Editor’s Note: Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of six books about immigration and demographic change, including “Majority Minority,” which publishes in March 2022. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
We may be witnessing a critical turning point in Latino politics in the United States.
Contrary to their monolithic treatment by many Americans, Latinos have always been very diverse – economically, culturally and in their ethnic and national origins. But, politically speaking, they were reliably Democratic.
That may no longer be true. In an era when conservative politics is acutely nationalist and consumed by a sense of cultural threat, a number of new polls show Latino voters growing more Republican.
But this trend may be less about how Latinos see America’s political parties and more about how new generations of Latinos see themselves.
“The idea of unidad – Latin unity – not all Latinos buy into that,” says Sergio Garcia-Rios, a Cornell University political scientist and the polling director for Univision. “People have multiple identities… (And) we’re starting to see a lot more later-generation Latinos, who are just farther away from an immigrant’s arrival.”
As the 2022 Texas primary elections approach in March, the Lone Star state offers a telling example. In the 2020 presidential race, Democrats targeted Texas, believing the pace of demographic change played in their favor. Like much of the American Southwest, an aging, White working-class population was giving way to urban professionals and immigrant-origin minorities – key constituents of the Democrats’ coalition.
But after Hillary Clinton won Zapata County, a county along the Mexico border, by almost 33 points in 2016, it turned red in 2020. Webb County, another border county, doubled its Republican turnout from 2016. And, in Starr County, south of Webb, Republicans recorded a 55% shift from 2016, the single biggest swing to the right in the entire country.
The Trump campaign saw similar numbers from White working-class regions in the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt in 2016, but Zapata, Webb and Starr counties are respectively 94%, 95% and 96% Latino. And Trump actually performed 10 points better across Texas’s 18 counties where Latinos make up 80% majorities in 2020 than he did in 2016.
These voters were ostensibly in the crosshairs of Trump’s assault on demographic change – the Mexican Americans whose allegiance, virtues and values he had questioned, going so far as claiming a US-born judge of Mexican ancestry, Gonzalo Curiel, could not be impartial due to his heritage. (Trump did not apologize, but he later claimed his words had been “misconstrued.”)
And these voters lived up against the border he wished to militarize, the border to which he attributed so many of America’s ills. How did Trump’s rhetoric not sufficiently stir the Latino identity of people in the Rio Grande Valley to mobilize greater Democratic support?
The answer was simple: Many people in South Texas do not think of themselves as Latinos or immigrants – and they didn’t vote based on Trump’s rhetoric around either of those identities. Often referred to as “Tejanos,” many of these Texas residents have lived in the United States for six, seven and even eight generations.
Some families never migrated at all. Their old saying, “I didn’t cross the border; the border crossed me,” is a reference to the 1845 US annexation of Texas, and the people who were already living in the separatist northern province of Mexico.
Those Tejanos whose ancestors arrived in the US thereafter were subject to assimilationist regimes and strict schools. Many stopped speaking Spanish altogether. It’s no wonder so many Tejanos struggle to relate to the experience of more recent cohorts of fellow Mexican Americans, let alone recent arrivals from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
As early as the mid-20th century, Tejanos were eager to distance themselves from these more recent immigrants and from the Chicano activists politicizing their presence. While 94% of Zapata County residents count their ethnicity as Hispanic/Latino on US Census forms today, 98% of the population marks their race as White.
That Tejano voters – and Latino voters more broadly – were effectively taken for granted by Democrats reveals a fundamental truth about US politics for the last 20 years. As in other countries approaching a “majority minority” milestone, where the original ethnic majority loses its numerical advantage to one or more immigrant-origin minorities, our political parties have become racialized.
Nearly all racial and non-Christian religious minorities strongly lean Democratic, and more than four out of every five Republican voters are White. Simply put, American elections often pivot on identity politics, which can undercut people’s capacity to empathize with other races or religions, since they view them as existential threats.
It wasn’t always like this – at least not in the United States. About 70% of Muslim Americans voted for George W. Bush in 2000, and he nearly split the Latino vote in 2004. About 55% of Asian Americans voted for his father in 1992.
However, it’s not hard to understand the recent turn toward Democrats. Since 2001, Republican political campaigns have been defined by cultural debates over immigration, race and Islam. But unexpectedly, this may be appealing to some Latinos.
Texas State Representative Ryan Guillen, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley, recently stepped across the political aisle to join the Republican Party last November. “Something is happening in South Texas, and many of us are waking up to the fact that the values of those in Washington, DC, are not our values, not the values of most Texans,” Guillen told reporters. “The ideology of defunding the police, of destroying the oil and gas industry and the chaos at our border is disastrous for those of us who live here in South Texas.”
Angel Figueroa, a Democrat and former city councilor in Pennsylvania who recently supported a Republican campaign, told The Wall Street Journal, “By our culture, we overwhelmingly are Catholic. Overwhelmingly, we are pro-life. People by far, and specifically Puerto Ricans, are more in line with Republican values.”
In the 2020 election, Donald Trump won 38% of the Latino vote – the highest percentage for a Republican since George W. Bush won 44% in 2004. And after giving Democratic House candidates more than 60% of their vote in 2020, Latinos are moving still further to the right: A recent poll by the Wall Street Journal found that Latino voters are evenly split between the two parties in their 2022 choices for Congress, with 22% still undecided.
Hispanic eligible voters accounted for 39% of the overall increase of the nation’s eligible voting population since 2000, the largest contributors of any ethnic or racial group to the electorate. A decline in their support is anxiety-inducing news for Democrats facing midterm elections this year.
The silver lining, however, is that more Latinos in Republican ranks ostensibly counters “racialization” – the division of US political preferences along racial lines. That could be good for the country in the long run.
With a higher number of Latino votes in play, it is possible some Republicans will modify their nativist approach to immigration – and identity politics more generally – to appeal to a more diverse electorate in states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. Indeed, this was the Bush campaign’s strategy in the 2004 election.
But this seems unlikely in the face of an alternative reality.
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Far more ominously, it is possible that the recent shift of some Latinos is not the twilight of America’s racialization, but in fact the path by which it might endure.
As Latinos settle and integrate, fewer are likely to think of themselves as immigrants, and may increasingly embrace an expanded sense of White identity in the way earlier light-skinned ethnic groups have over the course of US history. Already, 60% of US-born Latinos self-identify as White – White Hispanics – on US census surveys.
Like Tejanos, these Latinos may similarly experience Trump’s nativism as “White” natives themselves, particularly Latinos without indigenous or African ancestry. If this is the case, these voters will not see themselves as the target of attacks on demographic change, and there will be minimal pressure for the Republican Party to pull back from its race-based appeals and culture wars.
The United States is a healthier democracy when our political parties use ideas about policy to compete for the votes of all racial, ethnic and religious groups – not fearmongering, tropes and stereotypes about our fellow citizens. In the current partisan landscape, Democrats certainly need Latino votes to hold power. But if those voters defect, let’s hope it’s because Republicans are expanding the boundaries of our nation, not the boundaries of Whiteness.