After Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives in the 2020 elections, many were quick to conclude that the party had moved too far to the left, driving away Latino voters in the process. Exhibit A: Trump’s stronger than expected showing in heavily Latino parts of Texas, which quickly became an article of faith among journalists and operatives alike. Last week’s results in the Texas primary elections, however, shattered that conventional wisdom, as Latino voters flocked to unapologetically progressive candidates. It turns out that Latinos aren’t turned off by progressive politics after all.
In July, data analyst David Shor, one of the most prominent proponents of the idea that left politics repelled Latinos in 2020, spoke to NPR in an interview titled, “Latino Voters Are Leaving The Democratic Party.” Others piled on, with Eric Levitz writing in New York magazine, “No political development worries blue America’s operatives more than Hispanic voters’ rightward drift.” A central data point they cite is the declining Democratic margin in places like Hidalgo County, on the Mexican border, where Barack Obama won by 42 percent in 2012, but Biden bested Trump by only 1.9 percent. The shrinking margins, they say, reflect an exodus of Latinos out of the Democratic Party and over to the Republican ranks, spelling potential doom for the party’s prospects. Shor assigns blame for the smaller margin to “the increased salience of socialism in 2020—with the rise of AOC and the prominence of anti-socialist messaging from the GOP.”
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the a for progressive Latino politics. In last week’s Texas primary elections, unapologetically progressive Latino candidates performed exceedingly well across the state. The population of the state’s 35th Congressional District, which stretches from Austin to San Antonio, is 60 percent Latino. Voters there delivered an overwhelming victory to democratic socialist Greg Casar, an Austin city councilor backed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and running against a much more moderate opponent, Eddie Rodriquez. In the statewide primary for attorney general, progressive former ACLU attorney Rochelle Garza bested both of her opponents by a more than 2 to 1 margin. And in the congressional race on the border—the region Shor and others point to as most indicative of the Latino shift to the right—progressive Jessica Cisneros battled one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, long-time incumbent Henry Cuellar, to a near-tie, sending the race to a runoff in May.
So what gives? How are Latinos both fleeing the perceived left politics of the Democratic Party and also electing candidates from the party’s left wing?
The first answer is that the pundits are misreading the data. Democratic margins have in fact shrunk in South Texas—but not because Latino Democrats are switching their allegiances to the Republicans. In Hidalgo County, for example, Biden got 22,000 more votes than Obama did. Vote totals doesn’t go up if voters are defecting. What requires careful inspection is that Republicans, and Trump in particular, have been doing a better job of mobilizing conservative infrequent voters, while Democrats have neglected the importance of boosting voter turnout. Though Democrats did see an increase in Hidalgo County in 2020, the Republican increase was much larger, with Trump getting 75,000 more votes than Romney received against Obama. That’s what explains the shrinking margin. As Equis Labs outlined in its report on the 2020 election, Trump’s “gains happened among voters usually on the sidelines of politics.”
Therein lies the challenge for Democrats—how to generate greater enthusiasm among Latino infrequent voters. The answer is the opposite of current conventional wisdom: The Democrats’ enthusiasm gap stems from being too timid and moderate, not from being too left and radical.
Two overarching realities predispose people of color, including Latinos, to progressive politics—that is, far-reaching political and economic change. The first reality is economics, in general, and the racial wealth gap, in particular. The average Latino family in America has just $36,000 in assets, while the average white family’s net worth is $188,000. The Latino poverty rate of 15.7 percent is twice as high as that of whites (7.3 percent). It only makes logical sense that prioritizing economic equality would be well-received in a community wrestling with major economic challenges.
The second reality is the unrelenting and escalating promotion of white supremacy. The most extreme and tragic expression of the hostility toward Latinos came in 2019, when a young white man drove 10 hours to El Paso, Tex., headed to a Wal-Mart whose customers were mainly Latino, and proceeded to murder 22 people with an assault weapon. A manifesto that police linked to the killer states that he acted out of fear that “the United States will soon become a one-party state run by Democrats because of the growing Hispanic population.” While that was the most extreme recent example, it is not the only one. Hate crimes against Latinos reached an 11-year high in 2019, according to a 2020 FBI report.
In Texas, anti-Latino hostility gets expressed in myriad ways, from defending monuments, to white supremacist Confederates, to the anti-“critical race theory” bill that stripped out the words “Chicano movement,” “Cesar Chavez,” and “Dolores Huerta” from the education code’s directives about what should be taught in Texas schools. The everyday reality of relentless racism creates the conditions for those most affected by racism to be more receptive to anti-racist politics.
Greg Casar comes from, understands, and speaks to those underlying realities of the Latino lived experience. The second sentence of his website says, “The proud son of Mexican immigrants, Greg has passed policies to protect families from being separated, raised wages for thousands of workers, and has successfully fought to expand civil rights protections.” Proud Mexican-American. Economic equality and civil rights. Followed by a dominating victory. It’s really not that complicated.
The reason Democrats don’t inspire the level of excitement that they could among Latinos is that the first principle of party politics is to not do anything that insecure and anxious white voters might disapprove of. As a result, Democrats keep their distance, muting their support for justice and equality for people of color. Insufficient policy commitments and invisible cultural and symbolic cultural connections to the community make for lukewarm enthusiasm.
If Democrats really want to increase support among Latinos, they should deploy the full arsenal of tools at their disposal. The prominence and prestige of the Bully Pulpit should be used to elevate the prominence and profile of Latino leaders. Biden should invite Harris County’s top executive, Lina Hidalgo, to the White House for a high-profile conversation about innovative public policy solutions to intractable problems. The Democratic National Committee, which has raised $161 million in this cycle, should direct its biggest donors to invest tens of millions of dollars in Latino-led civic engagement organizations such as the Texas Organizing Project. And the White House should use its executive authority to cancel student debt, a move that is supported by 72 percent of Latinos. (A step that makes even more sense given that Latinos have the youngest median age, 30, of all racial groups.)
None of this is rocket science. Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo wrote a 4,101 word essay for The New York Times titled, “How to Turn Your Red State Blue.” The secret? “Organizing was and is the soul of how we operate every day. Our organizing centers, always, on everyday people dealing with deep wealth and income inequality and structural racism, with xenophobia and bigotry.”
Last week’s results show that Latinos are ready for leadership that promises change. And when your day-to-day life is defined by economic challenges and racist obstacles, progressive change is the order of the day.