Hispanic voters and the American Dream

How Democrats can nip the shift toward the GOP in the bud

“Latinos are Republican. They just don’t know it yet.” — Ronald Reagan

On election night 2020 and immediately after, as it became apparent that Hispanic voters were shifting to Trump, there were a lot of instantaneous explanations that turned out to be wrong. It’s just Cubans! It’s just Florida! Wrong, and wrong. Some people focused on Latino men shifting to Trump, but guess what, Latinas shifted even more!

Many tried to minimize the size of the swing, but a new Pew report — which counts only voters whose identity can be validated in public records — reveals just how big it was. Trump garnered 38% of Hispanic votes, compared to only 27% for Mitt Romney in 2012. An 11-point swing among Hispanics is a big deal, especially when the rest of the nation was swinging the opposite direction; another such swing, and the two parties would be splitting the Hispanic vote right down the middle.

Democrats are still trying to dismiss the importance of the Hispanic swing. The new line is that Hispanic voters like to vote for incumbent Presidents. People cite Bush’s 2004 run, which got 44% of the Hispanic vote, as a parallel. This could be true, but I have my doubts. 2004 was an election where the incumbent won, by a larger margin than in 2000; Whites also shifted towards Bush in 2004. 2020, in contrast, was an election in which the incumbent lost; Hispanics moved in the opposite direction to Whites. In any case, the “Hispanics like incumbents” theory is drawn from a very small sample, has no solid theory behind, is more than a bit patronizing, and in general smells like an ad-hoc self-serving piece of bullshit. It might be right, I guess, but Dems who embrace this explanation risk giving Republican operatives four more years to run wild with their Hispanic outreach efforts. Not a smart move in my opinion.

OK, so if it’s not the incumbent advantage, what might it be? Various other theories include:

  1. A concern for law & order and a dislike of “defund the police”

  2. Annoyance with the term “Latinx”

  3. A greater-than-realized concern for border security and dislike of illegal immigration

  4. The macho culture of MAGA

  5. Fear of socialism due to personal or ancestral experience with leftist regimes in Latin America

  6. Hispanics assimilating into whiteness and acquiring the values of White voters

Any and all of these might be true. Or it might be, as David Shor says, that Hispanics are simply more conservative than we realize, and Trump’s performance is a kind of reversion to the mean.

But I think one big, powerful explanation has been sorely neglected: Economics.

The boom of 2014-2019 — and it was a boom, even though we kind of ignored it — was good for everyone, but in percentage terms it was especially good for Hispanics:

Part of this is from the end of mass net Hispanic immigration, which happened in 2007. With fewer poor immigrant families coming in, the natural tendency of incomes to rise from the first to the second generation is no longer being obscured by a composition effect.

In fact, despite some claims to the contrary, Hispanic upward mobility has been a fact of American life for a long time now. My favorite paper on this is Chetty, Hendren, Jones & Porter (2018), which assessed mobility across generations. They found:

We study the sources of racial and ethnic disparities in income using de-identified longitudinal data covering nearly the entire U.S. population from 1989-2015….[T]he intergenerational persistence of disparities varies substantially across racial groups. For example, Hispanic Americans are moving up significantly in the income distribution across generations because they have relatively high rates of intergenerational income mobility…

Hispanic Americans are moving up significantly in the income distribution across generations. For example, a model of intergenerational mobility analogous to Becker and Tomes (1979) predicts that the gap will shrink from the 22 percentile difference between Hispanic and white parents observed in our sample…to 6 percentiles in steady state…

Hispanics are on an upward trajectory across generations and may close most of the gap between their incomes and those of whites…Their low levels of income at present thus appear to to be primarily due to transitory factors.

Sociologists agree. Tran (2016) reports:

Despite pervasive concerns about Latinos’ potential failure to economically assimilate into American life, I find clear evidence of both intergenerational progress and rapid socioeconomic assimilation for many Latino ethnic groups.

