Will Latinos Continue Moving Democratic?
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After last year's elections, Lionel Sosa watched the returns and saw more than 30 years of his life's work endangered. Sosa, the advertising executive who, along with close ally, Karl Rove ("we've been good friends a long, long time"), engineered the GOP's historic advance among Latinos in the 2004 elections, had warned party leaders of the consequences of the anti-immigrant policies of certain of its members.
Latino support for Republicans rose from 21 percent in 1996, to 31 percent in 2000, to between 40 to 44 percent in 2004 (the number is still being debated). In 2006, after the final results were tallied, less than 29 percent of Latinos voted Republican, and Sosa publicly "I told you so'd" the GOP with comments like, "We as a party got the spanking we needed." The much-vaunted rise of the Latino Right had reached, at the very least, a pause.
From his office in San Antonio, Sosa told me, "I don't think everything I worked for is lost." Asked why, he relayed an insight given him by Ronald Reagan, who said that Latinos "are Republicans and they don't know it yet." Democrats should not see Latinos "in their hip pocket," Sosa added, because of their "conservative values" -- rooted in their religion, strong work ethic, and traditional families. Sosa is not entirely wrong. What will happen to the rightward-leaning tendencies among the country's ultimate swing voters depends not just on the political machinations of the GOP, which just appointed Cuban immigrant Mel Martinez as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Nor does the direction of Latino politics depend solely on what the Democrats -- who just appointed Tejano congressmember Silvestre Reyes as head of the powerful House Intelligence Committee -- do or don't do.
While influential and important, the Machiavellian movements of the strategists and pollsters take place atop more important institutions and subterranean trends that will ultimately define the direction of the Latino Right -- and, possibly the Latino politic. Chief among these influences are the soft-power effects of things like culture and religion, as well as the hard-power pull of militarism and jobs. The rightward tendencies among Latinos have more to do with things like some Latinos' embrace of a "white" identity (50 percent checked off "white" in the 2000 Census); the intensive focus on Latinos by Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian churches, the military, and the criminal justice system; and trends not as easily measured by surveys or exit polls. Such factors will determine how deep into the rabbit hole of rightward tendencies Latinos will go.
The stunning drop of support for George W. Bush and his party from approximately 40 percent (the best analyses confirm this number, not the 44 percent touted by Rove and the Republicans) in 2004, to the less than 29 percent support in 2006, demonstrates only that the consolidation of a Latino Right is not a completely done deal. Sosa and Rove know better than most Democrats and media pundits the cultural, identity, and economic realities that change minds. They expanded the conservative base by building on segments and issues in the Latino community that do tend conservative.
Nowhere is this clearer than among reliably conservative Latino evangelicals. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center concluded that much, if not most, of the growth in the GOP's Latino support came from Protestant evangelicals. While Latino Roman Catholic support for Bush was at 33 percent in both 2000 and 2004, support for Bush among Latino evangelicals mushroomed from 44 percent in 2000 to a 56 percent majority in 2004, according to the study. While no detailed analyses of the Latino vote in 2006 have been published to date, it is safe to assume that these numbers reflect the discontent expressed by Latino evangelical leaders since the introduction of the Sensenbrenner immigration bill in December 2005, which offended many with its call for a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and other harsh measures.
Church leaders like the Reverend Luis Cortes, Jr. have been organizing and lobbying aggressively in support of legalization for the more than 12 million undocumented living in the United States. Cortes, who heads up Esperanza USA, a network of more than 10,000 Latino evangelical churches, told Newsweek that Latinos -- including Latino evangelicals "are unlikely to forget who made them the focus and the scapegoat for a failed immigration system. If the Republicans continue, they will be alienating Hispanics for decades. Their only hope to win a national election will be voter apathy. The numbers are clear: by 2040 a quarter of all Americans will be of Hispanic descent. If the party wants to alienate us, they are welcome. But I don't think it is a sound political move."
Most mainstream evangelical leaders reject legalization but some influential ones have begun responding to Cortes' and others' call. A new coalition, the "Families First in Immigration" coalition, was recently formed by conservative Christians to support more equitable immigration policy, and includes dozens of major Christian evangelical figures, such ultraconservatives as Paul Weyrich, head of Coalitions for America, Dr. Donald Wildmon from American Family Association, and Gary Bauer of American Values, along with David Keene with the secular American Conservative Union.
