Latinos and the Future of American Politics

Latinos and the Future of American Politics

Defending immigrants and championing progressive economics (that even Rust Belt whites could like) are imperative—and complementary.

January 17, 2017

This article appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

When I was in my third year of college, a group of friends and I decided to drive down to Mazatlán, Mexico, for spring break. One pit stop along the way was my house in L.A. where my mother eyed the one Anglo sidekick who did not speak Spanish and decided to teach him what she thought might be the most useful phrase for a gringo soon to be adrift in Mexico: “La culpa no es mia.”

Literally translated as “the fault is not mine,” it indeed came in handy as a defensive phrase when we eventually tangled with federales on a sandy Pacific beach (it’s a long story). But it’s also been on my mind as I listen to some observers express surprise and disappointment that Latino voters, at least according to the official exit polls, may have leaned more to Donald Trump in 2016 than they did to Mitt Romney in 2012.

There is a heated debate about the accuracy of that analysis and it seems clear that “la culpa no es nuestra [ours]”: Latino voters posted a healthy turnout, managed to help elect Democratic senators in Colorado and Nevada (including the first Latina to ever serve in that body), and were even key to pushing California’s Orange County, long a bastion of right-wing Republicanism, to vote Democratic in the presidential contest for the first time since the Great Depression.

AP Photo/Russell Contreras

Looming Menace: A Trump pinata at a rally of Las Vegas hotel union members, who helped Democrats sweep Nevada. 

So while an even more progressive Latino vote could have made the presidential difference in, say, Florida (always a challenge given the Republican-leaning Cuban population), the problem this year was not the weakness of the still-evolving brown electorate. Rather, it was the quiet storm in the so-called Blue Wall: the batch of Midwestern states that have been battered by economic change, made anxious by demographic shifts (which have, in fact, only begun to touch them), and so were very susceptible to Trump’s unvarnished appeals to racial and economic restoration.

To some degree, the current liberal and progressive neck snap to the Midwest is understandable: We do need to catch up to Michael Moore and fully grasp just what led white voters (including a plurality of the white college-educated) to embrace a reality show billionaire with a self-declared proclivity for sexual assault. How did he make inroads by promising to deport or exclude people who mostly don’t live anywhere near those states? How do we detox our body politic so we can bridge differences and focus attention on what is likely a central task before us: generating a convincing economic program?

We can’t let a healthy dose of attention to the distressed white voter, however, lead us to give up on mobilizing the emerging electorate, particularly the growing Latino population that will constitute roughly 40 percent of the newly eligible electorate between now and 2030 (with the overwhelming majority of that coming from young Latinos turning 18). So any postgame analysis needs to be clear on what exactly happened to the Latino and immigrant electorate this year, as well as on the immediate challenges ahead, particularly the threats posed if Trump’s economic plan crumbles and the deportation sideshow becomes the main psychic payoff to his frustrated voters.


EVERY ELECTORAL SEASON brings the high hope that this will be the year when Latinos will finally make a difference. The term “sleeping giant” gets bandied around, with the hope that the wake-up occurs and that the results will be overwhelming for the good guys. Expectations were especially high this year: Having the eventual Republican nominee kick off his campaign by labeling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” and then attacking a Mexican American judge for being, well, Mexican American, seemed a surefire way to activate Latino voters and steer them to a Democratic alternative.

Moreover, a series of groups had already been pushing hard for the engagement of immigrant voters, abetted in part by encouragement from Spanish-language and other ethnic media. Applications for naturalization in the first half of 2016—which had historically been enough lead time to ensure citizenship and registration by November—were up about 30 percent above the first half of 2015. While there were processing problems induced by the rush (which likely diminished some of the anti-Trump vote), observers suggested that the immigrant vote was likely to be larger than in previous years.

Indeed, the signs pointed to a Latino surge during the early-voting period, a phenomenon reported breathlessly by the press. But the immediate post-election analysis suggested that may have been a bit of vote-banking, that Latino turnout on Election Day was not all that impressive, and that Clinton actually fared more poorly against her Republican opponent than Obama had four years earlier. Apparently, recruiting a vice presidential candidate who spoke Spanish and pitting that ticket against Trump and Mike Pence was not enough to rouse the giant from slumber.

Or was it?

The election postmortems have featured a sharp debate between the polling firm Latino Decisions and just about everyone else. Latino Decisions claims to have a better method for deriving a reliable Latino sample, primarily through a combination of over-sampling, geographic targeting, and the use of bilingual interviewers (something that allows pollsters to include and more accurately assess those Spanish-dominant voters likely affected by the appropriately strident anti-Trump tone of Univision and Telemundo).