And perhaps most importantly, Hispanics themselves feel the upward mobility too. This Pew survey is from all the way back in 2011, even before the most recent boom:

How are Hispanics moving up in America? The same way immigrant groups generally move up — by building human networks, moving to opportunity, and getting an education. Here are two startling graphs about how Hispanic Americans have been climbing up the educational ladder:

In other words, despite starting from a very humble base, Hispanics are treading the same upward path that American immigrant groups always tread. The history of the Irish, Italians, Poles, and so on is repeating itself. Whatever structural forces have kept Black Americans and Native Americans from realizing their full economic potential, they don’t appear to be acting on Hispanics — or at least, not to nearly the same extent. If Chetty et al. are correct, Hispanics are headed for parity with Whites, or very close to it.

And anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the progress of Hispanic Americans over the decades knows that this is exactly the reason they came here. When Mexican immigrants waved American flags at pro-immigration rallies in the 2000s, they weren’t just courting public opinion — they really believed in this country, and in the American Dream they were promised. The dream of working hard, bettering yourself, and moving up. They were immigrants, damn it. And their children and their grandchildren remembered that dream as well — and now they’re achieving it. America has kept the promise it made.

So why would this make Hispanics shift toward the GOP? Maybe it’s because Trump presided over the most recent boom, in which Hispanic incomes did so well. Maybe it’s because when you start moving up the economic ladder, you get the urge to protect your gains with low taxes.

But it might also be because many liberals have been disparaging the American Dream. In 2015, a faculty training guide at the University of California warned professors that calling America a “land of opportunity” constituted a microaggression. Liberal rhetoric has turned increasingly against the notion of the American Dream, both because of the people who are still excluded from it — undocumented immigrants, many Black and Native American people, many people caught up in the justice system, etc. — and because of rising inequality. To call America a “land of opportunity” seems, to many liberals, a cruel taunt directed at those who still don’t enjoy full opportunity.

And of course, they’re not wrong; America is a deeply unequal place, and many are excluded from opportunity. That needs to be remedied, and to be remedied it needs to be remembered, highlighted, and focused on. But at the same time, focusing exclusively on the areas in which American opportunity still lags — and punishing people who highlight the very real opportunity that still exists — does a disservice to all the people who were given a chance, who believed in this nation and who worked hard for their place in it.

Like, for example, many Hispanic Americans. They, or their parents or grandparents, worked damn hard to get to this country and succeed here; my bet is that they do not want to see the America they believed in and fought so hard for be yanked away by pious White liberals and replaced with a stifling spoils system.

Now, you might respond that this derogatory attitude toward the American Dream is confined to media outlets, shouty activists, and overzealous university administrators. But in this age of ubiquitous social media exposure, politicians don’t have the luxury of merely standing above the cultural fray — they have to actually address the things that it seems like “their side” is doing all over the country. And conservatives, for their part, are racing to take advantage of the situation, claiming that Biden’s programs are aimed at ending the American Dream. It’s all B.S., of course — Biden’s programs would enhance and strengthen the American Dream (I’ll write more on this in subsequent posts). But if woke pundits and clucking university admins are running all over the country denouncing the idea that the American Dream even exists, then there’s no one to push back on conservative alarmism.

If they want to make sure that the Hispanic trend toward the GOP remains a blip, Democrats need to start talking about the American Dream again. And more than that, they need to focus their policies on upward mobility for working-class and middle-class strivers. For example, despite income gains, Hispanics are still way behind in wealth and homeownership (which for the middle class are the same thing). Elizabeth Warren and Cecilia Rouse’s proposal for down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers living in traditionally segregated areas should be expanded to target low-income Americans in general, or people who grew up in low-income households — that will make sure it targets Hispanic as well as Black Americans, giving them a leg up into the middle class. Also, Biden’s call for free community college shouldn’t be tabled or left by the wayside, as this would be very targeted toward working-class Hispanic Americans climbing toward the middle class.

America isn’t a perfect land of opportunity by any means, but to immigrants and their children and grandchildren, it remains a beacon of hope. That’s the whole reason we take in immigrants in the first place. Liberals must not forget that.