Bloomberg Opinion — This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Robert A. George: You’re a political scientist and the author of several books, including The Optimistic Leftist (2017) and, with John Judis, The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002). Most recently, you’ve warned liberals that the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left will harm its ability to win future elections, in part because Democrats can no longer count on winning the Latino vote. Let’s start with definitions. Is there a “Latino vote” or are there several discrete Latino “votes” that differ by ethnicity and nationality?
Ruy Teixeira, nonresident senior fellow, American Enterprise Institute: There certainly is a Latino vote in the sense that it’s a statistical aggregate — we dump all these people under the rubric of “Hispanic” and we call it “the Latino vote.” But Latinos are made up of a very diverse basket of ethnicities. Obviously, there’s a heavy influence of Mexican immigrants and children of Mexican immigrants. You’ve also got Puerto Ricans, who are quite different from Mexican immigrants; Cuban immigrants who are the most conservative part of the Hispanic population; and then you’ve got people from South America, Venezuela, Colombia. So all of these people are put together in this basket we call the Latino vote.
RAG: Speaking of demographics, twenty years ago, you and John Judis co-wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority – a provocative title, with the awkward timing of being released shortly after 9/11, when George W. Bush had record approval ratings…
RT: It came out right before the 2002 midterm election – which was a bad one for the Democrats. And Bush subsequently won re-election.
RAG: With significant Latino support.
RT: So, people definitely teased us about that. But that’s a good jumping off point for talking about what the book did and didn’t say and how that relates to today. Our analysis was designed to look at a number of trends re-shaping the American political landscape. It made the case that, on balance, these things favored Democrats quite a bit more than Republicans and created the potential for the Democrats to consolidate a majority coalition. But several things had to be true for that to be the case. The short-term thing that we did point to – but people immediately forgot – is that given the demographic structure of the country, if you lose too many white working-class or non-college voters, the whole arithmetic of your coalition becomes difficult. And so, if Democrats were to take advantage of these emerging trends, they had to maintain a certain baseline competitive minority of the white working-class vote. That’s something they failed to do.
And now we’ve seen a lot of trends in the last several elections that definitely call into question whether the Democrats can maintain the high levels of support they’re used to among Hispanic voters, particularly those in the working class. And if that’s the case, then you may have more Hispanic voters overall, but that’s being canceled out — perhaps even more than canceled out — by the fact that a significant part of this group is moving away from the Democrats. And I think that’s happening. In my estimate in the 2020 election, Hispanic voters, even though they grew significantly as the share of voters, contributed less to the Democrats margin in that election than they did in 2016.
RAG: So why do you think that group is starting to slide away from the Democrats? In 1992, Clinton campaign manager James Carville’s line was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Is that true for Latino voters? Are they focused on the economy and the Democrats aren’t? Is it cultural issues?
RT: It’s definitely a mixture of stuff. One point I’ve tried to make is that Democrats don’t really seem to understand the Hispanic vote right now. After the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020, Democrats assumed that Latinos, like other non-whites, would just be super animated by this issue. They assumed that Latinos wouldn’t be that affected by Trump campaign appeals saying, “Until Covid hit, this was a pretty good economy for you guys. The Democrats don’t care about reopening the country, don’t care about you guys who work in oil and gas and resource extraction, they’re going to take away your jobs, they’re going to prevent you from going to work, so vote for us.” That turned out to be a pretty successful appeal.
Democrats thought that they could get away with being perceived as committed to criminal justice reform to the point of not being concerned about public safety and being associated with slogans like “defund the police.” The assumption was the Democrats could skate over these issues with the Latino population. They thought only conservative whites would be alienated…but I think a lot of Latinos were very alienated by this seemingly lax approach to crime and law enforcement. So all of those things painted the Democrats as being a little bit alien culturally to the Hispanic population. And one thing that’s very important to understand about Hispanics, particularly working-class voters, is they’re not liberals. They’re moderate to conservative, especially on cultural issues.
RAG: Which is true, by the way, for African Americans as well.
RT: Absolutely. That is another potential trouble spot [for Democrats] we could talk about some other time. But right now the bleeding is most obvious among the Hispanic population. So if you have all these moderate-to-conservative, especially working-class voters – and Hispanics are like, basically 75% or more working class — and you appear to be way out over your skis on cultural issues saying and doing things that they don’t feel comfortable with because they’re patriotic and relatively traditionalist in their cultural outlook, this can cause you a lot of trouble.
