'Sleeping giants': Is it time to put a hardworking cliché to rest?

John Minchillo/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas speaks during a campaign stop at the Freedom Country Store, on Tuesday in Freedom, N.H.

“Sleeping giant”: The cliché applied to Latino voters, but increasingly assigned to anything with great potential to which people in politics think more attention should be paid.

As William Safire has noted, it’s almost certainly derived from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel “Gulliver’s Travels,” which features the tiny denizens of Lilliput tying down a snoozing behemoth. It’s common in politics because of its predictive power – basically, it’s satisfying to be the one identifying a force whose tremendous strength has not yet been unleashed.

The tag’s application to Latinos surfaced this week when the Pew Research Center issued a report saying that a growing population of US-born Latinos who are turning 18, along with immigrants becoming citizens, will bring the number of eligible Hispanic voters to 27.3 million, a 40 percent increase since 2008 and the most ever.

But their turnout levels have lagged behind those of other demographic groups – and the unanswered question among some is whether Donald Trump’s defiantly anti-immigrant rhetoric might help get them to the polls. “We’ve talked about the sleeping giant awakening – it only awakens when it’s attacked,” Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant in California, told Bloomberg Politics.

The use of the term in this context dates back at least to the 1970s; it also has been applied, in a larger geopolitical sense, to China. In a January 1977 Washington Post article about whether a Latino could receive a post in new President Jimmy Carter’s administration, one activist said his community was “a sleeping giant no more.”  Five years later, a report by the New York City-based Institute for Puerto Rican Policy (now the National Institute for Latino Policy) forecast: “If this sleeping electoral giant can be awakened, the political consequences for New York and the nation would be considerable.”

By 1997, some already were sick of it. Pointing to large turnout in California in the previous year’s election, Los Angeles Times columnist Frank del Olmo somewhat over-optimistically wrote:  “Having had to write about the ‘sleeping giant’ more times than I care to remember during a long career in journalism, it's nice to finally put that cliché to rest.”

Do Latinos have an established group political identity to actually qualify for gianthood? It’s often said they are so diverse, hailing from so many different countries, that they resist being lumped under one umbrella. In fact, a 2012 Pew survey found that just 24 percent of those surveyed used “Latino/Hispanic” to describe themselves.

“There is no sleeping giant – only political subjects whose variegated actions and intentions are obscured by this limited vision of Latino empowerment,” asserted New York University professor Cristina Beltrán in her 2010 book “The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity.”

But in their 2014 book, “Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population Is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation,” political scientists Matt Barreto and Gary M. Segura took a different view: “As suggested by the cross-generational Latino reaction to some issues, such as anti-immigrant initiatives, Latino commonalities are gelling into such a [group] identity.”

Here are just a few of the other sleeping giants that have been identified fairly recently:

  • Millennials. A think tank’s comprehensive survey of younger voters in 2014 called the group “a demographic sleeping giant with the power to revolutionize the political landscape of the United States.”
  • Ted Cruz. The Post’s Chris Cillizza wrote in November that the Texas GOP senator was trending favorably in polls in an article headlined, “Ted Cruz is the sleeping giant in the Republican race.”
  • Evangelical Christians. They were given the term in 1976 and again last year, after CBN News’s David Brody wondered if the uproar over Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’s refusal to issue marriage licenses would motivate that demographic.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” has just been released.

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