California and Switzerland may not have much in common. When the former is mentioned most people think of sun and sand, while the latter evokes images of snow and mountains.
But in October both places had what may turn out to be significant elections. The results could be the beginning of a period in which it will be "politics not as usual."
In the United States, California's election received unprecedented coverage for a gubernatorial contest. A chief reason for this was the candidacy of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. With no political experience in his past, the former body builder was an easy victor, attracting the biggest voter turnout in the state's history. The message for politicians? People are tired of politics and politicians—put a famous celebrity up for election and people will vote for him, even if he has no experience (perhaps because he has no experience!).
So what was so significant about Switzerland and how do the two fit together?
Switzerland has a unique form of democratic government. The country is effectively run by a seven-man council, elected by the Federal Assembly. In October, what the Western press has labeled as an "extreme right wing" party gained ground and is now the dominant force in the government.
The Swiss Peoples' Party (SVP) is an anti-immigrant party that has gained public confidence in recent years, at the expense of the left-leaning Social Democrats. The change in the composition of the ruling council has ended a coalition government that held power for 44 years. Fears of the massive numbers of Islamic immigrants to Western Europe have been fueled by the attacks on the United States and subsequent terrorist attacks elsewhere.
Although the issue of immigration was not often openly expressed in the California election, it was nevertheless a primary reason for the election being held in the first place.
As Stephen Greenhut, a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California, stated it plainly in a recent article: "Open borders cost California billions—and maybe the governor his seat."
Writing in The American Conservative, Mr. Greenhut showed the connection between immigration (people moving into the state), emigration (people moving out) and the state's resultant budgetary woes that precipitated the recall vote and victory for Mr. Schwarzenegger.
"Americans in other parts of the country generally have a hard time understanding how dramatically mass immigration has altered the California landscape. The raw numbers are startling: more than a quarter of the state's population is foreign born, with immigrants and their children composing nearly half of the state's population.
"The Census Bureau released statistics showing that between 1995 and 2000, 2.2 million Californians left the state for other states, whereas only 1.4 million people from other states moved here. Yet although many of the state's middle-class residents moved elsewhere, population has grown by about 600,000 a year, almost entirely from immigrants and their California-born children.
"As one commentator put it recently, California is becoming an island unto itself, ever more distinct from the remaining 49 states but ever closer in demographics and attachment to the Pacific Rim and Latin America.
"Old-fashioned assimilation still takes place, and many of the new immigrants can teach native-born Americans a lesson or two in hard work, family values, and independence from government. But facts are facts. California's population is expected to reach nearly 50 million by 2020, and almost all the growth is coming from relatively poor immigrants and the children of immigrants already living here.
"As former Controller Kathleen Connell, a Democrat, told me in an interview last year, 62% of the state's taxes are paid by 5% of the people. That 5% is mostly the aging Anglo population. These people are retiring to other states or taking their businesses elsewhere. They are being replaced by masses of immigrants who pay few taxes and use many public services" ("Total Recall," Sept. 8, 2003).
Greenhut adds, "Yet no one will honestly talk about the mess." In fact, rather than have an open discussion on this problem with a view to finding a solution, the new governor-elect flew to Washington to ask the White House to help bail out the state.
Similar problems in Western Europe
The same situation prevails throughout Western Europe. While passing through England in early October, I saw newspapers spreading news of an admission from a government minister that each asylum seeker arriving in the country costs the U.K. taxpayer over 18,000 pounds per year. That's about $30,000. In theory, asylum seekers are fleeing persecution. By international law they should be given asylum in the first country to which they flee, which you would think would be the nearest. Yet hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers each year are passing right through a number of democratic European nations en route for Britain, the majority crossing the English Channel by means of the many trains through Eurotunnel. Why? The United Kingdom provides them with more benefits.
Echoing the disillusionment of the California and Swiss electorates, one man I talked to about this while in England said he thought many would soon be voting for the BNP (British National Party, an anti-immigrant party that has not yet achieved office). Perhaps this is one reason the British government announced plans in late October to tighten up on asylum seekers who arrive without valid travel documents.
Across the Channel, France received much bad publicity lately in the United States, due to its anti-American stance on the question of Iraq. The press rarely mentions the immigration factor, one that undoubtedly helps shape policy. France has proportionately the greatest number of Muslims in the Western world, due to massive immigration since World War II from its former North African colonies. Fearing the kind of violence in the streets that brought down President Charles de Gaulle and almost ended the Fifth Republic, Paris feels it has little room to maneuver.
Fearful of the future, the neighboring Swiss sent a strong message to their government that they want no more immigrants from foreign cultures who will not or do not assimilate. Their fears seemed particularly directed at peoples from Islamic countries.
The numbers of people moving from one country to another has been growing in recent years, a reflection of economic and political problems in many of the world's less developed nations. Although some people are moving to the West out of fear for their lives, most make the move to advance themselves economically. While some of these attempt to become American, Swiss, British, French or German, many do not, preferring to retain their home culture in their new country. The presence of other cultures (including different religions) often leads to fear and friction.
The issue of immigration is not going to go away. Watch for more dramatic changes in future elections as a direct consequence. —WNP