As the tide of anti-tax and anti-government protests began to rise over the summer of 2009, one of the early voices of alleged warning that sparked this populist explosion was Michelle Bachmann, a Representative of Minnesota. Already famous for dramatically conservative positions, Bachmann had previously become relatively well-known for her statements that a committee should be formed to evaluate the patriotism of every member of Congress. On June 17, her comments during an interview with the Washington Times, however, crossed the line from blatant partisan demagoguery into a clear attempt to transform present paranoia into potentially violent action. This interview combined the various conservative fears surrounding the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN), particularly highlighting Obama’s connections with that organization (referring to him as “a former employee of ACORN now occupying the White House”), but furthermore suggesting that ACORN and related groups (and the infiltrated federal government) intended to gather large amounts of information using the census – presumably for nefarious ends. The congresswoman then advised her interviewers and the audience to follow her supposed example and refuse to answer any of the questions on the census except the number of people in the residence – an act alone that is considered a federal crime.
The paranoia in that encounter is tangible, but pales in comparison to her statements eight days later. On Fox News, she argued that her worries about the 2010 Census have historical precedent in that:
“between 1942 and 1947, the data that was collected by the Census Bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations at the request of President Roosevelt, and that's how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps […] I'm not saying that that's what the Administration is planning to do, but I am saying that private personal information that was given to the Census Bureau in the 1940s was used against Americans to round them up, in a violation of their constitutional rights, and put the Japanese in internment camps”No longer ending with a vague fear of loss of privacy, Bachmann’s train of thought abruptly jumps from typical census data in the modern day to Gestapo-esque utter violations of any sort of due process. The four months following that and similar comments from the various heads of the Republican Party seemed an almost unthinkable acceptance of this paranoia by the right and a bizarre fascination with this strange pseudo-populist movement by the left. This continues into the very current political situation, visible for instance in a newly produced survivalist strategy game involving militias (the role the player takes) killing the remains of the Obama Administration and ACORN “shock troops” following a coup.
At this immediate time, however, the transmission of fears surrounding the census from the libertarian far right to the authoritarian cultural conservatives has radically altered the right’s overall perception of the census, transforming it from utter paranoia to attempted manipulation of the program. To a limited extent, this was clear even during the earliest roots of the census paranoia. Bachmann suggests that her followers fill out one specific question only on the census – that concerning the number of residents. Often, racial minorities are dramatically undercounted while the census frequently overestimates the number of Whites – giving states with less diversity a subtle advantage, as the census determines the number of Representatives and thereby electoral votes a state should have. It remains unclear what motivated Bachmann’s various claims about the census, but her clarity that residents should respond question which directly determines the strength of a location’s political voice suggests that she attempted a nuanced position, which discredited the would-be reformers of the census (ACORN, Obama), legitimized the views of her base (that the Obama Administration was intent on tyrannical government), but left her base’s geographic standing intact (by filling in their answers to that particular question).
That stance has fallen away, as the Republican Party has realized the extent to which it can still legislate policy. Bachmann’s radical tone, the political equivalent of a scorched-earth retreat, has yielded to a new consensus among Republican congressmen to mold the census into a political arm for their current objective – revenge against the demographic widely considered the cause of their downfall and through the silencing of this group the potential of preventing further losses. They hope to use the census to target the Latino community.
