English-Only the Wedge Issue du Jour?

Politics, US Elections, US Politics

The skilled practitioner of “up-close” magic knows that the secret of success is misdirection.  “Observe that there is nothing in the top hat,” the illusionist will announce while he grabs the rabbit hidden under the table.  When done well, the audience member not only doesn’t notice the misdirection, he doesn’t even know he was the victim of the sleight of hand.

St. Louis Cardinals fan defending the English language

St. Louis Cardinals fan doing his bit to defend the English language

The Republican Party has learned this lesson well, and, in recent years, it has perfected the art of electoral misdirection.  This involves utilizing state initiative and referendum laws to place controversial social issues on the ballot.  The advantage is twofold: it drives social-values voters to the polls who might otherwise not be motivated enough to vote, and it forces the particular issue into the forefront of the other campaigns, which often places liberal or progressive candidates into the uncomfortable position of having to take a stand on a contentious and potentially divisive issue.

Paradoxically, the perfect issue for this kind of ballot initiative is one that, because it involves a constitutional right, can’t be changed by a ballot initiative.  That way, win or lose, the issue is thrust into the center of the political discourse while the party backing the initiative isn’t responsible for actually doing anything about it.  Abortion is, in this respect, the perfect social values ballot measure, and three states have abortion initiatives on the ballot for the 2008 election, including South Dakota, where conservatives were left crying “do over!” after suffering a surprising defeat in 2006.

When it comes to the mother of all misdirections, the GOP hit the jackpot in 2004 when it backed eleven statewide referenda to ban gay marriage.  All eleven passed. The gay marriage issue worked because it energized conservatives who could be depended upon to vote against man-on-box turtle unions and, while they were at it, also pull the lever for George W. Bush.  It was a classic two-for-one deal, with gay marriage being a loss-leader for the product at the top of the ticket.

The problem with gay marriage, however, is that there’s not much one can do for an encore.  Really, there’s no point in passing a gay marriage ban after having already passed a gay marriage ban in a previous election.  It’s not as if a state can put gay marriage under a “double-secret ban.”  Unlike abortion, which seems to have innumerable electoral permutations (parental consent, mandatory ultrasounds, etc.), gay marriage is pretty much a yes-or-no proposition.  For the states that have already passed anti-gay marriage legislation or constitutional amendments, there’s simply no ballot left in the chamber for 2008.

Gay marriage was good while it lasted, but now Republicans need to find some other bright, shiny issue that they can dangle in front of the voters in order to lure them to the polls while distracting them from the party’s epic fail of the last eight years.  The gun rights issue has been effectively mooted by the supreme court’s decision in Heller.  The South Dakota example demonstrated that abortion may no longer be a safe issue any more.  Flag-burning and the pledge of allegiance are just so 1990s.  What’s left?

This year, the Missouri GOP has hit upon an oldie-but-a-goody: a constitutional amendment establishing English as the state’s official language.  “The amendment would establish English as the language of all ‘official proceedings’ such as meetings, telephone and videoconferences or Internet chats where government business is discussed or decided,” despite the fact that “[n]o government body in Missouri has ever, to anyone’s knowledge, conducted a meeting in a foreign language.”  That may be true, but then it’s also true that no one in Texas has attempted to marry a box turtle, so a “clear and present danger” standard is clearly not the appropriate test.  Instead, it’s enough that there’s the possibility someone out there might want to conduct a meeting of the local water treatment district in Dutch or Urdu or Esperanto or Canadian.  There might not be an imminent threat of these people ruthlessly discussing the library board’s budget in a foreign language, but they are probably out there, right now, engaged in foreign-language-related program activities.

Some Democrats aren’t fooled.  “This is another example of a fix for a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat. “This is another wedge issue that, frankly, the Republican Party uses to take focus off the issues that affect real people in the state of Missouri.”  Yes, and…?  Of course it’s a wedge issue designed to take the focus off of real issues.  THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT!  Honestly, if the GOP wanted voters to focus on the economy, health care, the war in Iraq, or disaster relief, it would have actually done something about those problems over the past eight years.  Instead, it wants to attack a problem that doesn’t exist, which has become something of a specialty for the Republican Party.

We will see in less than two weeks if the English-only ballot initiative in Missouri has any saliency for voters there.  Missouri is a swing state, and the polls have alternated between Obama and McCain in recent weeks.  Even a slight upturn in voter turnout as a result of the initiative might shift the state into the McCain column.  If the Show-Me State goes red this year, expect more English-only ballot initiatives to pop up on other state ballots in 2010 and 2012.  It is unlikely, however, that Missouri voters will have the preservation of the English language uppermost in their minds as they head to the polls this November.



  1. engineer  •  Oct 23, 2008 @12:18 pm

    If this passes, does that mean that I have to use words like “lorry” and “lift”?

  2. nimh  •  Oct 23, 2008 @12:47 pm

    Hey, what language better to use for discussions on water management than Dutch?

    But yes – good summary. What the woman said: “this is another example of a fix for a problem that doesn’t exist,” and a particularly colourful one too, with that whole “[n]o government body in Missouri has ever, to anyone’s knowledge, conducted a meeting in a foreign language” thing.

    Good catch. And nationally topical too: replace foreign language-conducted government business with voter fraud (not voter registration fraud, but actual voter fraud), and the whole ACORN brouhaha can be summarised in the exact same way. It’s the same thing, the same strategy – and it’s a bit sad to see so many people fall for it.

  3. sozobe  •  Oct 23, 2008 @1:23 pm

    How did you put it when I swiped your quote as a sig line? Something like “The Republican’s whole campaign strategy is ‘Hey, look over there!'”?

    Excellent way to extend on that thought, and very accurate.

  4. joefromchicago  •  Oct 23, 2008 @2:14 pm

    …the GOP’s unenviable task is to distract the voters and keep them from recognizing that disconnect. Indeed, the party’s slogan this year should be: “hey, look over there!”


  5. Ben Karlin  •  Nov 4, 2008 @8:04 pm

    Well, actually the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Board for Certification of Interpreters both are required to have Deaf members. They had been having meetings in American Sign Language. Wonder how they will work this out.

  6. Mike Jones  •  Jul 13, 2013 @8:03 pm

    Esperanto is the only hope for the world.