Reflecting both the political confusion and growing threat posed by the complexities of evangelical politics, the coalition recently proposed a "compromise" immigration proposal that includes punitive border security measures, an amnesty for undocumented workers who are relatives of citizens, and an end to birthright citizenship.
Strong bases of rightward-leaning Latinos exist in places like Martinez's Florida, where South Beach anti-Castristas built a political empire without equal in the United States. Although they are less than 3.5 percent of the Latino population, right-leaning Cuban-Americans, especially those of south Florida, have influenced national Latino and hemispheric politics since the 1970s. But the still quite powerful South Florida political machine built by Rafael Diaz-Balart, Fidel Castro's ex-brother-in-law who only recently died, is undergoing major challenges. In the Cuban American community, a new generation that is more moderate than the old is coming of age, and conservatives must face the fallout from their success in making it more difficult to travel and send money to Cuba. Meanwhile, massive numbers of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and other less rightward-leaning Latinos are migrating to Florida, adding to the pressure on the conservative Latino machine.
Another major base of operations for the workings of the Latino Right is Texas, the state that is home to Sosa, Rove and a slew of Latinos propped up as national leaders including Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, the now disgraced former head of the forces in Iraq, and others. Such "leaders" reinforce the "conservative values" Sosa, Rove, and Reagan tell us lie in the heart of Latino Americans.
And these values are backed up by a kind of national security Keynesianism and acculturation. With the critical need to increase Latino enlistment from 10 to 22 percent by 2025 (with black enlistment way down), the Pentagon is spending billions of dollars to identify, recruit and keep young Latinos in the military. Bilingual appeals to "Go Army" on Univision television and most other, more advertising-starved Latino media don't just turn Latino media into mouthpieces for the military. They also play to the community's economic needs with promises of higher education and training.
When we consider that millions of Latino families will depend on the military for their very livelihood, the intense recruitment of Latinos reflects clearly the role of the military as a socializing institution described by Machiavelli, Gibbon, and more contemporary masters of national security-driven statecraft like Samuel Huntington. Nakedly laying out the acculturating effect of military service, Huntington, the former head of security planning in the Carter Administration's National Security Council, stated in his most recent and controversial book, Who We Are , "Without a major war requiring substantial mobilization and lasting years ... contemporary immigrants will have neither the opportunity nor the need to affirm their identity with and their loyalty to America as earlier immigrants have done."
That a fellow Democrat -- and a Latino -- Louis Caldera, was the first to push and implement the intensive recruitment of young Latinos shows the limits of party and ethnic loyalties. As the Secretary of the Army during the Clinton Administration, Caldera launched the Hispanic Access Initiative, inspiring similar efforts throughout the numerous branches of the Pentagon, all of which are cash rich and Latino starved. This lust for Latino bodies connects directly with the great needs of one of the country's poorest, least educated groups to create a different, more conservative, and patriotic Latino in the mold of the state, since military personnel tend to be more conservative politically. Such practices date back as far as Sparta and other city-states of ancient Greece.
Using the military as a builder of nations and national character and culture began in earnest in the nineteenth century, when then nascent countries used the armed forces to build allegiance through what was deemed a "school of the nation." In Latin American countries like El Salvador, the ascendant capitalist elites used the military for multiple reasons. One of the major functions of the military was to draw the allegiances of native peoples to their tribal structure, including tribal armies. Another was to reeducate and recreate Indian identity in its own image. And, for those who refused such acculturation and forced relinquishment of Indian land and life, the military also served to provide a final solution to that problem.
Such socializing dynamics are not lost on Rove, who, after working on a research project at the University of Texas on the work of the handlers and ideologues of the McKinley Presidential campaign, came up with the strategies that helped tilt the Latino electorate rightward. Speaking of McKinley's success among the German, Irish, Polish and other immigrant groups in the late nineteenth century, Rove said, "A successful party had to take its fundamental principles and style them in such a way that they seemed to have relevance to the new economy, the new nature of the country, and the new electorate."4 He basically wanted to do what McKinley's strategists did in the industrial age, through messaging, policies, and jobs in the digital age -- and he almost succeeded with the help of people like Sosa. Rove added that "He [McKinley] basically made it comfortable for urban ethnic working people to identify with the Republican Party." Rove and Sosa are clearer than most about how institutions like the church and the military are still among the most influential socializing -- and right- leaning -- institutions among Latinos.
