By Valeria Fernandez-Soriano-
While the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election may have been the first sigh of relief in four years for many, the results are by no means a repudiation of Trumpism and point to a chilling embracement of callous politics. In particular, the Latinx vote has been the subject of ferocious commentary, prompting shockwaves among non-Latinxs. To those of us who must always comment on Latin American geography and culture whenever we give a full-name introduction, the reaction to surprising Latinx voting patterns fits nicely into what we’ve always known: the surprise from even the most knowledgeable experts is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of this vast part of the US electorate.
Such ignorance has proven particularly crippling in the political sphere for the Democrats. Indeed, national exit polls since the 1980s have infamously miscalled Latinx election voting patterns, but the left has done little to delve beneath a surface understanding perpetuated by mass media. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticised her party’s mediocre outreach to Latinos after Biden severely underperformed with Hispanics in battleground states, tweeting “we’ve been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities [with] Latinos for a long, long time.” The lacklustre performance is stark looking at Biden’s figures in Ohio and Georgia: a mere 24 and 16 points respectively compared to Hillary Clinton’s 41 and 40 in 2016. The results are particularly disconcerting considering there were 32 million Latinxs eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential elections, marking the first time they constituted the largest racial and ethnic minority group in the electorate.
How did they get it so wrong?
Crucially, Latinos are not a monolith. Not only is ‘Latinx’ an umbrella term that obscures racial, geographic and cultural diversity based simply on provenance, but it is also one imposed post-arrival to the United States. Latin Americans at home do not describe themselves as ‘Latinos’, and it seems that ‘we, Latinos’ and the idea of Latinos as a collective is frequently overstated and overlooks the lack of unity between different communities. It is the equivalent of the entire American population emigrating to a third country and being expected to vote as a bloc in nationwide elections simply by virtue of geography. It is ludicrous to homogenise a diverse and fragmented identity based on the single common ground of language - which in itself is an overstated factor of latinidad, as English proficiency among Latinos rises and US-born Hispanics outnumber those born abroad.
We’re talking about twenty-nine countries each with unique political baggage, complex racial history, disparate socioeconomic indexes, moral values and spiritual beliefs. Life on American soil further exacerbates these differences through mechanisms such as intergenerational conflict, racism, colourism, globalisation, feminism, machismo and higher-level education. Like any ethnic group in the US, first-time Gen Z voters vigorously championing LGBTQ+ and socially progressive policies will not vote like their conservative elders more aligned with the Catholic Church. For example, a white Cuban voter from the Miami-Dade area is unlikely to tick the same box on the ballot sheet as a black Dominican in New York regularly subjected to aggressive racial profiling and immigration status checks by law enforcement. Coupled with his brash and ‘unfiltered’ persona, Trump enjoys unparalleled caudillismo support among comfortable white Latino exiles and expatriates, who at most have experienced linguistic discrimination. The same cannot be said of working-class Amerindians fleeing CIA-engineered overthrows of legitimate left-wing governments in Chile and Bolivia.
How this diversity plays out in the voting booth is best illustrated by the outcome of two states who voted conservative in 2016- Florida and Arizona. Ronald Reagan first exploited a gut-fear of socialism among Cuban Floridians in 1980, and the Republicans persisted the fear-mongering tactic in the run-up to this November. Claims of the politically-moderate candidate Biden being a socialist, pointing towards DNC policies of universal healthcare as the slippery slope, made their way through megaphones and frantically circulated Whatsapp group chats. It is hardly surprising that such misinformation landed securely in the Sunshine State largely neglected by the Biden campaign, despite the growing Puerto Rican and Mexican population offering the opportunity for a much closer race.
Biden’s narrow win in Arizona, which has seen an increasing Mexican population in recent years, is partly owed to Latino grassroots activists who assumed the monumental task of turning their state blue. Their intense activism was primarily spurred on by the Arizona SB 1070, a law bolstering anti-immigrant sentiment with discriminatory provisions, such as warrantless arrests based on probable cause without needing to verify the legal status of arrestees. The law was successfully challenged in the Supreme Court, and the experience on the frontline has encouraged measures designed to invest in the Latino community and reinforce democracy beyond the Phoenix area. In Arizona, the Democrats were lucky to have young Latinos largely do the work in their communities for them, and it would be wrong for them to tout gains as Democrat achievements; the credit rests with those who understand the implications of not putting in the work.
So, what can the Democrats do going forward? Aside from advancing past insipid campaigning, they should push concrete policy proposals that resonate with ordinary people first, regardless of race or ethnicity; the spectrum of opinion within groups is too broad for any type of reconciliation. Rather than uninspiringly positioning themselves as the default party, Democrats should be fighting for the electorate’s faith, tooth and nail. However, Arizona does hint that the Latinx vote hinges on local activity, the influence of community leaders reaching out to the marginalised, and the particular agendas of interest groups. Therefore, it would benefit the Democrat Party to treat these branches as central to the political effort, not ancillary. For some Latinxs, their beliefs, such as Catholicism, will be too entrenched, but the need to understand the intricacies of any demographic is written into the fabric of a healthy system; beyond partisan leanings, it is in the best interests of the so-called ‘beacon of democracy’ to adequately reach all corners of society. Certainly, Latinx turnout has increased, and new data shows mounting political enthusiasm and engagement. It would be a disservice not to involve them in the political process.
Ultimately, homogenising a group with fewer things in common than differences can only backfire, and spectacularly so. It should be obvious that a political party cannot appeal to a serious, adult voter with mariachi and taco graphics, and playing ‘Despacito’ at rallies. Latinos are not a gimmick or an afterthought; as the outcome of the election has shown, their votes wield incredible power that can critically tip the balance – and not in the hero complex way underscored by Eva Longoria’s comments to the MSNBC. The fact that the Democrats expressly failed to mobilise more Latino voters in opposition to a candidate who laid down a policy of separating migrant children from their families at the US-Mexico border, and whose brand is racist rhetoric and disenfranchisement, is embarrassing. Let 2020, in all its respects, be a wake-up call that in a political climate of extremes, no vote is promised.