Postelection panic among conservatives about the Latino vote has reached the point of absurdity — and mostly reveals the naïveté of detached political grandees who know little about the ideology and motivations of those they are now supposed to adroitly woo.
Republican postmortems have focused heavily on the Latino vote. According to exit polls, it went 70 percent for Barack Obama, and this year it might have accounted for 10 percent or so of the electorate. Presumably, this margin was an important, and in some exegeses the decisive, factor that denied Mitt Romney the presidency. Given demographic reality, then, the Republican party must in response be more inclusive, curb its illiberal and gratuitous rhetoric, and seek a “grand bargain” on illegal immigration, which will welcome Latinos into the party, and thereby result in a new 21st-century inclusive majority that will win presidential elections.
Yet, aside from the always-sound advice to be civil, show empathy for the less well off, and avoid callous rhetoric, almost all such thinking is oversimplistic, if not flawed altogether.
In the first place, why do Republicans think their conservative message is a natural one for the majority of contemporary Latinos/Hispanics — rubrics that strangely now include everyone from Cubans and upscale Argentinians to Oaxacan indigenous peoples and Hondurans? In truth, the vast majority of Latinos who vote overwhelmingly Democratic is made up of poorer immigrants from Central America and Mexico rather than Marco Rubio–like second-generation Cuban-Americans. De facto amnesty, generous entitlements, vast increases in public expenditures and hiring, and more taxes on the wealthy are understandably widely supported by both the Latino leadership and rank-and-file. Public employment is increasingly more attractive and more subject to affirmative action than the private sector, and, quite logically, its expansion is seen by poorer Latinos as a natural pathway into the middle class.
Had Republicans come out in favor of open borders and blanket amnesty, I doubt that they would have won the Latino vote — much less done much better in a state like California, given that its latest round of steep tax increases (now over 13 percent on top incomes) was widely supported by the so-called Latino community. Pundits can rail about supposedly naïve, out-of-touch Republicans who talked of self-deportation and thereby lost the Latino vote; but one just as easily might have castigated them for decrying out-of-control entitlements and food stamps, predicating legal immigration on education and skills, or criticizing unworkable and discriminatory affirmative-action policies, since these positions are also politicized as anti-Latino dog whistles.
Second, the “grand bargain” on comprehensive immigration reform envisions ending illegal immigration but granting amnesty to, at least, those who were brought here as children and are still under 25, in school or in the military, and without a criminal record. But why do Republicans think Latinos are in any significant way opposed to continuing illegal immigration? For the last 40 years, the influx of millions of illegal aliens leaving the impoverishment of Mexico by simply crossing the border, without much worry about U.S. law, has been a win/win situation for those already here. An expectation of cyclical amnesty or a general unwillingness of Americans to enforce their own laws is a magnet for millions in Latin America. In the surreal world of American liberal orthodoxy, the nanosecond a young Mexican national crosses the border, he becomes immediately eligible for affirmative action — despite having little history of victimization by the United States or claim of contemporary bias. In some 21 years of teaching at CSU Fresno I weekly mentored young illegal immigrants who were on federal and state scholarships, were recipients of the in-state tuition discount, and were courted by professional schools by virtue of being minority members with supposed historical claims against the majority. Given the disparity between life in Mexico and life in the United States, why would a voting bloc give up such advantages — especially given that the larger the pool of unassimilated illegal immigrants, the greater the avenue for second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans to offer them collective representation and advance their own careers in government, media, and academia on the basis of collective ethnic grievances?
Imagine, for a minute, that the Republican leadership did attempt to negotiate the “grand bargain,” a platitude as constantly voiced as it is never defined. If Republicans were willing to grant DREAM Act–like amnesty, what exactly would they ask for in exchange? The completion of the border fence? Employer fines? E-Verify? Deportation of millions of “unDREAM” illegal immigrants who do not meet the above criteria?
For all practical purposes, “comprehensive reform” means granting amnesty but also leaving the border fence uncompleted, having a guest-worker program, and issuing green cards to millions of illegal residents. If we were to deport the tens of thousands of Mexican nationals in our prisons, or the hundreds of thousands on some form of public assistance, does anyone believe that would win over the Latino leadership? The Reagan-era (1986) Simpson-Mazzoli Act (which required employers to verify immigration status, and which also amnestied about 3 million illegals) led to greater influxes from Mexico, did not stop calls for more amnesties, and certainly did not swell Latino support for Republicans.
Among most Mexican-Americans that I know there may have been just as much outrage at Romney for advocating legal immigration based on skills and education rather than family ties, as there was furor for his talk of “self-deportation.” Is it not hurtful (and seen as racist) to prefer that someone immigrate from Slovakia with an engineering degree and some capital rather than from Oaxaca with no money and without a high-school diploma? Under the present system, a Mexican national who is an unskilled worker can massage citizenship far more easily by virtue of ethnic clout and kindred ties to a Mexican-American than can a South Korean dentist or Greek doctor or Hungarian capitalist. Why would Mexican-Americans not favor such a system, and why would they not resent Republicans who advocated legal immigration based on higher education and specialized skills? Are the new Republican centrists to win the Latino vote by avoiding talk about basing legal immigration largely on criteria other than ethnic and family affiliations?
