Its the Calculus that Kills You
A few weeks ago, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida used state money from the Florida budget to send private planes to Texas, where asylum seekers from Venezuela were tricked into getting on flights to Martha’s Vineyard with false promises of cash assistance and jobs. The ruse was elaborate enough to include props (a fake brochure, a folder with orientation materials) and only ended when those immigrants found their way to a nonprofit on the island that, though unaware they were coming, was able to organize food, clothing, and shelter.
At its twisted heart, this stunt was an insidious attempt at one-upmanship, a chance to wrest the Republican immigration spotlight from Governor Abbot of Texas, who had been bussing immigrants and asylum seekers to New York City for months. And in that sense it worked. If the Republican platform can be boiled down to one phrase, “own the libs” fits far better than “make America great again” ever did, and by designing his political stunt with maximum inhumanity, DeSantis seized the mechanisms of the outrage machine better than Governor Abbot’s voluntary buses.
This is emblematic of the utter moral and intellectual vacancy at the heart of Republican politics. At every turn, Republicans block immigration reform because they do not want to compromise, and they do not want to solve an issue which bestows upon them so much political capital. They just want to make noise, and they will stoop to ground level to do it.
It is important to note that the people of Martha’s Vineyard were not “owned.” They showed up in droves to help, from local businesses and nonprofits to individuals bringing meals and finding shelter. And in New York and Washington D.C. there are countless groups from Grannies Respond, South Bronx Mutual Aid, and Team TLC providing resources at every stage from figuring out when the buses are leaving Texas and sharing that info with NYC authorities to providing everything from COVID tests to menstrual products. And there are advocates all over the country pushing for immigration policies that actually deliver on the promise of the American dream, flawed and fraught though it might be.
But it is also important to know that according to a recent Navigator Research poll, Republicans are still more trusted on immigration policy, even in the midst of these political stunts. According to Gallup trends monitoring immigration over the past several years, nearly 50% of Americans think “illegal immigration” is a critical threat to the country.
I’m not a polling expert or a political science researcher or an analyst. There’s a reason this blog isn’t called “How to Save Democracy, and other numbers.” But I would guess, based on this math, there’s an argument to be made that liberal outrage over Abbot and DeSantis’s stunts is bad politics, that our anger only feeds the salience of an issue that unites the Republican base and divides ours. The same might be said for other issues that outrage us, like queer rights and racial justice, or other issues in which liberal political activity might be out of step with our morals, like homelessness and criminal justice.
As we get closer and closer to election day each cycle, it feels like these issues become less about our humanity, about what we owe to each other. Sapped of their depth they become board game pieces - DeSantis in Florida with the private plane, Mayor Eric Adams in NYC with the flooded shelter. We become hardened by uncertainty, by a real and desperate fear that we are about to hand off our democracy to those who want to strip it for parts and sell it to the highest bidder. We question our anger and its usefulness - will it help or hurt our election prospects? Can we afford this outrage or will it cost us our democracy?
But it’s that math that kills us every time. The heart of politics is people coming together to figure out how to care for each other, how to use our ramshackle and often fragile democracy to build the world we’ve been dreaming of. And there is no place in that world for stunts like these. There is no place for Governors who use people, real and vulnerable people, as pawns, moving them unwillingly around for their own amusement and political gain. There is no place for governments that are so determined to bully trans kids that they are asking high schoolers playing girl’s sports to report their menstrual cycles; or for candidates who want to ban abortions nationally but exempt themselves from that rule.
Of course we are outraged. These Republican politics are designed for maximum cruelty with minimum productivity. They do not want to solve problems, they want to exploit them and the people most impacted for their own politician gain. But if politics is the project of caring for each other, then perhaps political savviness is not to be cynically unmoved, but to be pushed further, from outrage into activism, not to ignore the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers but to remind our fellow Americans and our fellow voters that behind every issue are people that deserve dignity and opportunity.
Midterms terrify me. There is so very much at stake from our ability to fight climate change to the very bones of our democracy. The party led by people who pull these stunts, who believe no election is valid unless they win it, who would rather see children suffer than admit that there are other ways of being, should be kept far, far away from power. But it is their weakness that threatens us. These small, mean men who fear a just society, who put others down to build themselves up, just like any schoolyard bully who only feels big if others feel small, only feels strong when others feel weak.
We can beat them, but what will we do in their place if we too are driven by fear to abandon our belief in a better world? Let our outrage drive us to imagine bigger, bolder, and brighter. Let our outrage remind us that the American project should be an ever expanding table, and that the more people we convince of this, the closer we’ll get.