Posted on November 6, 2020

Trump’s Gains with Hispanic Voters Should Prompt Some Progressive Rethinking

Matthew Yglesias, Vox, November 5, 2020

Election night started with a major underperformance for Democrats in Miami-Dade County that cost Rep. Donna Shalala her House seat and sank Joe Biden’s hope of an early win.

Miami has always been a bit of a city apart in terms of Latino politics in the United States, with a heavily Cuban American population that has a tradition of Republican voting and deep emotional and intellectual investments in the Latin American Cold War.

But while Cuba-specific issues are tactically central to electoral battles in Florida, the fact is that even before all the results are in, it’s clear Biden’s weakness with Latino voters was broader than that. In South Florida, Biden lost ground with a diverse Hispanic population that includes many families from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, or Colombia, as well as Cuba broadly.

More to the point, Democrats turned in extremely disappointing performances in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, even in the context of a large overall improvement in the state. Trump actually won Zapata County, for example, a small border jurisdiction that’s 84 percent Hispanic and which Hillary Clinton won by 30 points in 2016.


It’s not just about electoral tactics or outreach: The professional class of progressives who often shape cultural narratives should consider the racial dynamics of the Trump years and their own approach to intersectional politics.

Biden’s weakness with Hispanics is bigger than Cubans

Since the issue arose first and most clearly in Miami, it’s understandable that a lot of intellectual reactions focused on specific issues related to the Cuban community.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine writer whose work on the 1619 Project has been very influential in progressive thinking about race, noted on Twitter that the “Latino” construct is a US invention, one that doesn’t reflect the actual racial dynamics in Latin America. {snip}

Andrea Pino-Silva, a Cuban American left-wing activist, went further. She posited that by aligning with Trump, Cuban Americans are specifically reaching for a kind of aspirational white status. In this view, Cuban Americans don’t vote for Trump despite his racism. Rather, “Trump’s appeal is the appeal of white supremacy.”

There is truth in both of these points. Many Cuban Americans are fair-skinned, and there is a broader history of shared bonding over anti-Blackness as a vehicle whereby ethnic communities integrate into the implicitly white American mainstream.

But this is not the whole story. Democrats suffered huge collapses — on the order of 20 points — in multiple heavily Latino counties in the Rio Grande Valley. These are Mexican American voters who do not have a history of right-wing politics, and they broke hard against Democrats at the very time the party is having a breakout in the suburbs of Texas’s big cities.

Looking at Democrats’ problems with Cubans and South Americans in Florida in the context of their struggles with Mexican Americans in Texas suggests a different diagnosis. What if many US Hispanics simply don’t see the racial politics of the Trump era the way intellectuals — whose thinking and writing on structural racism and white supremacy have gained broad influence in recent years — think they should?


In the famous “autopsy report” prepared by the Republican National Committee after the 2012 election, the RNC concluded that “if Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

{snip} Trump, more than anything else, has proven that wrong. It simply is not heard that way by all Hispanics in the United States, and liberals need to take that into consideration. {snip}

The Latinx problem

For the past several years, the term “Latinx” has been gaining momentum in progressive circles, even though only 3 percent of US Hispanics actually use it themselves.


The message of the term, however, is that the entire grammatical system of the Spanish language is problematic, which in any other context progressives would recognize as an alienating and insensitive message. {snip}

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents a heavily working-class, heavily Hispanic area in and around Phoenix, advises Democrats to “start by not using the term Latinx.”

It surely goes too far to suggest the use of this one word plays a large — or even a small — role in Democrats’ struggles with Hispanic voters. But it is, if nothing else, a symptom of the problem, which is a tendency to privilege academic concepts and linguistic innovations in addressing social justice concerns.

Among self-identified Democrats, for example, a Pew survey this summer showed that African Americans were slightly less likely than whites to favor cutting police spending, while Hispanics were much less likely. {snip}

Self-identified white liberals report warmer feelings about immigrants than do Hispanics. {snip}