The desire for revenge against, or failing that, structural undermining of the politicized Latino community has been the Republican response to the 2008 Presidential Election, which conservatives overwhelmingly perceived as being the decisive transition of the Latino voting bloc from an independent group to a member of the Democratic coalition. As Newsweek reported in the aftermath of Obama’s stunning election:
“Hispanic voters didn't just leave their mark on this year's presidential election. They decided it. Four states with sizable Hispanic populations that went for Bush in 2004—Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada—all turned blue this time around, adding 46 crucial electoral votes to the Democratic candidate's winning tally”The transition from treating the census as inherently suspect to viewing it as a tool for systematically undermining Latino vote, however, was shockingly sudden. As the summer of 2009 came to an end, the paranoia surrounding the census had reached a fever pitch, resulting in the brutal murder of a volunteer census working in Kentucky. Found in late September, “hanged from a tree near a Kentucky cemetery had the word ‘fed’ scrawled on his chest,” the death of Bill Sparkman seemed an ominous warning of impending violence towards census workers until the completion of the census in 2010. A matter of weeks later on October 7th, however, "Republican [Senators] David Vitter of Louisiana and Bob Bennett of Utah" had proposed an “amendment [which] would exclude illegal immigrants from the population count used to allocate congressional seats [using] the 2010 Census". Senator Vitter explained his reasoning arguing “[i]llegal aliens should not be included for the purposes of determining representation in Congress, and that's the bottom line here”. Unfortunately ignored by the Senators, the impact of this proposal on the political system would not be a glowing restitution of American democracy, but rather a variety a change from one unpalatable choice to another. Instead of illegal aliens’ presence increasing the count of individuals to be represented in a given area or state (the current situation), under the provisions envisioned as stemming from this addition to the census, the concept of one-man-one-vote would be restored at the price of a completely politically voiceless class being created. This amendment brings to the surface the unsavory realities of illegal immigration: at its core the fact that without amnesty and naturalization, undocumented immigrants represent a group inherently deprived either in part or in total of true political representation.
Beyond these more abstract political concerns a variety of more concrete issues seem largely ignored by this Republican amendment. In pragmatic terms, “[a]bout 425 million forms have already been printed” without any questions on citizenship, a new requirement to receive any further funds. In addition to cancelling the current ad campaign based on the ten questions on those millions of forms, adding “questions would require designing new forms” which is “operationally impossible” according to the director of the program. Furthermore, the idea that individuals would willingly reveal their legal status in the country, especially to a state clearly influenced by a growing neo-nativist movement, is quite laughable. Fearing an undesirable response to census questions on residency could be part of the recent trend of more dramatic anti-immigrant policy, “some [Arizonan] immigration advocates are threatening to tell undocumented immigrants to boycott the census”. Appearing to be almost a last act of desperation, such a protest would harm immigrants as much or more than others, as the data from the census not only determines (distant seeming) political districting, but also “would deny recession-starved cities and towns much-needed federal tax dollars, which are allocated based on population” as determined by the census. States like Arizona with strong immigrant communities “could lose millions of dollars in federal funding for roads, schools, redevelopment and other projects if large numbers of people are overlooked”. Even in states traditionally off the beaten path of immigrants, like North Carolina, have realized that the “challenge looms large for census [workers]” interested in accurately counting a community subjected to “raids in which people were taken from their homes at night” by the state conducting the census. Moreover, the constitutionality of the proposed restructuring of the census is quite questionable, as existing law overwhelmingly uses citizenship-neutral language, calling for a counting of “inhabitants” or “persons”. Plagued by so many practical obstacles, it seems unrealistic to expect many to support the Republican amendment.
In spite of its general detachment from reality, the far right, originally terrified of the alleged potential abuse of the census, has primarily rallied around a remodeling of the census as an instrument for excluding certain individuals from the country on an even deeper institutional level. Glenn Beck, a rightwing pundit who used the nationalistic mood of the summer of 2009 to amass a disturbing amount of political power, very quickly endorsed the Republican amendment. On October 11th, a few days after the initial introduction of the change, Beck devoted a section of his broadcast to a nationalistic skewering of opponents to the proposed addition – comparing them repeatedly to those who advocated the three fifths compromise. Beck opines,
“When it comes to immigration laws are we getting best what’s for America [sic] or what’s best for SEIU [a medical workers’ union] who has more immigrant workers than any other union and funded the May Day rallies […] wasn’t that a communist thing?”.
Having fused resurgent neo-McCarthyism, neo-Nativism, and anti-union populism, Beck then hides this repugnant intolerance in an alleged stance of opposition to the modern slavery of undocumented immigrants, declaring in a strange fashion, that his opposition to the irregular political position of all non-citizen residents equates to liberation of undocumented aliens from substandard labor. In short, Beck has claimed that ignoring the problem is the same as solving it. If Glenn Beck is any indication, the populist neo-nativist conservatives of America have quickly forgotten their qualms about Obama’s census and seized a political opportunity, not only regardless of the cost to immigrant communities, but in part because of it.