Why New Theories About Latino Political Power Need to Emerge

This essay was originally published on January 13th by the National Institute of Latino Policy newsletter, which  asked a number of Latino opinion leaders across the United States to respond to the issues raised by journalist Roberto Suro in his January 2nd New York Times opinion piece, “Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?”

The “demography is destiny” catchphrase that Roberto Suro refers to in his recent New York Times piece about Latino political power is widely attributed to 19th century French sociologist Auguste Comte, founder of the positivist movement in philosophy. The ideas he developed about combining statistical analysis with social dynamics is very much at the root of how we look at our political reality today. However, Comte also said that “If it is true that every theory must be based upon observed facts, it is equally true that facts cannot be observed without the guidance of some theories. Without such guidance, our facts would be desultory and fruitless; we could not retain them: for the most part we could not even perceive them.”

After reading Suro’s piece it is certainly reasonable to assume that the findings he presents are indeed cause for concern. But it’s his attendant theories that don’t always resonate, not only with my opinion, but with the political reality that Latinos in the US face today.

It’s true that the much ballyhooed surge in the Latino population in the last 15 years has been disingenuously perceived as a harbinger of inevitable demographic triumph at the ballot box. More accurately, it is a strong indicator of a huge pool of new consumers that have been relentlessly targeted by everyone from auto insurance companies to disposable diaper manufacturers. Moreover, it has helped make Univision the second- or third-largest television network in terms of viewership, creating wild fantasies that Jorge Ramos is somehow equivalent to Walter Cronkite.

But Suro suddenly extrapolates from his accurate assessment that demography is not political destiny by suggesting that instead, “the paranoia of the majority” is on the verge of making 2016 “the year of the Latino eclipse.” Apparently he has been swayed by the Republican/Fox News strategy to bombard the voting public with months of frothy, infantile debates, thereby creating the impression that the drivel that is spoken at them represents something akin to “the views of the majority.” Poll after poll has shown that a majority of Americans of all stripes support immigration reform that allows the undocumented a path to citizenship.

Suro’s skepticism about immigration reform becoming a single-issue “ethnic empowerment strategy” is more of a reflection of myopic mainstream media coverage than political reality. It’s true that it has been a dominant issue, but there are many layers to that assertion that must be analyzed, many threads to untangle. On the one hand, it is an issue that resonates most strongly in the West and among Mexicans and Central Americans-notwithstanding my East Coast-based Dominican and South American neighbors. On the other, there are many Latinos-with high voting eligibility rates-who have been citizens for generations and may not be immediately concerned.

Yet it is precisely the hateful rhetoric that comes out of the “paranoid” minority highlighted in the Republican debates that makes concern about the immigration issue transcend its stated goal of a path to citizenship for the undocumented. First, the atmosphere created by intolerance to immigrants has already gestated a series of laws in Arizona and California that threaten to subject a majority of Latinos to stops and searches based on their phenotypical appearance even if they have been citizens for generations.

Secondly, the hate-speech rhetoric that arises from this form of politics serves to remind many Latinos-even the relatively successful ones-that institutional racism, whether it stems from intolerance of immigrants to continued residential segregation, job discrimination, income gap, unequal access to education, and restriction of voting rights, is alive and well and needs to be addressed, and Republicans seem far from capable of doing that. Finally, aren’t Latinos just simply fed up with how payasos like Donald Trump epitomize the condescension of a majority culture that is uncomfortable with a “foreign” language or a community that is made up of largely mixed-race people of color? See: the recent New York-based protests against Saturday Night Live.

Suro seems to blame Latinos for “rolling the dice” and “betting on one candidate,” citing the failure of President Obama and the Democratic Party to achieve immigration reform. But if Obama didn’t deliver immigration reform, is that the fault of Latinos attempting to organize political power by electing him? Didn’t they deliver votes to a candidate that promised what they asked for? Isn’t it unreasonable to expect that the goal of organizing around major election is to guarantee that a candidate will not renege on his or her campaign promise?

Rolling the dice is hardly how I would characterize support for the Democratic Party, despite its obvious failures to address issues important not only to Latinos but other disenfranchised and marginalized groups. Rather than a Quixotic quest for Latino political power through a focus on immigration reform, the big battle going on among Latino advocacy groups is jockeying for position to influence both parties, engaging with an array of issues besides immigration reform. An internecine struggle in the so-called Democratic Alliance has been reported between a new group, One Nation Forward, and more traditional groups like National Council of La Raza, Mi Familia Vota, and the Eva Longoria-driven Latino Victory Project. One Nation Forward is seeking to ward off the Koch Brothers’ funded conservative pro-business group Libre Initiative, whose leadership draws massive salaries by working for a public sector nonprofit organization.

This is not a single-issue battle: Latinos on both sides of the political spectrum favor immigration reform, although Libre’s is weighted more towards a business-friendly pseudo-guest worker model. It’s a battle between whether Latinos want government that protects workers’ rights, the environment, and Obamacare, versus “rolling the dice” by gambling on the Republicans’ anti-regulatory, pro-business agenda. It’s also a battle centered on the emerging world of PACs and 501(c) organizations that channel so-called “dark” and maybe not-so-dark (labor union) money in the post-Citizens United elections-for-sale era.