Another institution that serves this socializing function is the criminal justice system. While most students of Latino politics focus on the prisoner side of the equation, nobody's watching the watchers of the penitentiary behemoth: the exponential growth of Latinos working in the criminal justice system headed up by Alberto Gonzalez, hailed as the first Latino Attorney General in US history.
At the same time, Gonzalez' ubiquitous smile hides the tragic reality of the growth of the Latino prison population from 17.6 percent in 1995 to 20.2 in 2005. It also appears to celebrate the rapid and little-discussed rise in the Latino prison guard population. And at a time when national security imperatives like those of the Department of Homeland Security push police departments across the country to become more militarized, the cultural reality behind, for example, the 13 percent increase (the fastest of any group) in Latinos employed in criminal justice between 2000 and 2003 means that more Latino families will be tied to another institution with powerful conservative influences.
Even as the families of incarcerated Latinos lose considerable income with the loss of a breadwinner, compare that to the middle class opportunities offered to families of Latinos arresting, prosecuting and guarding other Latinos. This cynical shift in wealth endows economic value on certain Latinos at the expense of others.
A similar transfer of human value takes place under the auspices of the Roman Catholic and Christian churches that, like the military and the criminal justice system, depend on Latino bodies for their future. Latino congregants are among the fastest growing, most important groups in both Roman Catholic and evangelical churches, both of which are key players in the move to create a Latino "values voter." The transfers of resources from the nonprofit sector serving Latino and other poor to the religious community realized through George W. Bush's "faith based initiative" makes clear who is elect in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the state. Organizations like Cortes' Esperanza USA receive millions of dollars that would otherwise go to secular, nonprofit social service agencies that offer the same services, but without the Gospel- laden environment and messaging found in their drug rehab, family planning and other programs.
Though droves of Latino evangelical leaders and their congregants abandoned the Rovian project during the last elections, in no small part because of immigration, much of the cultural software -- the conservative "values" emphasized by Sosa and others -- coded and massively distributed by the GOP remains in place. The use of abortion, anti-gay initiatives and other reactionary wedge political issues will continue to play the conservative programming with deep historical roots among Latinos.
A smaller, more dispersed, counterbalancing religious force can be found in congregations like Chicago's Adalberto United Methodist Church (where Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano was granted refuge from immigration authorities) and other churches now declaring sanctuary as part of the immigrant rights movement. (Of course, their numbers are small since Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger purged the church of more liberation theology-oriented priests and parishes.)
Will Latinos continue their turn away from the Right, continuing the momentum witnessed in last year's massive marches and during the off-year elections? That will depend on how and whether the forces of the left in the community can bring awareness and offer alternatives to the ideological workings of powerful institutions like the Pentagon, the criminal justice system, and organized religion. Equally important is the need to educate people about the political nature of these institutions, as well as show how, without Latinos, these institutions may suffer great devastation. We need campaigns to decrease the number of Latinos in the military and (both sides) of the criminal justice system while at the same time press local and national Roman Catholic and Christian churches to adopt positions on issues like the Iraq war, Latino recruitment, rapidly growing incarceration rates, and U.S. policy in Latin America.
More of us need to understand how Latino poverty creates the same pool or hopelessness from which institutions like the military and the church draw their economic and human resources. Many of us grew and are still growing up in situations that leave us few options besides the military, law enforcement, or jail. The reasons for this poverty must be denounced at pulpits and legislative houses that remain silent on these issues all the while loudly affirming and defending "the sanctity of life" and "family values." Democrats, leftists and others concerned about the future of this soon-to-be "majority-minority" country (as most of the top 100 cities already are) should heed the call of the voiceless and the choiceless.
Failure to do so will result in a Latino politic in the service of empire.
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with New America Media and a member of The Public Eye editorial board.