Mark Krikorian’s response to Jonah’s column and mine on the Latino vote, Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio is a prudent reminder that the category of “Hispanics,” invented by federal bureaucrats in the 1970s for the administration of quotas and other such purposes, is composed of people who in real life think of themselves as Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, etc., etc., and simply as Americans.
So Mark is right to argue that a Cuban-American candidate cannot easily use — and certainly cannot rely on — appeals to the ethnic loyalty of Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans in an election. In one sense that inability is a good thing because political appeals to ethnic loyalties are deeply divisive and either irrelevant or damaging to good public policy. It is an obstacle that, fortunately, candidates of all parties have to face. And because this ethnic segmentation reduces the size of any one ethnic group, it reduces the temptation to play ethnic politics.
All of that is true. But it’s not as comprehensively true as it used to be because the experience of registering as a “Hispanic” (which can be advantageous in employment, college admissions, etc.) may gradually accustom people to thinking of themselves as, so to speak, Hispanic first and something else second. An invented identity can become a real one, especially if extended over several generations, in a kind of bureaucratic parody of “Americanization.” Indeed, that outcome is the objective of such organizations as MALDEF, Lulac, La Raza and, of course, of the Democratic party. And the presence of a “Hispanic” identity, however secondary, in public debate is a problem for Republicans because the Hispanic ethnic-pressure groups, de facto allied with the Democrats, will cast doubt on the credentials (“not a real Hispanic . . .” etc.) of the Republican in any two-candidate Latino race.
Now to the nub. Mark argues that Jonah and I are mistaken “in imagining that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio will appeal to a significant number of Hispanic voters who aren’t already Republicans” (my italics). Well, Jonah will speak for himself, but I certainly don’t hold that view. To focus first on Hispanic Republican voters, I would happy if in the short term the GOP did not minimize their number by treating the Hispanic community as a naturally Democratic one on most issues and as a naturally ethno-separatist one on immigration, multiculturalism, bilingual education, and similar issues. Such a defensive approach demoralizes Republican Hispanics, offers a weak “me too” alternative to non-Republican Hispanics, alienates non-Hispanic voters, requires the party to abandon otherwise popular policies on “official English” and opposition to racial quotas, and makes the entire Republican appeal look incoherent and timid. Yet this is the electoral strategy that the GOP has consistently followed in recent years despite disappointing results.
A strategy for both the short term and long term might be as follows: The GOP would protect the foundations of the Hispanic Republican vote it already enjoys and build out from there — offering an overall conservative program (as Mark suggests) on a wide range of issues, but emphasizing the ideal of Americanization on national-and-social-fabric issues, and fielding candidates like Cruz who exemplify the potential of a common American culture against the Democrats’ stress on multiculturalism. An important element in this approach is to demonstrate that an American national identity is not only better able than multiculturalism to reconcile subordinate ethnic identities under its canopy but also offers better life chances to all ethnic groups because it minimizes the cultural differences between them rather than freezing or even exaggerating those differences. All in all, the Republicans would present themselves as the champion of Americanization and the Democrats as the representatives of multiculturalism.
I don’t underestimate the difficulty of such a strategy for the GOP or the subtlety and courage needed to pursue it. It would involve, for instance, seeking to persuade Hispanic-Americans that their neighbors are not racist when they seek to halt illegal immigration but have perfectly decent and reasonable motives for doing so. Among those motives is the argument that assimilation takes longer and is more difficult when an immigrant ethno-culture is constantly reinforced by a mass stream of new arrivals. A better system of immigration control and assimilation would thus be in the interest of the immigrant groups and ethnic diasporas as well as of other Americans. The simple fact that Ted Cruz has argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (and won five of them) is a demonstration of this case. The fact that he is hero to the Tea Party is another.