Suro’s aside about the lack of “name-brand” political leadership is partially refuted by Angelo Falcón’s example of Illinois Representative Luis Gutiérrez, and it can also be said that Arizona rep Raul Grijalva has emerged as a capable spokesman featured on a fair amount of cable and mainstream news outlets. And if Clinton (or the long-shot and, for me, preferable Bernie Sanders) goes with Julian Castro, whom Suro mentions, as her veep choice, he would enjoy immediate branded status. (Again, outside of Hillary, one would be hard-pressed to identify “name-brand” national political leaders among other marginalized groups, which again begs the question about how badly Latinos have dropped the ball.)

Suro’s point about the flagging of Latino political protest is well-taken, but mitigated by several factors. There may be a sense that since immigration reform activists feel betrayed by the lack of action on reform after the 2006 peak in activism, they are discouraged and regrouping. I haven’t been following Spanish-language radio closely, but there may also have been a scaling back in calling out the troops by outlets such as Univision radio, which used several of its morning DJs to swell crowds 10 years ago. The escalation of the criminalization of immigration has also had a chilling effect, as well as the well-reported increase in deportations, a specter that has arisen again this month. How can you expect a community that is in many cases subject to deportation to match the intensity of Black Lives Matter protests, whose numbers include not only mostly American citizens but a much larger number of whites than most people care to notice?

Suro’s discussion of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as “Latino” candidates is also a bit lacking in sophistication, as was demonstrated in a recent Washington Post article. It notes that the circumstances surrounding Mexican and Cuban immigration are quite different, which makes Cruz and Rubio not automatically appealing to the leading Latino nationality, Mexican, which makes up about 62% of all US Latinos.

To characterize Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as the “sons of Latin American immigrants” is a little misleading. First, they are the sons of Cuban immigrants, the Latino group that has had the most privilege granted to it, virtually no problems with immigration status, and let’s not forget that Ted Cruz’s mother is not a Latin American immigrant, but an Anglo-American, granting him natural born citizenship status despite having been born in Canada. I agree that the use of the word “traitor” is a bit ludicrous, but privileged Cuban immigrants can arguably be doubted as representing the interests of the majority of Latinos. [The Post article’s riff on the cultural difference between Mexicans and Cubans doesn’t hold that water for me, since although Puerto Ricans and Mexicans eat vastly different food and have different musical tastes, it didn’t prevent them from making several progressive alliances back in the 1970s (along with progressive Cubans and many other nationalities). Despite Puerto Ricans having citizenship status, they suffered similar racialization and discrimination to that of Mexican immigrants.]

It is also questionable, no matter how “eloquent” Cruz and Rubio may be, that their “up from poverty” experience is more universal to Latinos than the Spanish language. Cruz, the son of a salesman and teacher, attended an “exclusive” private school in Matanzas, and was helped by his father to apply to University of Texas, while Rubio is a product of Miami’s affirmative action bonanza for Cuban immigrants. I would also question that the “aspirational narrative” must necessarily be attached to “shrinking big government.” Don’t many Latinos who identify with aspirational narrative agree with government policies that prevent them from falling into poverty or provide assistance with education and setting up a small business, which is something much of the Cuban community in South Florida received on a much larger scale than any other Latino immigrant group?

The numbers on Latino voter participation are not good, no doubt. While it is a general trend across all demographics in the US, the Latino numbers are even worse. Yet these numbers did not prevent the election of the president or several candidates that favor immigration reform. In addition, Suro offers no analysis or insight to various voter-disqualification campaigns (including requiring photo ID, elimination of early voting, etc] orchestrated by Republicans and their think tanks to disenfranchise voters of color in several states. Many of these Latino voters are eligible to vote but are subject to campaigns of disenfranchisement.

Let’s give Latinos credit. They know that the Republicans will never favor immigration reform given the current climate, and that likely nominee Hillary Clinton will hedge her bets on the issue, which is fitting, as she is heavily funded by hedge-fund managers. Political engagement is something many communities are struggling with, and we are as a country experiencing a moment of generalized skepticism about the political system that is increasingly less democratic because of the surge in campaign money, whose origins are often hidden from public view. In addition, the relative youth of the Latino population and lack of direct involvement in civic life are also obstacles that may change over time.

Have Latinos blown their chance at political power? Possibly, but there are also powerful forces at work to disengage most Americans from the full and effective use of their political power. There is much to be done about the challenges that Suro raises, but any action driven by these demographic inevitabilities must be accompanied by new and innovative political theories and thinking-including confronting the phenomenon of the millennial generation and the age of digitized global information and its attendant tweets and self-reproduced images, citizen journalists, and lack of privacy-that will allow us to address our political destiny.

[Obligatory afterthought concerning Puerto Rico: No mention was made of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and Washington’s sluggish response, placing 3.5 million US citizens on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. There is an ever-increasing pool of eligible Puerto Rican voters with the potential to directly influence Florida’s politics, and everyone moving to Florida from Puerto Rico are born US citizens so they are immediately eligible to vote. When I last looked, Florida is a “swing state.” Why was there no mention of this?]

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