Democrats working to save their slim majority in the House in November’s elections have been sounding alarms lately over research showing that Republican attacks on culture-war issues are working, particularly with center-left, Hispanic and independent voters. Hispanic voters, many of us alienated by progressive labels and mottos like “Latinx” and “defund the police,” have been drifting rightward as Donald Trump marginally increased the G.O.P. Hispanic vote share in 2016 and again in 2020 — a phenomenon, it should be noted, that goes beyond Mr. Trump or any individual campaign.
Democrats now understand that they are losing support among Hispanics on culture as well as pocketbook issues, leaving little in the message arsenal for the party’s candidates to stanch what appears to be a long-term bleed.
The Democrats’ problems with Hispanics are especially glaring when you consider that Republicans are not exactly flawless when it comes to appealing to these voters. Both parties have committed a mind-boggling form of political malpractice for years: They have consistently failed to understand what motivates Hispanic voters, a crucial and growing part of the electorate.
As the growth of the Hispanic eligible electorate continues to outpace other new eligible voting populations’, the caricatures and stereotypes of “Hispanic issues” are proving further and further removed from the experience of most Hispanics. Yet, for all the hype and spin about Republican gains with Hispanic voters, the rightward shift of these voters is happening despite Republicans’ best efforts, not because of them.
In the eyes of some on the American right, Hispanics are hyperreligious Catholics or evangelicals and entrepreneurial, anti-Communist social conservatives reminiscent of the ethnic white voters of yesteryear. To some on the left, we’re seen as angry, racially oppressed workers of the cultural vanguard who want to upend capitalism while demanding open borders. While none of these caricatures are accurate, in them there are enough grains of truth to lull self-righteous partisans on both sides into believing that they may be on the winning side of the emerging ethnically pluralistic American majority.
In our current era of negative partisanship, voters are motivated as often to oppose the party they dislike or view as extreme as they are to support the party with which they align. Latinos, of course, are no different, and it is at the cultural extremes where Democrats face the greatest threat of losing what they have long viewed as the foundational base of their long-term majority prospects. As “culture” grows as a proxy for “race,” the electoral math for Democrats will most likely get bleaker as political campaigns continue as referendums on “critical race theory” and “defunding the police.” It will be worse still if Hispanics increasingly do not view themselves as an aggrieved racial minority.
This understanding will help determine which party controls Congress and the White House, beginning with the 2022 midterms. Under newly drawn district lines, four of the most competitive House seats will have Hispanic populations of at least 38 percent and are in California, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Additionally, Hispanic voters will be essential components of Senate and other statewide contests in Arizona and Nevada. The Latino voters in these states and districts are important for both parties. As the Democratic Party drifts away from its working-class roots and emphasizes cultural issues, Republicans are well positioned to pick up these politically untethered voters and with them the reins of power.
The recent debate over the term “Latinx” symbolizes the cultural alienation of institutions far removed from the realities of life for an overwhelming number of working-class Hispanics. “Latinx” was created as a gender-neutral alternative term in Spanish, a gendered language, that refers to a male as “Latino” and a female as “Latina.”
Commonly used by media, political and academic elites as a sign of gender inclusivity, “Latinx” is virtually nonexistent in the communities it refers to. In 2020, Pew Research revealed that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term, while 9 percent of white liberals think it is the most appropriate term to use. In fact, only 14 percent of Latinos with a high school degree or less had even heard of it.
This was not a sign of intolerance but rather was emblematic of one class with the luxury of being consumed with such matters trying to impose its values on working-class families trying to keep up with paying the rent. Members of the Democratic Party don’t just live in a distinct cultural bubble removed from the realities of their blue-collar counterparts; they are so removed from the rapidly growing Hispanic working class that many of them are now literally speaking a different language.
The growing cultural divide in America, in which Hispanics appear to be increasingly turned off by progressive mottos and movements, is linked to the education divide in America between college-educated and non-college-educated voters of all ethnicities. According to Pew Research, Republicans increasingly dominate in party affiliation among white non-college voters, who make up 57 percent of G.O.P. voters. This in a country where 64 percent of voters do not have a college degree.
The Democratic Party is losing its brand among white working-class voters and Hispanics. This is especially pronounced among Hispanic men and Hispanic non-college-educated voters, who are trending more Republican, just as their white non-college-educated peers are. Latinos are increasingly voting similarly to non-college whites, perhaps because they don’t view themselves as all that different from them. Pew Research studies on Hispanic identity have shown that fully half of the country’s Hispanics viewed themselves as “a typical American”; fewer identified as “very different from a typical American.”
For all the discussion about diversity within the Latino community and the now trite adage that the community is not monolithic, in fact what unites most Hispanics is that they are an important share of the blue-collar non-college-educated work force, and their presence in the labor force is only growing. The essential workers of the pandemic are disproportionately Black and Latino, and as a decidedly younger demographic, Hispanic workers are filling the manufacturing, agricultural and construction trades in states with large Hispanic populations.
Democrats have increasingly become a party shaped by and reliant upon white voters with college degrees. Compared with 40.1 percent of white adults age 25 and older, only 18.8 percent of Latino adults in that age group have a bachelor’s degree. Latinos are and increasingly will be a key part of the blue-collar work force, and their politics are reflecting that.
From Hispanics’ 71 percent support for President Barack Obama in 2012 to 66 percent for Hillary Clinton and 59 percent for Joe Biden in 2020, Democrats find themselves slowly but measurably losing hold of Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. As Latino voters grow in number in key battleground states, they are increasingly rejecting the minority construct promulgated by the media, academia and Democratic politicians and consultants.
The party that is able to express the values of a multiethnic working class will be the majority party for the next generation. As we continue to watch the country’s culture war increasingly divided by education levels, it is quite likely that Latino voters will continue to trend, even if marginally, into the ranks of Republican voters. The country stands on the precipice of a significant political shift. As President Ronald Reagan once quipped, quoting a Republican nominee for sheriff, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.”
Mike Madrid is an expert in Latino voting trends; was a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, where he taught Race, Class and Partisanship; and is on the board of directors of the League of Minority Voters.
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