Schadenfreude might have been the most overused word in the weeks that followed President Obama’s reelection; understandably so since anyone who lived in fear of the party of rape, racism, rapacity, Rand (Ayn and Paul), and Rove could take great pleasure in the right-wing post-mortem of Mitt Romney’s losing campaign. Personally, I’ve enjoyed reading what Republicans think they should do with Latinos.
Majority conservative opinion accepts that the strategy in place at least since 2000—race-targeted voter suppression, ethnic cleansing (the Arizona gambit), and repression combined with targeted co-optation (the Texas model)—no longer cuts it. Some still think tokenism might be workable, urging Republicans to make way for telegenic Cubans, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’s Ted Cruz. Or Jeb Bush, who has managed to convince a good number of political commentators that he holds some special appeal—the hacendado paunch, maybe—for Latinos.
And there has been a stunning turnaround on immigration reform, with everyone from William Kristol to Sean Hannity calling on Republicans to back some version of the Dream Act or legislation that would grant a path to citizenship to undocumented migrants. Some find some solace in Ronald Reagan’s oft-repeated 1984 remark that Latinos, being good patriarchs and hard workers, “are Republicans; they just don’t know it yet.” But the crushing numbers—Latinos went by over 70% for Obama, who even won a majority of Florida’s Cuban vote—have forced a rethinking.
“It is not immigration policy that creates the strong bond between Hispanics and the Democratic party,” wrote Heather MacDonald at the National Review, “but the core Democratic principles of a more generous safety net, strong government intervention in the economy, and progressive taxation.” Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray also throws cold water on the idea that “Latinos would be natural converts to a more welcoming Republican Party.” They aren’t more religious than other groups, Murray points out, nor are they more homophobic, and they are only marginally more opposed to abortion than the population at large (though Murray does say that the Latino laborers who work on his house seem to be “hard-working and competent,” which he takes to be synonymous with conservative).
If anything, the fact that Wal-Mart is unionized in many Latin American countries should put to rest once and for all Reagan’s old saw. Latinos in the United States are of course diverse, but wherever they hail from, they tend to define democracy as social democracy. Latinos have slowed the right-wing lurch of the Catholic Church, complicated Evangelical (as well as Mormon) politics, and reinvigorated the labor movement. They push back against not just economic but intellectual austerity, which defines things like education and health care as “gifts,” as Romney put it following his loss.
Nothing is written in stone. Many Italians were anarchists, the Irish radical nationalists, and Jews Communists. But as they passed though the New Deal welfare state, their politics transformed. That could, theoretically, happen with Latinos. The Republican Party could manage to suppress its nativist wing and ideologically capture Latinos, the way first the New Deal Democrats and then Reagan Republicans did the white working class.
But there are two reasons why this isn’t likely to happen: First, there is no robust welfare state for Latinos to pass through, thanks to the institutionalization of neoliberalism in this country. Second, the dynamics of race today are different than they were in the first half of the last century, when both political and social citizenship was defined in opposition to African Americans, who were largely left out of the New Deal. When the New Deal unraveled, Republicans leveraged that exclusion to great political gain, with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
Look at the numbers: Latinos make up over 20% of the population in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada, nearly 30%, 40% in California and Texas, and almost 50% in New Mexico. Even in bastions of rock-ribbed Republicanism, like Nebraska and Georgia, they hover at around 10%.
The Democrats will betray and Obama will trim, but the dead hand of the Confederacy is finally being pried off the throat of U.S. politics.
Greg Grandin is NACLA’s Executive Editor.
Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"
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