As the national polls tighten, President Obama and Mitt Romney are redoubling their efforts to reach the increasingly crucial Hispanic electorate. Pitted against one another like dueling suitors, both addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials last week, each attempting to woo this voter-rich demographic.
But despite aggressive efforts on both sides of the political divide to win their allegiance, many politicians – and Americans in general – don't understand the complex contours of Hispanic voters in America.
For example: The Supreme Court handed down its ruling on the controversial Arizona immigration law (SB1070) today, affirming key parts of the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision to uphold the law and also overturning others. It might strike many as surprising that 47 percent of Hispanics support the controversial Arizona law that targets illegal immigration, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
And yet a new poll from Latino Decisions found that a majority of Latino voters in five battleground states believe a Supreme Court ruling that upholds Arizona's immigration law will contribute to an “anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic environment” in the United States.
Hispanic-Americans comprise the fastest growing electorate in the country and possibly the most misunderstood. As a result, they are bombarded with mixed signals from the two parties that vie for their loyalty, simultaneously courted for citizenship and threatened with expulsion. It is unusual that the guests of honor at a grand ball are persistently reminded that they weren't invited in the first place. But we are in the midst of an election season and this is a political ball, where unusual makes it home.
The problem begins with the label “Hispanic” itself, manufactured by Congress in 1976 to be an umbrella term that applies to all Americans of Spanish descent. Such an indiscriminate classification glosses over the substantive cultural differences between the ethnicities it covers. (Eight Latin countries can boast having a million or more people originally from their shores now living in the US as citizens).
Even more important, the term Hispanic doesn't resonate with the people it is meant to capture. According to a study issued by the Pew Hispanic Center in April, only 24 percent of Hispanic-Americans use the pan-ethnic terms Latino or Hispanic to describe their identity. And 21 percent of the Pew respondents simply prefer the term “American.”
In fact, 51 percent of Hispanic-Americans anchor their ethnic identity in their or their family’s country of origin (Cuban, Mexican, etc.), and 69 percent believe Latinos in the US have many different cultures rather than a common, shared culture.
The term “Hispanic” is simply a bureaucratic contrivance that relieves politicians from the hard work of understanding their diverse constituencies, a kind of legislatively sanctioned stereotype. So much for the sensitivity of American multiculturalism.
The consequence of perpetuating a monochromatic caricature of the Latino community (and generally, these voters are indifferent to the use of “Latino” or “Hispanic”) is that nuanced, multivalent issues get reduced to their most binary iterations. For example, sober conversation about immigration reform has largely been preempted by calcified sloganeering: The choices are labeled either permissive amnesty or aggressive expulsion.
So what, if anything, can we say about this burgeoning demographic as a whole?
Both parties are right to appeal to Hispanics on economic grounds since 55 percent of them come to this country in search of greater economic opportunity. However, Democrats overestimate how aggrieved they feel: Over half of Hispanics report that they view themselves as just as successful as other ethnic groups, and only 22 percent view themselves as less successful.
Hispanics generally have an optimistic picture of the US in comparison to their countries of origin, with 87 percent believing it is economically superior to their native countries. And while they care deeply about the plight of the economically disenfranchised, especially since so many of them hail from their ranks, 69 percent think the US treats the poor better than the country they've migrated from.
And before anyone draws the inference that this sensitivity to poverty means Hispanics embrace social welfare, 75 percent of them say hard work will lead to success (in contrast to 58 percent of the general public). Hispanics take seriously the moral obligations the government has to the poor, but not as a substitute for personal responsibility.
And what about the tempestuous issue of immigration? Studies consistently confirm that Hispanics are fully attuned to the intricate dynamics of the subject, support sealing permeable borders, and appreciate the costs and demands of citizenship. And while they certainly experience themselves as a distinct class of Americans (as 47 percent attest), they also appreciate the value and necessity of assimilation (87 percent count proficiency in English as important to succeeding in the US).
In this light, attempts to win the Hispanic vote through simplistic demagoguery on immigration are not only condescending but destined for failure.
The same complexities apply to religion. According to a 2007 Pew survey, for more than two-thirds of Hispanic-Americans, political matters are fundamentally intertwined with religious ones, dampening the persuasive impact of strictly secular appeals to them. This means that the question of how naturally conservative or liberal they are is enmeshed in the fabric of their religious identity, which turns out to be evolving.
Approximately one-third of all Catholics in America are Latino, and this number promises to expand over time. But a 2006 Pew study found that a majority of Latino Catholics identify themselves as “charismatic” or pentecostal – or those who incorporate less traditional practices like divine healing, speaking in tongues, and personal revelation into their worship.
This swelling cleavage between traditional Catholic practitioners and converts to Evangelicalism is significant for political reasons. While Catholic Hispanics tend to be more conservative than the general population when it comes to gay marriage and the size and role of government, Evangelical Hispanics typically lurch further to the right on social issues, foreign policy, and the remediation of poverty.
It's also worth noting that the Hispanic experience in America seems to include a generational secularization: While 69 percent of Hispanic immigrants describe religion as central to their lives, only 49 percent of Hispanics born here say the same. As the numbers of Hispanics born in the US continue to flourish, the metamorphosis of their spiritual identity will have reverberations that affect the entire landscape of American religious – and political – life.
With the presidential campaign season in full swing, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have set their focused sights on Hispanic allegiance. However, both Democrats and Republicans have failed to engage seriously with the diverse, complex Latino community and their interests. Instead, candidates choose cheap rhetorical victories over opportunities for forthright leadership.
Obama’s approach has been marked, or marred, by opportunistic pandering: Rather than articulate an overarching plan for immigration reform, he cherry picked one legislative component of the stillborn DREAM act and enacted it by dubious executive fiat.
Romney’s strategy has been to maintain a posture of obdurate evasiveness: After placating the far right by sullying every possible compromise with the stain of amnesty, he now refuses to stake a clear position, peddling intentional ambiguity as principled moderation. The parties have finally found common ground in their appetite for relentless (even strategic) inaction and vagary.
But the plight and interests of Hispanic-Americans aren’t just important to pandering politicians in an election year. All Americans should take notice of the contest for Hispanic-American voters, partly because of their inexorably growing influence and impact, and partly because their plight is microcosm of our national identity as a whole.
In a way not duplicated by any other country in the world, American identity is less about place and borders than it is about ideas. Our country's emphasis on the beliefs that constitute the national soul rather than birth on its soil (or country of origin). make it an ideal home for the world's wandering homeless. Hispanics have come here in droves, inspired by the same optimism that has attracted so many from other distant shores. Since they are here to stay (79 percent report that they would do it all over again if given the chance), we should learn more about this rising new community of Americans.
Ivan Kenneally is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.