According to Latino Decisions, the official exit poll report that 29 percent of Latino voters supported Trump is a significant over-statement, and the real figure is likely 18 percent. (Even that is a bit shocking, and analyzing which Latinos voted for Trump is likely to generate several dissertations on political cognitive dissonance.) Latino Decisions also contends that the Latino turnout may have improved between 2012 and 2016 at a rate well above the hopeful 17 percent increase originally predicted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)—and far above the roughly 9 percent growth in the national Latino population over that time period.

On the face of it, both a surge and an anti-Trump bent seem a more probable response to a candidate who vilified immigrants and promised to strip away health care from the population that seems to have benefited most from Obamacare. A similar set of questions has been raised about the findings for Asian voters: The official exit polls have them embracing Trump with the same misplaced enthusiasm as Latinos (29 percent), while an election eve poll focused on Asian Americans indicated that Trump was likely rejected by about 80 percent of that population, a pattern more in line with a long-term shift to Democrats on the part of the Asian American electorate.

Many pollsters and pundits have discounted the Latino Decisions data. Analysts at have suggested that the Latino Decisions data on Hispanic voting diverged from the 2016 exit polls more than they did from 2012’s, so there could be something off about this year’s Latino-specific polling. Spanish-language media was much more pronounced against the Republican in 2016, however, and so the sort of bilingual interviewing done by Latino Decisions, not the standard practice in the exit poll, would tend to pick that up.

Moreover, Latino Democratic candidates won five House seats in November in districts not previously represented by Latinos—a striking increase for a mid-decade election year that did not follow a census count and redistricting, and an outcome more consistent with Latinos waking than sleeping.

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Apparently, recruiting a vice presidential candidate who spoke Spanish and pitting that ticket against Trump and Mike Pence was not enough to rouse the giant from slumber.

Between Latino Decisions and the polling establishment, I’m perfectly willing to split some difference—no one version of the truth is perfect—but you can guess in which direction I might lean.


THIS MIGHT SEEM LIKE A mundane academic debate—#ImproveTheSample doesn’t have quite the same battle cry ring as #NotMyPresident—but it can profoundly influence where Democrats and progressives should commit future resources for voter mobilization. Bigger margins and higher numbers should suggest more attention to Latino (and Asian) concerns, particularly as the Democratic Party struggles to pick itself up and respond to the evolving electorate. Not so much attention would be warranted if these groups didn’t show. That’s why it’s important to remember that they did.

Indeed, how we rebuild and with whom are crucial questions for progressives going forward. After all, this truly was America’s “Prop 187” moment—that is, a contest akin to the 1994 California campaign where an opportunistic Republican gubernatorial candidate, trailing in the polls, pushed a ballot measure to deny nearly all services to the undocumented as a way to gin up the vote among anxious whites just emerging from a deep recession. It worked for the Republican then—and did so this year as well.

In California, the strategic response was clear and the blowback was relatively quick. Naturalization rates stepped up, Latinos got more engaged, and eventually became more permanently aligned with the state Democratic Party (and the Democratic Party with them). But this wasn’t a phenomenon that occurred all on its own: Labor unions, movement organizers, and others pushed it along. In the process, it turned California—once a red state, then a purple one—into deepest blue.

So believe me when I stress that we obviously need to pay heed to those disaffected white voters and speak to the real economic pain and uncertainty they are facing. Such an approach will be key to a state-by-state strategy (since if there is one thing this election demonstrates convincingly, it’s that states matter).

But we also need to remember the constituencies of color that pushed such states as Arizona and Texas even more in the direction of Democrats (with shifts from the 2012 losing margins of 5.5 and 6.8 percentage points, respectively). Moreover, the Trump wish to freeze America’s demography will not work: Even if some of their parents are deported, by 2030, nearly a million U.S.-born Latino youth will be turning 18 every year. In the long run, continuing to invest in naturalization, working to improve the registration and participation of the Latino electorate, and mobilizing a millennial generation that is eager to do battle with the forces of reaction are also key elements of building progressive power.


A MULTI-FACETED APPROACH—one that strengthens Latino political power and responds to the economic concerns driving all voters—is all the more important since Latinos are likely to be under special attack. One front will be immigration policy, perhaps most immediately Trump’s threatened Day 1 revocation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was the program established by President Obama’s 2012 executive order that has allowed younger undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents and essentially grew up as American to be temporarily shielded from deportation.

Another early action Trump has promised is to end various streams of federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities in an attempt to cut off local support for the DACA kids and their allies. Of course, the incoming administration is promising a much wider range of draconian actions on immigration, including building a border wall (or, now we are told, perhaps a fence), mobilizing a deportation force to target immigrants who have criminal convictions, and then stopping to catch their breath before figuring what other senseless and costly strategies to pursue.