There are other, rarely spoken, reasons for Latinos to prefer Obama that have little to do with Republican positions on border enforcement. One is a sort of minority solidarity, in which the president, by virtue of his liberal and African-American profile, is seen as somehow more sensitive to other minorities, or at least in some vague mindset representing a shared challenge to the so-called white status quo. Note how those who dream of splitting the Latino vote do not talk in the same manner of drawing off the black vote. Do they cynically expect that black solidarity trumps the administration’s actual dismal record on black unemployment? Asian-Americans went 70 percent for Obama as well. Should Republicans advocate fast-track immigration from the Pacific, or cool their rhetoric about China? Or was the reason here as well that David Axelrod’s community-organizing-themed campaign brilliantly demonized Mitt Romney as an uncool old rich white guy, while reminding minorities that the future of America is to be theirs?
For all the talk of family values and natural conservatism, there is not much evidence that rates of illegitimacy, crime, or divorce are much lower among Latinos than among the general population, and plenty of reason to believe that they may in fact be higher than averages among whites and Asians. Issues like abortion, gay marriage, and environmentalism have been successfully welded by the Latino leadership into a liberal package — at best, the price that Latino elites pay to white liberal counterparts for their support of amnesty and generous entitlements; at worst, because they believe these issues are a thorn in the side of the status quo establishment. After all, why would a right-to-life argument or a traditional-marriage appeal attract Latinos when it did not win over the black community this year — despite all the publicity given conservative black preachers, whose congregations were supposedly so angry over Obama’s liberal social agenda that they were going to sit out the election?
In truth, the only means of winning over Latino voters to conservative positions are long-term and deeply embedded in American customs, economic self-interest, and the melting pot. Whatever short-term political damage would accrue from closing the borders would be outweighed by the long-term value that reduced and legal immigration will have in assimilating Latinos — the key to both their economic success and sympathy for conservative politics. At present, second- and third-generation Latinos, many of them middle-class and without knowledge of Spanish, have legitimized their claims for preference on the basis of a pool of over 12 million illegal aliens and tens of thousands more who arrive each year and have not gained parity. Illegal immigrants from the poor interior of Mexico and from Central America, when lumped in with Latino-Americans, warp all sorts of statistics from education levels, test scores, and English proficiency to health care, and thereby provide arguments that the dominant culture has not done enough for all Latinos.
The model for Republicans should be the Italian immigration experience. Italian-Americans were once a monolithic Democratic pool of millions. But, as immigration from Sicily and the rest of Italy greatly slowed down, and as the natural course of American capitalism brought Italian-Americans into the middle class and differentiated them into subclasses of higher and lower incomes, “Italian” ceased to be an ethnic straitjacket. Today, Italian-Americans may vote partly on the basis of tribal pride, but not in any predictable political pattern. Italian conservatives have no problem voting against Andrew Cuomo or Nancy Pelosi, while liberal Italians did not particularly rally to Rudy Giuliani. The 30 percent of Latinos who opposed Barack Obama may suggest that we are seeing the beginning of such a phenomenon.
What, then, should Republicans do? Stick to their melting-pot principles and apply them across the board, regardless of race and tribe, emphasizing the content of our characters rather than the color of our skins. Of course, avoid gratuitous polarization and loose talk. Close the border, and invest in the formidable powers of American assimilation, integration, and intermarriage to achieve for a soon-to-be-closed pool of Latinos what it has already done for Japanese and Italians. Consider the DREAM Act only if it is coupled with deportation of many of those who do not meet its requirements and with employer sanctions and border enforcement. A particular Italian-American may sometimes be indistinguishable to the eye from a particular Mexican-American, but the former does not qualify for affirmative action, does not take Italian Studies courses, is not labeled a victimized minority because of ethnic affinity with millions of poor Sicilian newcomers — and is not beholden any longer to the Democratic party.
A final note. Republicans have convinced themselves that somehow they were insensitive and thus lost minority votes. In fact, for nearly four years the Obama administration and its surrogates worked to create a racialist divide — energized by talk of a new demographic future — that was never successfully countered. When the pastor who gave the benediction when Barack Obama was sworn into office brags that whites are going to Hell, or when a columnist like Colbert King likens Romney to Andrew Johnson, the wrecker of Reconstruction, or when Chris Matthews serially alleges racism on the part of Republicans, or when Attorney General Eric Holder refers to blacks as “my people” and others as “a nation of cowards” — and when these efforts are not countered or even addressed — then the stereotype of a racist establishment certainly takes hold. The success of the Obama campaign in capturing the minority vote was not due to a Republican failure to have minority voices (cf. the party’s multiracial convention), nor was it due to opposition to the DREAM Act, but rather to a moral failure on the part of Republicans (not even a mild rebuke to Joseph Lowery’s racist rant?) to demonstrate that those who were building racial divisions for political advantage were themselves the real racists. If Republicans do not believe in a society in which race is to be incidental, not essential to our characters, and if they cannot stand on such principles, then why should anyone else?