And then combine that with a sense Democrats don’t really have a good plan or are attentive enough to them on economic terms -- it’s a recipe for big problems. That’s what we’re continuing to see moving into the 2022 election cycle. Biden’s approval rating is absolutely terrible among Hispanic voters – probably as bad as among voters overall, where it’s like minus 15 or minus 17. And Latino voters are pretty important in a lot of congressional races. They’re important in Nevada, in Arizona, more important than one thinks in Georgia. So Democrats have a lot riding on being able to stop this bleeding among Hispanic voters. And it’s not clear to me that’s going to be very easy to do partly because the national brand of the Democratic Party is now so left on cultural issues that it’s going to be hard to convince Latinos that, in fact, it’s actually a moderate centrist party.
In 2020, Democrats misperceived Latino voters as being immigration voters. This turns out to not have been such a Get Out of Jail Free card issue. Latinos are not, in fact, supportive of open borders; they don’t think the border should be decriminalized. They care about border security, particularly Hispanics who live near the southern border. Democrats have sort of mis-learned the lessons of the past and are not attentive to present-day lessons. You’ve got to meet these voters where they are, what their fundamental day to day concerns are, which are actually pretty material: It’s about jobs, the economy, health care, better schools, public safety. Above all, it’s about upward mobility: they want to get ahead in life, they want their families and their kids to get ahead…and of course, Democrats, fairly or unfairly, are being targeted because of the inflationary and other problems in the economy. A lot of Hispanics are saying, what have you done for me lately? You sound like you’re sort of concerned with all this stuff I have not the slightest interest in and you know, the economy’s kind of in the toilet.
RAG: Back on the immigration question. In 2020, after Trump lost in the Supreme Court on repealing DACA, he basically stopped talking about it. With the borders shut because of the pandemic, there wasn’t much of an anti-immigration drumbeat coming from the Trump administration – allowing Republicans to focus on other things, no?
RT: That’s a good point. But even in 2016, when Trump was just getting elected, the Democratic margin among Hispanic voters shrank relative to 2012. You would have thought they would have totally run the table with that incarnation of Trump, which was so flamboyantly anti-immigrant. In 2018, the Democrats did benefit from the perception that the Trump administration’s border policy was needlessly cruel – kids in cages – but arguably with more liberal and white voters than anything else. That’s really what drove that election. The problem was in 2020 that wasn’t really happening anymore.
RAG: So, as Trump began lowering the anti-immigrant rhetoric, what was happening on the other side?
RT: The Democrats ratcheted up their rhetoric about, “let’s decriminalize the border” – which was actually not popular with anybody, including Hispanic voters. During the Democratic presidential primary, you had candidates all like, “Who’s for decriminalizing? Me!” Even though in a general election, that’s nothing but toxic and doesn’t help among Hispanic voters.
These are citizens who are voting in these elections, let’s not forget. These voters want an orderly society; they don’t want to see things out of control. They want to sort of work where they are and get ahead where they are. And Democrats need to be much more attentive to that. The vision Democrats have, of a lot of these Hispanic voters being, rah, rah, liberal to the max, supporting Democrats down the line – it’s not at all true. We’re seeing that change in a lot of the country.
RAG: Speaking about Democrats going too far left culturally, how do you see the phrase “Latinx”?
RT: It’s really almost comical, the extent to which this ridiculous term has caught on which has no support or interest in the Latino or Hispanic community. Right? It’s been polled now, four, five, six times and usually only 2- 3% of Latinos say they like the term “Latinx” and would like to use it. This is purely an invention of the academic, activist-industrial complex. Nobody outside of that is interested in this term and wants to use it. A number of Hispanic politicians, including some in the House of Representatives, say, “I have forbidden my staff from using this term; it is stupid and alienates us. We’re talking a language people don’t understand.”
RAG: I think it was also Carville who said that Democrats increasingly sound more like they’re having conversations in the faculty lounge than at the dinner table.
RT: That gets to something that is very important about the Democrats writ large. In terms of how they relate to Hispanics, they literally, on a lot of things, use a language that people find off-putting and don’t understand. If you want to reach voters, you’ve got to talk more like a normie. Don’t use terms that are just gonna strike people as like, “What are these folks talking about?” It sends a signal to them that you’re living in a world that’s different from theirs, and you evaluate things in a way that’s different than theirs, probably have values different than they do. And that’s not a good look for you. So “Latinx” is, I mean, it’s not a big unforced error in the sense that it’s not a voting issue, exactly. But it’s just another another brick in that wall separating the Democrats from normal Latino voters. And I think it’s a big mistake.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Robert A. George is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering government and public policy. Previously, he was a member of the editorial boards of the New York Daily News and New York Post.
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