Balkanization of California: Demagogy, Not Just Economy

Article excerpt

Political opponents worldwide are working hard to inspire resentment, hatred, and violence based on nominal ethnic and racial differences. From media accounts, one would conclude that such conflicts were natural or even inevitable with, out the demagogic factor. The war in the former Yugoslavia has been presented as a resurgence of ethnic hatred, not as the result of political opportunism. But there would be no atrocities without the opportunists' effort to enhance their political power. In Bosnia, people who have lived side by side for generations without strife, intermarrying, would not have become maniacs overnight unless they had been incited. By turning their followers' attention against other identifiable groups and scapegoating them for economic problems--problems all people, regardless of ethnicity, have in common--the demagogues have again sowed the seeds of hatred.

If we look closer to home, perhaps we can shed fight not only on conflicts in far-away places but also in our own nation.

Are there political opportunists seeking to incite ethnic resentment in the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and they are at the highest levels of government in both major political parties. In California, the state where I live, high, ranking political opportunists have targeted nonwhite immigrants as scapegoats for the state's grave economic problems. Governor Pete Wilson and U.S. Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are the most notable, but state treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown and Represenative Anthony Beilenson (Democrat-Ventura) cannot be excluded. Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum and two former Immigration and Naturalization Service chiefs have already proposed anti-immigrant ballot initiatives. Indeed, the seeds of the demagogues have already brought forth early fruit--a harbinger of a harvest to come similar to the one already being reaped in Bosnia.

It was Beilenson who first made political hay out of immigrant bashing. As a result of redistricting, Beilenson abruptly found himself with a constituency of conservative white suburban voters. Facing a tough political fight in this new district, Beilenson proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to' the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens. The amendment process takes about 12 years and requires massive support nationwide; therefore, Beilenson's proposal was hardly a solution to any immediate problem. However, reelected to another two-year term, he had gotten what he wanted from his anti-immigrant posturing: right-wing credentials for a formerly moderate Democrat.

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum provides another interesting portrait in opportunism. Following redistricting in his last election, Schabarum found himself with a heavily Latino district, and so this conservative politician came out as a Latino: "Yo soy Latino," Schabarum proclaimed. That hasty demagogic twist failed to secure him re, election. Now, however, Schabarum has taken the opposite tack--behind anti-immigrant ballot initiatives--showing that political opportunists trim their sails rather shamelessly.

Although not a defining issue in the 1992 elections, now apparently no candidate in California will be able to avoid the migration question, however irrelevant it is to the actual problems to be confronted in office. The sudden interest in immigration at this time, like resentment between different ethnic groups, is not "natural" and cannot be simply explained by "the economy." Clearly, it is the politicians, in response to economic problems, who have chosen to turn the public's attention toward the alleged burden of immigration.

However, the media must also share the blame for this anti-immigrant demagoguery. Although the media may claim to be "just reporting," its angle of coverage has obscured the facts and intensified the emotion-charged debate. True, the coverage has provided discrete facts by which, through careful analysis, accurate conclusions can be reached. …