The Corner


The Democrats’ Latino Dilemma

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, September 28, 2018. Front row (from left): Amy Klobuchar (D, Minn.), Chris Coons (D, Del.); (back row): Cory Booker (D, N.J.), Kamala Harris (D, Calif.), and Richard Blumenthal (D, Conn.) (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Many on the left are frustrated and baffled by the fact that in the age of Trump, Hispanic voters have not responded by unifying behind the Democratic party. Over at Slate, León Krauze elaborates on why “Hispanic voters have become a maddening puzzle for the Democratic party.” Though I don’t agree with Krauze’s stance on immigration policy, he offers a clear-eyed assessment of a big and important challenge facing anti-Trump Democrats. I recommend it. For now, though, I’ll briefly summarize his argument.

President Trump has championed more stringent immigration enforcement, ICE and CBP have broadened the scope of their efforts to remove visa overstayers and illegal border-crossers from the U.S., and the Trump administration has pushed for a more demanding public-charge standard. There is a broad consensus among left-of-center intellectuals and, increasingly, politicians that these policies are cruel and inhumane, and that they represent a racist attack on people of Latin American origin writ large. Some writers and thinkers have gone so far as to describe the Trump immigration agenda as a form of ethnic cleansing, with a particular focus on the impact these policies have been having on Latino communities.

If you are convinced by such characterizations, you’d think Latino voters would take strong exception to the Trump presidency. As Krauze explains, however, against this backdrop, “Latino voters seemed to have slowly warmed up to the president.” He references a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, which found Trump’s approval rating among Hispanics at 41 percent, far outpacing his approval among African Americans at 12 percent. This finding is, according to Krauze, broadly consistent with other recent polls, and he contrasts it with Hispanic support for Barack Obama in his first term, which was in the neighborhood of 49 percent. Trump’s support is lower, yes, but of course President Obama was not seen as militantly anti-immigration. Krauze then references Roberto Suro of USC, who recently questioned “the presumption that Trump’s immigration policies have alienated large numbers of Latinos” in a fascinating interview with Vox.

So what does Krauze make of all this? Rather than offer some glib solution to the Democrats’ Latino dilemma, he closes by lamenting that voter turnout among Hispanic citizens is persistently low and then offering a plea: “Whatever their preference, Latinos must vote, now. The place of our entire community within the fabric of American life depends on it.”

I do not find these recent survey findings as surprising as Krauze. Though I’m sure he would acknowledge the heterogeneity among citizens of Latin American origin — some are native-born and others are naturalized, some are affluent and others are not, levels of educational attainment and religious commitment vary considerably, as does the strength with which different people of Latin American origin embrace a strong sense of ethnic identity. The list goes on.

Back in 2015, I argued that Latino voters cared more about the state of the economy than immigration policy per se, and I’ll admit that I feel somewhat vindicated. More broadly, I suspect Latino politics will change as the second-generation Latino working class comes of age. Naturalized citizens tend to vote at lower rates than their native-born counterparts, and many, in my experience, take what you might call a “quietist” approach to politics in their adopted country. The native-born Latino population of today, meanwhile, came of age in earlier decades, when this population was considerably smaller and many of its members lived in integrated environments, where they came to identify with the political and cultural sensibilities of their non-Latino neighbors and friends. This is true of, for example, working- and middle-class Latinos who found themselves in mostly non-Latino white milieus and who see themselves as “mainstream” and more open to right-of-center politicians. It is also true of college-educated, upper-middle-income voters who’ve found themselves in elite environments, where left-of-center politics are very common and asserting one’s membership in an underrepresented group can in some ways be beneficial. What we’re seeing, I suspect, is people in the latter camp who are baffled by people in the former camp.

Elsewhere, I’ve sketched out some thoughts on where Latino politics might go in the coming decades. I see two broad possibilities: a strong left-wing turn, in which working-class Latino youth reject milquetoast center-left liberalism in favor of a more assertive brand of populist socialism, or a right-wing turn, in which changing immigration flows (that is, the continuing slow down in Latin American immigration and the expected rise in Asian and African immigration) and anti-elitist sentiment lead more native-born Latinos to embrace immigration restriction. This is also a theme I touch on a bit in my book Melting Pot or Civil War?, which, of course, I’d love for you to buy, read, and discuss.


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