Eight Democratic candidates debated at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Sunday night. While the headlines from the debate focused on Iraq and health care, by far the most controversial stances carved out by the presidential hopefuls was their unwillingness to have English become the nation’s official language.
The stance itself (for Democratic politicians) is not surprising, but it is controversial when viewed through the prism of the policy preferences of not only the America public generally, but also Democrats.
Last year, the United States Senate voted on a purely symbolic bill that made English the “national language” but not the “official language.” The American public, however, wants a bill with actual teeth: three surveys conducted since 2005 all found supermajorities of Americans to support making English the official language. An April 2006 FOX News poll found 78 percent favored the passage of such a law. A 2005 Zogby poll showed 79 percent for such a measure. A June 2006 Rasmussen poll found 85 percent of Americans want to make English the national language.
Perhaps out of a fear not to offend the 10 to 15 percent of the country who opposes such legislation, the Democratic presidential candidates are, as a result, running away even from their Democratic base on this issue. Making English the official language is not a partisan issue—at least not within the electorate. More than two-thirds of Democrats in the Zogby poll and 79 percent of Democrats in the Rasmussen poll approved such a measure. Republicans supported the measure in even greater numbers.
To date, 30 states have made English the national language—including Iowa (in 2002) and South Dakota (in 1995) in the Upper Midwest. New Hampshire—host to Sunday’s debate and the first primary in the nation in 2008—also passed such a law in 1995.
The introduction of English as a national language is being brought back into public policy debate in light of the new immigration legislation on Capitol Hill. On a national stage Sunday night, Democratic candidates carved out a position at odds with approximately 80 percent of the American public; this will not be a winning issue for whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee in 2008.