Deficits imperil social contracts and safety nets. Our income distribution could be confused for that of a sub-Saharan kleptocracy. Congress, beset by virulent polarization and gridlock, has devolved from a forum for national discourse into an antebellum arena for bloodsport between ideological tribes. Reasonable people, feeling rightly victimized by our contemporary politics, disengage and cede ground to enraged radicals.
So what is the path forward? Many experts have put forth a menu of reforms in the areas of campaign finance, election administration and legislative procedure. Other commentators seem optimistic that our present is so unsustainable that the fever is bound to break – somehow.
I would like to posit another, perhaps surprising, alternative (or complement). A new national consensus of affirmation and regeneration – a consensus that will reshape our political and economic institutions – will necessarily surface as a result of the growing importance and preferences of the Latino electorate.
We need only to look to California to see its impact. Since the passage of Proposition 187 passage (an anti-immigrant measure that received the full-throated support of then-Governor Pete Wilson and the Republican party) in 1994, not a single Republican has been elected to statewide office except Arnold Schwarzenegger. Latinos also gave President Obama the margin of victory in Virginia, Colorado and Nevada. Today, in California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Mexico and Nevada, the number of potential Latino voters (those eligible but unregistered) is greater than the margin of victory – that’s 169 electoral votes. And if Latinos’ loyalty to the Democratic party continues, Arizona and Texas could turn blue relatively soon.
In terms of preferences, a personal anecdote comes to mind. My parents naturalized in the fall of 2007, joining the ranks of dozens of aunts, uncles and family friends who have recently achieved their citizenship. Then, on Election Day 2008, came a moment I had long suspected would manifest itself in some way: many of these new citizens voted for both candidate Obama and California’s Proposition 8 – endorsing greater public investment while expressing a measure of social conservatism.
It was this event that crystallized the following realizations: (1) Latinos cannot be categorized neatly into either party and (2) the hybrid nature of Latino values, coupled with our growing national influence, has the potential to remake our national polity.
But what are our values exactly, and how do they bridge the nation’s divide? Acknowledging the inherent crudeness of an endeavor to describe the views of 51 million people, here is my best attempt:
We believe that poverty in the United States is just as much a function of persistent injustice as it is of mores and culture. We believe in an America whose foundations lie in the dignity of duty, kinship and moral order – not in personal liberation. We want to live in a society that restores the joy of work, the value of human association and a sense of place and history; too much nowadays is disposable.
We oppose excessive concentrations of wealth and power. We reject the notion that boundless wealth is the path to human fulfillment. We stand for self-reliance, work that is meaningful and for narrowing the chasms between rich and poor. We doubt our democratic values can withstand the ongoing transformation of class into caste.
In addition, we believe both the Left and the Right have done great disservices to our nation. The Left speaks the language of community but has in reality produced a libertarian culture obsessed with choice. In its quest to free people from any social responsibilities, it has also weakened important human bonds. It has perpetuated a deep and abiding hate of tradition and received wisdom. It has enabled the growth of heartless narcissism and self-gratification – inclinations alien to the impulse most responsible for human triumph: sacrifice.
In turn, the Right has evangelized a free-market ideology that promised a pluralistic and decentralized economy but delivered a centralized financial monoculture that requires considerable government oversight. On social issues, too, the Right has preferred form over substance, exhibiting a disturbing insistence that loving, committed relationships and families come in a single variety.
What does this all portend? Our sheer size and attachment to communitarian as well as aspirational and entrepreneurial values points to a new future, perhaps serving as antidote to our current morass – an elixir for our paralysis that will restore a balance between rights and responsibilities. Ultimately, however, the Latino electorate will have to resist the gravitational pull of pre-established political categories.
Salvador E. Pérez (B.A. History ’07, J.D. ‘14) is a former congressional aide. He can be reached at email@example.com.