Why Latinos should be Republicans — and why they’re not

by Ben Resnik

There is an alternate universe where the Republicans won the 2012 election. In this universe, it wasn’t that Mitt Romney never made his 47 percent crack, or that Obama was a secret Muslim communist socialist fascist terrorist after all. They won the same way the Democrats did here — with a huge margin of support from the Latino population.

If this doesn’t make much sense, think about it: Latinos, by all rights, should be solidly Republican. Generally speaking, they are fairly religious — almost two-thirds say they attend church at least once a month, while almost half attend regularly. They don’t innately mesh with the rest of the Democratic coalition: As of 2006, 56 percent of Latinos opposed gay marriage, with less than a third in favor. (In the intervening years, those numbers have shifted more strongly in pro-marriage equality’s direction.) Perhaps most important of all, many of the nations from which Latino populations hail — South and Central America, Mexico, and Caribbean nations like the Dominican Republic — know well the tyranny of genuinely authoritarian regimes, making them particularly sensitive to overtures of liberty under threat.

And to top it all off, their vote is up for grabs — a strong plurality consider themselves political independents. So why is the conventional wisdom that Latinos are slipping through Republicans’ fingers? It’s true that there is significant variance between groups of Latinos, from Mexicans to Cubans to Puerto Ricans, but it’s also true that Republicans since Ronald Reagan have lashed together equally disparate populations into a viable voting force. Just ask the libertarians and the Christian Right, two groups that stand diametrically opposed — on the same podium.

It’s not like there’s some age-old, Hatfield-versus-McCoy blood feud that’s kept Latinos estranged from the GOP for decades. It’s also conventional wisdom that the Cuban vote goes Republican for precisely the reasons outlined above. George W. Bush, won 40 percent of the Latino vote just three election cycles ago in 2004. In an alternate universe, Republicans built on that solid base of support to incorporate the Latino population into their voting bloc — or at least made sure to give the Democrats one hell of a fight for their loyalty come election season, instead of resigning themselves to another demographic rout.

So at what point did these universes diverge? 2008, more or less. John McCain’s campaign, in its mad scramble to distance their candidate as far from Dubya as possible, spoiled possibly the only electoral gift the beleaguered Texan left the Republican Party — the fairly neutral attention of a Latino population that was rapidly reaching critical political mass. It was all downhill from there. McCain’s call for stronger border security became Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s law enforcement policy of racial profiling, which was unsuccessfully walked back by “severe conservative” Mitt Romney’s self-deportation, a bizarre proposal that was never functionally replaced by real policy during the campaign. On top of that complete lack of a coherent Republican message for Latinos, the xenophobic zealotry of the Tea Party movement killed any real hopes of a bipartisan immigration reform package that Republicans could even sign on to (at least during Obama’s first term).

But following that slow-motion train wreck is the easy part. The more interesting question is why all that happened in the first place, and why it’s still happening today.

The best way to answer that question is to look at the way Republicans are trying to put out this fire — ineptly. It seems that the Republican mind thinks the way to the Latino heart is through immigration reform and by sticking a Latino in the national spotlight, no matter how unprepared for that position they may be (hello, Sen. Marco Rubio! — but that’s a whole other article). That isn’t to say that demonstrated racial inclusivity and renewed attention to a topic important to Latinos is a bad strategy. It’s just that in this circumstance it amounts to telling a racist joke and justifying it by saying, “Hey, some of my best friends are black.” To tack so strongly for the past decade against a platform wide enough for Latinos to stand on and then to reverse when they jump ship suggests an artificiality, a belief that there is a Latino Problem to be fixed slapdash instead of a growing constituency to be addressed and adjusted to.

This is the broader problem with the Republican Party at the moment.  There is an in-group and there is an out-group, and it has become the habit of the first group to make itself feel more American by treating the second group as Others and as somehow less heir to this nation’s democracy — look at (some) gun advocates, or at anyone who uses the word “socialism” regularly. Latinos have found themselves squarely in that second group, and increasingly have found their home with the Democratic Party almost by default. Of course ideology and other factors play important roles, but it’s difficult to objectively consider both sides as viable political mouthpieces when one can’t shut up about anchor babies and “illegals.”

There is an alternate universe where the Republican Party moved in a different direction. It realized what the Latino population had to offer it, and vice versa, and the two groups accommodated each other in their policies and actions. It stayed powerful, principled, and diverse. It changed for changing times.

This is not our universe.


Graphic by DonkeyHotey: http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6261666821/