DAPA and Brexit: Is the Left up to the challenge?

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Supreme Court was unable to deliver a ruling on the challenge to President Obama's DAPA immigration problem: The high court divided evenly 4 to 4, and so the lower court ruling against the Obama policy stays in place, at least for the Fifth Circuit. (States outside that circuit, and advocacy groups, and even churches, should rush to their neighborhood courthouse and seek a different result. Nothing prevents that.) Those of us who care about the plight of immigrants are understandably disappointed today, even more so those who care about the kind of country we are becoming, a country that builds walls not bridges.

Across the Atlantic, and to the surprise of analysts, Britons voted decisively, if not overwhelmingly, to leave the European Union. The margin was significant enough that it prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to resign as soon as the result was confirmed. There, as here, the underlying issue is what kind of country the U.K. will become. A country that builds walls or builds bridges.

It is no use blaming the conservative members of the Supreme Court: On the merits of the case before them, they might be right. Although we have no opinion to examine, we can deduce that they believed the president overstepped his constitutional authority, from enforcing the law to rewriting the law. It is true that all presidents fudge this distinction as much as possible when it suits them. The Republicans on Congress who hailed yesterday's decision as a victory for the Constitution never seemed to complain when George W. Bush issued a signing statement that strenuously altered the meaning of a given piece of legislation. There are no virgins in Washington.

In the U.S. immigration case, the immediate blame rests squarely with former Speaker John Boehner who refused to bring the comprehensive immigration bill to the House floor for a vote. That bill had passed the Senate with 68 votes, and the only bills that get that much consensus in the Senate these days have to do with apple pie and mom. There were sufficient votes in the House to pass it. But, Boehner did not behave as the Speaker of the House. He behaved as the Speaker of the Republicans. Instead of a profile in courage, he provided a profile in cowardice, and for what? The same right-wing zealots who opposed immigration reform toppled him the following year anyway.

I would add that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops naively believed that Boehner would pass immigration reform during the lame duck session after the 2014 elections, a scenario that was never plausible. They may have been gullible or they may have lacked a clear-eyed understanding of the Republican leaders with whom they were dealing and in whom they were placing their trust. In any event, they did not push when it might have made a difference. Remember that when you read individual bishop's wringing their hands today and over the next few days: The USCCB had and has some real juice with the Republican leadership, and they did not deploy it effectively on behalf of immigration reform. If anyone over at Fourth Street wishes to contest my analysis, I welcome a public debate at the venue of your choosing.

President Obama voiced his disappointment over the Supreme Court's decision not to decide. It can be hoped he will stop the vicious deportation raids his administration has perpetrated in the past few years. His administration might also profitably investigate the work of its own border control agents, many of whom are poorly trained and make matters worse, not better, along the border. He, like the USCCB, declined to push the issue in 2014, albeit at the behest of congressional Democrats, and shame on all of them. If you admired the Democrats for their sit-in the other night, admire their passion not their moral acumen. They are courageous when they see political benefit in being courageous.

The result in the U.K. was a bit surprising. The consequences remain to be seen. The departure of Cameron was a profile in courage on his part and is likely to be a wake up call for the Conservative Party. It is anybody's guess what effect the decision will have on Scottish nationalist politics: In Scotland, the people voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but turnout was lower there than in England and Wales where a majority voted to exit.

In both the U.S. and the U.K., the working class is not wrong to be anxious about its future. My colleague Tom Roberts reported yesterday on a new survey that sheds important light on people's feelings of anxiety and fear about the social and cultural changes going on around them. Globalization, of which the E.U. is a prime example, has harmed many people for many years, and yet the elites who have benefited from globalization either ignored that harm, chalked it off to the "creative destruction" of modern capitalism which can never be questioned, or, as elites tend to do, conflated their socio-economic superiority with moral superiority, and merely looked down on those harmed by globalization as somehow deserving their bad luck. Yes, shady politicians have exploited that anxiety and, in the case of Donald Trump, have not proposed solutions for the problems, only offering scapegoats for the anxiety. But, the elites need to do some public penance too. The 52 percent of Britons who voted to leave the E.U., like the majority of Republicans in Virginia's 7th congressional district who ousted Congressman Eric Cantor, like the Tea Party voters who backed dozens of extremist candidates, some of whom won and some of whom lost, all have been letting the rest of us know for some time that they are angry no one is paying attention to their plight. Bob Putnam pays attention, but they do not read Bob Putnam.

This is the issue that will shape the U.S. elections from today until November: What kind of country will we become? That begs three prior questions: What kind of country are we? What kind of country have we been? What kind of country should we be? The Catholic church has a special role to play in answering these last two questions about our past and about our aspirations, but I am afraid there is not the leadership available to play that role, too many bishops, even the good ones, who do not want to rock the boat, or do not want to "divide the conference" as if it was not already divided. They, too, will have no one to blame but themselves if Mr. Trump wins in November and starts deporting our people next year.

I sympathize entirely with those in the U.K. who voted to leave the EU yesterday, even though I think they were wrong to vote that way. (As a Roman Catholic, I shall not weep overmuch if the U.K. dissolves, seeing as one of the principal original binding agents of Britishness was anti-Catholicism, as historian Linda Colley pointed out.) I sympathize entirely with the white working class in this country, which has not seen a raise, indeed has seen its pay go down, while the GOP celebrates the free market and the Democrats seem more concerned about securing a person's right to a late-term abortion than a person's right to a job. But, unless we can summon the moral strength and vision to confront the anxieties of those whom globalization has left behind, we can expect the Donald Trumps of the world to win at the ballot box. He does not have an answer, but he has an anger; he pays attention to the problem even if he offers no solution. Can the Left say as much? Will the upcoming election, like the last one, be about a faux "war on women" or will it be about jobs, solidarity, and an economy that works for people rather than the other way round?

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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