest group of American immigrants—Latinos. In the 2000 election Latinos made up 10 percent of the adult population but only 4 percent of the electorate. Latinos will remain an underrepresented minority in politics until our political system draws in immigrants again.

Finding Their Voice

Can that happen? Although restoring the political parties to their 19th-century preeminence might have some advantages, the partisan era is gone, and few seem anxious to revive it. Parties will remain just one of several players in a highly complex system of elections. Still, much can be done to make the electoral system more inclusive—and doing so will benefit all Americans, not just immigrants. America’s electoral turnout today is among the world’s lowest. Presidential contests—even the 2000 cliffhanger—draw barely half the eligible adult population, and off-year elections pull in just over one-third. Other nations do much better, and we can learn from their success.

The central problem is that our electoral system provides precious little incentive to include citizens who traditionally don’t vote or who, as immigrants, have not yet developed the voting habit. The contemporary art of electoral activation allows candidates, parties, and interest groups to target reliably that small group of undecided likely voters for maximum attention, while ignoring traditional nonvoters.

To counter this syndrome, two goals must guide reform. First, we need to provide incentives for parties, interests, and candidates to seek out every possible voter. One reform has great promise. Automatic national voter registration would increase the pool of eligible voters, broaden electioneering, and raise turnout.

Second, to encourage more citizens to vote, we must make voting shorter, simpler, and more decisive, much as party voting was at the end of the 19th century. Today voting is a lengthy, complex task that seldom yields decisive results for the future direction of government. When I went to the polls in Northfield, Minnesota, in November 2000, I was confronted with a ballot requiring me to cast 26 votes—on everything from the presidency to whether to retain local judges, select county soil and water commissioners, and determine the fate of local tax levies. I resolved to vote only on matters about which I knew enough to make a reliable choice. I ended up casting 9 of 26 possible votes.

If a professor of political science can’t make sense of even half of his ballot choices, how are immigrants, new to the electoral system, to find their visit to the polls anything other than an exercise in frustration? The first reform is to simplify the ballot. States should eliminate—or at the very least, curtail—initiatives and referenda. Twenty-six states allow them, the worst offenders in 2000 being Oregon with 18 and California with 12 statewide initiatives on their ballots. These Progressive reforms place an unmanageable burden on most voters and usurp powers properly exercised by state legislatures. States could also cease the direct election of their constitutional officers. If the president can appoint his own attorney general, why can’t a governor?

States should consider returning to the party ballot, or at least to the party-column ballot that makes straight-ticket voting easier. A partisan vote is a rational method for addressing the myriad choices presented to voters and could prove particularly useful to neophytes. Party voting might also encourage more unified party government, in which one party has control of the executive and legislative branches. This unified control can make it easier for new voters to hold government accountable for its actions.

It’s no wonder immigrants have trouble making sense of our elections. We need to make it easier for all Americans—even political science professors—to understand the choices presented to them at the polls. Immigrants won’t find their proper voice in our democracy until we all do.