Tue, Apr

The Future of Latino Politics and What It Means to LA and the Golden State


POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY--The sad decline in race relations has focused, almost exclusively, on the age-old, and sadly growing, chasm between black and white. Yet this divide may prove far less important, particularly in this election, than the direction of the Latino community.

This may be the first election where Latinos, now the nation’s largest minority group, may directly alter the result, courtesy of the race baiting by GOP nominee Donald Trump. If the GOP chooses to follow his nativist pattern, it may be time to write off the Republican Party nationally, much as has already occurred in California.

Today, Latinos represent 17 percent of the nation’s population; by 2050, they will account for roughly one in four Americans. Their voting power, as the GOP is likely to learn, to its regret this year, is also growing steadily, to 12 percent of eligible voters this year, and an estimated 18 percent by 2028.

Political geography may prove as critical here as rising numbers. African Americans, for historic reason, are heavily concentrated in deep blue cities, simply padding already existing Democratic supermajorities, or in the deep red South, where they are overwhelmed by a conservative white majority. In contrast, Latinos represent a growing constituency in critical swing states such as Florida, where they constitute one-fifth of the electorate, as well Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and, thanks to the genius of Donald Trump, perhaps even Arizona.

The next African Americans or the new Italians? --Not even considered a separate racial group by the U.S. Census Bureau until 1970, Latinos encompass many cultures and racial backgrounds – from purely European to heavily Native American and African, with lots of mixing in between. Unlike African Americans, the Latino experience has not been forged by the crime of slavery, the primary source of our deep-seated racial discontent. Latinos either predated Anglos in Texas or the Southwest, or came here later to seek opportunity and improvement.

Latinos, then, are more akin to Italians, an ethnic group who also came to this country largely poor and undereducated, than to African Americans. Like Latinos today, 19th century Italians were not generally cast in a good light by the ruling establishment. The New York Times in 1875 labelled them unflatteringly as “the Chinese of Europe.” Like all groups, Italians had their share of bad apples – the Mafia, for starters – but most were hard-working, family people. Over the years, they have succeeded and become property owners. They are hardly monolithic politically, having produced such progressive icons as Mario Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as conservative heroes like Rudy Giuliani.

In contrast, African Americans have, arguably, to their disadvantage, become a political monolith, voting 90 percent Democratic in virtually every major election. Since Richard Nixon’s first race for the White House garnered 32 percent of the African American vote, no GOP presidential contender has won more the 15 percent, and in the Obama years it’s been less than half of that.

Latinos, at least pre-Trump, have been a contestable constituency. In 2004, Latino voters gave George W. Bush 40 percent of their votes. The GOP also has produced a strong group of Latino elected officials – Gov. Susan Martinez of New Mexico, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. On the state level, notably in Texas, the Latino vote has been highly contested; current Gov. Greg Abbott received 44 percent of Latino votes in his election victory over a white, pro-choice Democrat beloved by the party’s white liberal base.

What works after The Donald? --Even before Trump, the need for GOP candidates to pander to nativist sentiments damaged Republican credibility among Latinos. The GOP brand is now so tarnished that Trump may actually do as “well” – that is, roughly 25 percent – as did Mitt Romney. Over time, this is the kind of performance that assures political death.

Perhaps the most damaging long-term effect of Trumpism may be to drive Latinos to adopt the kind of racial identity politics already threatening to tear this republic apart. That African Americans have adopted this approach – which relies heavily on central government intervention to address serious problems – is understandable, given their historical experience. But whether this works for immigrants, whatever their ethnicity, and their children, is dubious.

Ironically, Latinos have tended to do better in those deep red states, notably Texas, where broad based economic growth – particularly in blue-collar fields like energy, home construction and manufacturing – has taken place. Overall, Latinos suffer less unemployment, and achieve higher rates of homeownership and business ownership, in the Lone Star State than in progressive California.

To be sure, real poverty may afflict many Texas Latinos, as it does in California, particularly in rural areas, but they tend to have a smaller gap with whites than here in the Golden State, where, according to the United Ways of California, half of Latino households barely make enough to pay their basic expenses. In Los Angeles, the number rises to 54 percent.

Latinos and the future of the Democratic Party --Due in part to Trump, the real action in Latino politics for now will be within the Democratic Party. In California, Latinos seem to be dividing between pro-growth, pro-business pragmatists and a more ideologically driven progressive faction that celebrates identity politics and adheres to the general progressive agenda that prioritizes redistribution over economic growth.

Some activists also would like to see Latinos adopt the confrontational, anti-police politics now so widespread in the African American community. Others, like California state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, have cozied up to the green and smart-growth agenda favored by padrones like San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. (Photo above: de Leon and Steyer.)

Overall, the hard green agenda seems a poor fit for Latinos, many of whom work in industries – manufacturing, construction and agriculture – most affected by draconian regulatory policies favored by Steyer and his crowd. Sacramento’s desire to force higher energy prices is particularly harmful to Latinos, many of whom live in the hot interior of California.

The state’s draconian planning and regulatory policies also have continued to make California a “no go” place for most industrial firms, have stymied home construction and are preparing a graveyard for much of the agribusiness industry. Latinos constitute two-thirds of all agricultural workers, and are twice as likely as other Californians to tell pollsters that the drought was having “a major impact” on their lives.

This divergence between progressive politics and economic self-interest provides a natural opening for more pro-business Democrats, like Rep. Loretta Sanchez, in her U.S. Senate race against predictably leftist California Attorney General Kamala Harris of San Francisco. She leads Harris two-to-one among Latinos, according to some polls. If Sanchez can meld her Latino, largely Southern California base with middle-of-the-road, and even conservative, Republicans and independents, she could begin to reshape the future of California politics.

Latinos and the birth of multiracial America --Such a mediating role for Latinos could help slow the racialism that is creeping into both parties. It is not healthy that the Democratic Party is almost 40 percent minority, while the GOP is 90 percent white. Some progressives openly see Trump’s effort as a “white America’s sad last stand.” It is, thus, no surprise that many whites may see the Democratic Party as seeking to decimate both their place in society and their heritage.

(Joel Kotkin is a R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston. His newest book is “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us.” This perspective was posted earlier at New Geography.) 


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