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Republicans, Immigrants and Sotomayor

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A number of mainstream publications, including the New York Times, are reporting on the problems the Sotomayor nomination poses for the Republican Party. If the GOP stays mum, they might endanger their standing with conservative voters. If they oppose the woman who will probably become the first Hispanic Supreme Court Judge, on the other hand, they risk further alienating the most important new voting block in the country. This is not, however, the first time the Reps have faced tough choices over how to handle emerging groups in American society, and it is not clear if they will learn from the past.

After the 1896 presidential election, the Grand Old Party became the majority force in American politics. The Democrats were the party of William Jennings Bryan, of farmers, of hayseeds. If you were middle class, if you were respectable, if you were an American in good standing, you were a Republican. And so it remained for several decades; to many, it seemed as if it would last forever. From 1896 until FDR won in 1932, only one other Democrat ever got elected president.

But the fly in the ointment was coming in boats. Around the same time, massive numbers of immigrants were arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. There were millions of them, leaving Italy and Poland, Russia and Slovakia, and dozens of other lands to come to America. The peak year for immigration was 1906, when over a million newcomers arrived. A second massive wave came when the First World War ended, and the sea lanes opened once again. Thus, the year 1919 saw the second highest figures for this entire generation of immigrants.

The response of the two political parties was vastly different. In 1920 the census showed that, for the first time in our history, a majority of Americans lived in cities. Forget that the figure was barely 51%, or that the definition of "city" was any place with 2,500 or more residents (I've lived in apartment buildings bigger than that). True Americans, led by the Republican Party, panicked. The old America was being pushed out, replaced by a foreign element. In legislative terms, the result was the highly restrictive Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, which effectively shut the door on any further immigration from the undesirable areas. In cultural terms, the newcomers were branded as 'un-American' by politicians, ministers and other spokespersons -- male and female -- of the old stock, and especially by Republicans.

What did the Democrats do in the meantime? They went down to the docks and signed up the new arrivals as citizens. Then they catered to them, giving them services, and above all, respect. All in exchange for one small act, delivered for a few minutes once a year, the vote. It was a winning formula, capturing hearts and minds, and cementing millions as loyal constituents to the minority party. By 1928 the top dozen cities in the U.S. all voted Democrat, and in 1932 the Franklin Roosevelt coalition took the White House and Congress, and remained in power for decades.

Today, a similar demographic revolution is occurring. Hispanic American voters, already the key block in many states, are clearly the wave of the future, the up and coming force in American politics.

And what are the Republicans doing about this? They are allowing themselves to be labeled as the party of the Minutemen and Tom Tancredo, and possibly of opposition to Judge Sotomayor, alienating Hispanic voters -- and women of all races, as well. Once again, they run the risk of turning off the largest blocs of future voters. The last time the Republicans failed to deal with a major trend in American society, with long-term, disastrous results for their Party. Let's see how they do this time around.