There are easy policy cases to make against these efforts. Having local law enforcement refuse cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the main feature of providing “sanctuary,” is good for community policing. A wall is expensive and unnecessary, particularly given expansions in border security and workplace verification. The number of undocumented immigrants with felony criminal convictions is about one-tenth of the three million Trump has bandied about—and even that number includes such “bad hombres” as a 31-year-old mother of three in Arkansas who has been in the country for 25 years, speaks with a recognizable—California—accent, and has been held in a detention facility for a year because she was convicted for forging a check as a teenager.

As well, these initiatives are not broadly popular. Recent post-election polling shows that 60 percent of Americans actually favor granting undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, with another 12 percent in favor of some non-citizen legal status. Only 25 percent favor deportation. There is, of course, a sharp blue-red divide here: A bare plurality of Republicans favor removal while 90 percent of Democrats favor some route to legalization.

And therein lies the dilemma Trump will face: Whatever sense one strategy or another may make as policy (and it’s not clear that making sense is a huge constraint on Trump’s thinking), he will need to feed the fervor he has tapped into and stirred up. The easiest target is ending DACA: It can be done by executive order and, if it is phased in gradually (so that the time periods for existing work permits are simply allowed to lapse without renewal), the spectacle of tossing nearly 800,000 young Americans back into the shadows will be done drip-by-drip rather than in a painful (and more easily protest-able) flood.

But that pain will be real, and not simply for the DACA-mented recipients who will lose their legal status. For many reasons, this is the group that has had the best chance of benefiting from gaining legal status: They are much more likely than other undocumented residents to speak English well and have U.S. educations that translate more effectively in our labor markets. Moreover, it was likely the most motivated of the pool of eligibles who applied for DACA, providing yet another reason to expect big gains from this group.

That has shown up in the data. According to a recent study of DACA recipients, nearly 90 percent are working, nearly 50 percent are in school (with many, of course, doing both), and they report an average of a more than 40 percent gain in hourly wages once given legal permission to work. For an administration with a supposed commitment to economic recovery, this is an expensive bit of race-baiting: The Center for American Progress estimates that ending DACA could cost nearly $450 billion in lost GDP over a decade.


LATINOS WILL BE PARTICULARLY hard-hit by any DACA rollback. For reasons that are not totally understood, many Asian immigrants have steered clear of DACA and about 95 percent of the DACA beneficiaries are from Latin American countries. And these young people have family members (after all, that’s who brought them here), suggesting large swaths of the population will feel the ripple effects of their loss of status. As a result, there will be a widespread destabilization of Latino households and families.

But immigration is not the only issue concerning Latino leaders as the Trump administration approaches. Consider health care: Over the first two years of the Affordable Care Act, the uninsured rate for non-elderly Latinos fell by 9 percentage points, more than for any other ethnic group. (Asians were second with a 7 percentage-point improvement in health coverage.) Repealing Obamacare, including the extension of Medicaid for lower-income Americans (including poor whites who also disproportionately benefited), is a serious challenge for Latino well-being.

Voting rights are also under threat. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who shopped anti-immigrant ordinances around the country, has also been peddling new voter--ID laws designed to disenfranchise voters of color, and has been invited to advise the incoming president on issues related to homeland security. Senator Jeff Sessions, the attorney general-designee, has a “record of hostility” to voting rights, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; he would be a disaster for Latinos, Muslims, and African Americans, as well as for anyone who cares about civil rights and democracy.

Meanwhile, another quiet corner of Trump’s government could be among the most critical: the Census Bureau (located within the Department of Commerce). Its decennial count, after all, sets the terms for government distribution of resources as well as the drawing of electoral districts. Latinos were already especially susceptible to being undercounted in 2010. If immigrant families, scared off by a government seeking to separate them, become even more reticent to participate in the census, this could sharply reduce the flow of funds to more diverse cities and counties.

Like other Americans, Latinos are generally more concerned about the economy and education than other issues. But here, too, the Trump agenda is threatening: With lower household incomes and high rates of labor-force participation, Latinos tend to benefit from increases in the minimum wage—not cuts in corporate tax rates. The appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, an heiress who has spent years pushing for charter schools and voucher programs, worries those who believe public schools are a key platform for a path to the middle class.

