John O'Sullivan;And I think this is going to be a very interesting afternoon because the topic is that of illegal immigration which almost, it seems, suddenly has erupted onto the political landscape as one of the two or three major topics affecting Congress, affecting voting patterns, and, just most recently, in California, affecting the result of the election in San Diego.
We think of it as having suddenly erupted, and yet, of course, to those people who’ve been following it as a controversy, it has been a controversy now for really the past decade — you could say more the past 15 years. It became a serious topic again, in political terms, very early in the 1990s. I think I can claim some responsibility — credit or blame — for this because I was editing the magazine when the article, ”Time to Re-think Immigration” by Peter Brimelow, which went on to become the book ”Alien Nation” was first published.
But of course it was most significantly an issue in California because it was there that the impact of illegal immigration was most harshly and significantly felt. Now, in his reelection campaign in the mid-”90s, our guest today, Governor Wilson, took on this issue headfirst and dealt with it very frankly and clearly. He was attacked at the time for doing so, although I think everyone now acknowledges that it is absolutely essential that such an important issue affecting so many people should be freely ventilated. But at the time, as I say, he was attacked, let me quote to you what he said.
He was attacked for using a wedge issue. And he said, ”wedge issues are those — they don’t get to be wedge issues unless the problems are real, and if there is such a pervasive sense of injustice and outrage that they cannot and morally ought not to be ignored. If you think about it, slavery was a wedge issue.”
Well, he went on to win that election by a substantial majority, and Proposition 187, which was on the ballot at the same time, also won a significant majority, not merely a majority of voters but a significant number of Hispanic votes. Now subsequently, it became a kind of orthodoxy, in certain circles, that, although the governor had won that election, he had in fact damaged the reputation of the Republican Party. And yet I always looked at the opinion poll results and sort of the election results following, and I noticed that the people who argued this had actually got far fewer votes and a far smaller percentage of votes of all categories of voters than Governor Wilson had. So I always thought it was rather funny that somehow he could win votes with an issue and yet by his winning those votes damage people who hadn’t used it is an issue in later elections — seems kind of a paradox which has never really been persuasively explained to me.