Two earth-shaking movements can be felt in Washington just now. One involves grandees of left and right stampeding to embrace gay marriage, after years of timidity and hesitation. The second involves a contest among ambitious Republicans to support the boldest immigration reforms. Would-be Republican leaders are backing bipartisan policies that were taboo on the right only months ago, including work permits and a path to citizenship for the 11m migrants in America without the right papers.
Dry electoral explanations for these changes include the need to woo socially liberal women or Hispanic voters. But that rather mechanical explanation does not capture the magnitude of the political earthquakes under way. Simply put, public opinion seems to be deserting opponents of gay marriage. It is moving on immigration too, and pro-reform activists are starting to draw parallels between the two revolutions. Their case is that empathy explains both, as public understanding of once-unfamiliar, marginalised groups—gays on one hand, migrants on the other—reaches a tipping point. There is some evidence for their belief. That is good news for immigrants whose plight inspires public sympathy. But empathy alone is not enough.
Start with gay marriage. Opinion polls have tracked a surge in public support for such unions over the past decade, to 58% in one poll. Pollsters from Langer Research Associates note that this shift is matched by a sharp rise in the number of Americans who say that homosexuality is just how some people are, rather than a choice. That advance in compassion and understanding cannot be separated from the growing visibility of gay celebrities, friends and neighbours. A Republican senator who recently changed his stance on gay marriage, Rob Portman, ascribed his conversion to learning that his own son is gay. Announcing her own change of mind, Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic secretary of state, talked of her many gay friends and colleagues. Empathy for gays is here to stay. Support for gay marriage stands at 81% among “millennials” (adults under 30). Endorsing same-sex marriage shortly after Mrs Clinton, Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from conservative Missouri, admitted: “My children have a hard time understanding why this is even controversial.”
Opinion on immigration is also softening. In a recent essay for the Washington Post Frank Sharry, the head of America’s Voice, an immigrant-rights group, wrote of campaign tactics consciously copied from the gay-equality movement, above all the need for undocumented migrants to “come out” publicly about their status, giving their plight a human face.
Gay-marriage campaigners have long favoured unthreatening, often grey-haired monogamous gay couples as spokesmen (the “lesbians next door” gambit, as a study of the cause dubbed it). Immigration reformers promoted Dreamers: young campaigners named after the DREAM Act, a proposal to offer fast-track legal status to migrants brought to America as children, as long as they go to college or into the armed forces. Advocates such as Mr Sharry credit the prominence of wholesome, college-bound Dreamers with helping reshape the national debate.
A large nationwide opinion survey, published by the Public Religion Research Institute on March 21st, found that 68% of Americans back an earned path to citizenship for illegal migrants—a six-point rise since 2011. True, that headline number hides differences that spell trouble. Republicans are more hawkish on immigration than Democrats. Most whites, blacks and Republicans say that illegal immigrants hurt the economy by driving down wages. Hispanics mostly disagree and Democrats are divided. But the survey found another pattern of differences, involving big generation gaps, that may point to a more understanding future. Whether Republican or Democrat, millennials are consistently more liberal on the issue of immigration than their elders. Nearly seven in ten say that immigrant newcomers “strengthen” society. The same proportion say they have close friends born abroad. On both measures, young adults are way ahead of older Americans.
The right is moving, now it’s the turn of the left
In Washington there is cautious optimism that a comprehensive immigration deal—combining tighter border controls, legalisation for migrants already in America and smarter rules for admitting foreign workers in the future—may now be within reach after years of failure. A bipartisan group of senators, including a potential Republican White House contender, Marco Rubio, has been meeting intensively to forge a pact that can survive passage through Congress. On March 25th, speaking at a naturalisation ceremony packed with fine new citizens—foreign-born volunteers in the American armed forces, a doctoral student of information technology—Barack Obama said he wanted to see Congress formally debating a plan by April.
Yet dangers lurk in a continuing stand-off between trade unions and groups representing employers over rules governing future visas for workers, especially those with mid-level skills not covered by other proposed agreements on the highly skilled or on temporary farm labourers. Eager for immigrant members, unions are keener on immigration reform than in the past (in 2007 they helped kill a reform plan rather than accept a guest-worker scheme). But they are still asking for tight caps and a politicised system of work-visa regulation that employers call unworkable.
Empathy is of little use in this dispute, which is more about economics than social justice. The right was too slow to acknowledge the civil-rights arguments for immigration (as it has been wrong on gay marriage). But immigration reform is also about promoting growth. Mr Obama and congressional Democrats must not give the left a veto.