All these threats to Latino interests point to where progressives can build a common-front agenda. Everyone can gain from a more inclusive economy, a stronger education system, more-not-less democracy, and continual forward movement on health security. But we can’t get there by ill-framed attacks on “identity liberalism” that seem to blame minority mobilization for causing us to lose sight of what we share. After all, the identity politics of this season was the white working class voting more white than working-class; working- and middle-class voters of color actually seemed pretty solid for the progressive agenda.

Jamelle Bouie/Creative Commons

Latino activists protest a Donald Trump rally in Dallas, Texas. 

Everyone on the left, including activists steeped in ethnic politics, needs to find a better way to address the concerns of older anxious voters, to bridge the divides of race, geography, and culture, and to offer a unifying economic and social vision. But to get there, we must engage in the tough conversations about racial inequity and economic injustice that will lead us to uncommon common ground.


THIS WILL REQUIRE SEVERAL heavy lifts.First, we have to frankly assess the situation but also avoid the blame game. Like many others, I have been speaking around the country after this election, seeming to play the role of grief counselor (a role I did not anticipate when I got my doctorate in economics rather than psychology more than three decades ago). For the most part, the disputes about why Democrats and progressives got mostly shellacked have been civil—when things turn out this badly, everyone should question their own prior strategy. Indeed, the disagreements I raise above are not to cast aspersions but rather to create the lasting foundation to work together. A little kindness toward each other will go a long way in what is likely to be a season of Trump-inspired meanness.

Second, we do need to prioritize generating a broad and credible economic alternative. The president-elect had one: Your problems are due to unfair competition from international trade and wage-cutting immigrants. It didn’t make much difference how much that had to do with reality; it was a story that cut through in a way that Hillary Clinton’s never did and Bernie Sanders’s nearly did. The outlines of such a progressive alternative are for another article, but key elements include a commitment to full employment for all as well as an embrace of the emerging evidence that inequality is actually bad for our economic as well as civic health.

Third, we need to step up registration and participation among the growing populations of color—especially Latinos, who are likely to be pushed further left by the policies of the incoming administration. One prediction: The Trump piñatas that became best-sellers during the campaign will have a long shelf life and could come to symbolize a broad realignment toward the Democratic column, as the racially exclusive strategies of the administration become more apparent every day.

Fourth, we should help mobilize and support strong local resistance to the new federal regime. I hail from Los Angeles, a place that is promising to rebuff any attempt to engage our police or our city in the enforcement of immigration law. California’s president pro tempore of the state senate and speaker of the assembly—both Latinos—issued a remarkable statement the day after the election affirming the values of California and pledging to keep the state “a refuge of justice and opportunity for people of all walks, talks, ages, and aspirations.” The Left Coast is ready to fight—and the left in general should be as well, particularly since anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim efforts are as likely to deplete our social justice organizations as they are to decimate our communities.

Fifth, we need to make special efforts to engage millennials, many of whom are still shell-shocked by what their elders are bequeathing them. In doing this, we should recognize that race does matter: 44 percent of all Latino eligible voters are millennials, while the share among blacks is 35 percent and among whites 27 percent. Fortunately, this generation is able to hold both economic equity and anti-racist messages in their heads at the same time. They have also generated a culture of political mobilization, creating a generation of Dreamers, Black Lives Matter activists, LGBTQ advocates, and all of their allies. We can’t speak past them; we need to speak with them.

Finally, we have to consider how to truly start bridging across differences. In an era of “narrowcast” media, American social life is largely devoid of everyday conversations across political lines. The panic felt by groups arrayed across the ideological and social spectra becomes the gist for snarky comments and mean posts rather than the grounds for empathy. We need to do better—and we can start by pointing to what the next America is really telling us about our future.

Several days after the election, I traveled to Pennsylvania to give a series of talks, one of which was to high school–age “Breakthrough Leaders” in a town that has experienced significant demographic change. Facing a large audience of easily bored teenagers, I decided it was better to listen than to talk. And so I asked: “What do you think makes for a good leader?”

From an audience that was virtually all black or Latino, the answers poured back without hesitation: honesty, reliability, responsibility, listening, flexibility, and a concern for the whole team. I was simultaneously saddened and inspired. On the one hand, I realized that they had just seen a president elected who embodied virtually none of those values. But I also realized that the coming America that many Trump voters seemed so scared about espoused values that are about as mainstream as you can imagine.

These next four years could actually be a lot worse than many even imagine. We will need to defend the most vulnerable, but we will also need to develop new leaders and ideas that help us push the promise of American democracy. We will need to rethink and regroup, exploring new strategies even as we stay focused on the task of forging a long-lasting and inclusive coalition. And Latinos, with a large footprint in the working class and an intersectional and multiracial identity forged by challenging exclusion, will be an important part of the progressive future.

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