In June, President Bill Clinton ventured onto George W. Bush's Texas turf in the hopes of cutting into the governor's Latino support. He appealed to Mexican American voters by touting the need for stronger hate-crime legislation and accused the Republicans of racism for not having confirmed a Latino nominee to the federal court of appeals. "There was no Spanish-speaking plea for El Paso lawyer Enrique Moreno," the president said. "Because he's not part of their America. But he is part of our America."
Last fall, at the annual U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce meeting in San Diego, Vice President Al Gore delivered an impassioned defense of affirmative action before an audience of Latino business executives. He contended that past injustices and continuing discrimination justify such programs to lift Latinos, even wealthy ones, into positions of affluence and power.
This campaign year, as Republicans strive to sell their party to Latinos as soft and cuddly, Democrats are trying even harder to paint the GOP and, indeed, U.S. society as unrelentingly hostile to Latinos. Their strategy of appealing to Latinos' fear of prejudice is based on focus-group research: It's easier to get voters to the polls by offering to protect them than by putting forth a coherent vision of the future. While President Franklin D. Roosevelt once attracted minorities by assuring them and the country that there was "nothing to fear but fear itself," today's Democrats resort to stirring up fear to keep those same minorities loyal to the party.
In a 1963 essay, historian Richard Hofstadter documented what he called "the paranoid style in American politics." He focused on the conspiratorially minded right wing, which feared that its way of life was under siege by a hostile majority. But Hofstadter could not have envisioned a politics in which white politicians routinely warn minorities of the racist intentions of other white people.
For a decade, Republicans haven't needed much outside help to come off as intolerant ogres. Pat Buchanan's invocation of cultural and religious wars at the 1992 GOP convention was enough to scare off anybody in America who felt they were not members of the cultural or ethnic majority. The GOP's racialized rhetoric against immigrants--first illegal, then legal--in the mid-1990s pushed Latinos farther away. Three weeks ago, Rep. Dan Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of a House subcommittee on the census, called for a recount of 15 areas of the country that happen to be heavily made up of immigrants and minorities.
Still, to hear Democrats fear-mongering, one would think Latinos are obsessed with racism. But at least one reputable national survey of Latino public opinion tells a different story. Last fall, in a poll commissioned by Univision, the Spanish-language television network, Latinos rated crime (28%), education (26%) and jobs (25%) as their three most important issues. Racism ranked fourth (10%).
Similarly, Latinos, although still burdened by high poverty rates, consistently poll more positively about the future than do Anglos. The Univision survey found an astonishing 81% of respondents were "optimistic about the future of Latinos in the United States, while 9% were pessimistic." Latino aspirations closely resemble those of upwardly mobile Anglos in the postwar years. The Democrats are playing old-style minority-grievance politics with a group that over the past three decades has become heavily foreign-born and imbued with immigrant dreams.
Instead, Democrats should be celebrating Latinos' greatest gift--hope--as an example for the U.S. body politic. Appealing to minority grievances made sense in the civil rights era, when ethnic oppositional politics were necessary to deconstruct an unresponsive government. But today's mainstream Latino concerns revolve around creating public consensus and rebuilding government, not railing against it. Especially in the West, Latinos are well-positioned to lead a truly progressive coalition committed to expanding civic infrastructure: schools, universities and transportation. They are more interested in prosperity than protection.
Furthermore, while Democratic scare tactics are designed to entice people to the polls, they also can engender feelings of powerlessness and victimization that inhibit participation in politics. Gore empowers no one when he tells Latinos that the system is stacked against them and they need his help to achieve their dreams. This is not to say that he should be mum in the face of racism. Rather, he should highlight Latinos' own ability to overcome the obstacles they face.
Boogeyman politics, to be sure, are nothing new to America. Richard M. Nixon scared white Southern Democrats into his party using racial wedge issues. In his autobiography, James Michael Curley, Boston mayor and governor of Massachusetts, admitted ordering campaign workers to burn crosses in KKK-style during the 1920s to frighten Irish Catholics into polling booths. As he spoke across the state, blazing crosses would erupt on hills nearby. Pointing to them, he would denounce the Klan and reprimand Republicans for their shameful silence on the issue.
But the difference between then and now is that today's Democratic strategy has an ideological edge. As liberal philosopher Richard Rorty has pointed out, hopelessness has become fashionable on the political left. Pessimism is often mistaken for compassion. Cynicism can sometimes pass for serious political thought. "The Whitmanesque hope which lifted the hearts of the American left before the 1960s," writes Rorty, "is now thought to have been a symptom of a naive 'humanism.' " The conundrum of contemporary Latino politics is that the national Democratic political elite is less hopeful about the future of Latinos in America than Latinos are about themselves.
The only way this is ever going to change is if enough Latino Democrats break ranks and scare the party into refining its message or if prominent Latino politicos challenge their party's vision. Two years ago in Chicago, a cadre of young Mexican American advocates did just that. Convinced that the portrayal of Latinos as pawns in the hands of a hostile majority was more oppressive than empowering, three Latino advocacy organizations, with the support of leading Democratic Alderman Danny Solis, conspired to change the way Latinos were treated in Chicago politics. "This victim approach is not going to be healthy for the community in the long term," said Juan Rangel, who heads the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago. "The old boogeyman strategy doesn't get us anywhere, anymore."
With any luck, as Latinos become a greater part of the national electorate and, presumably, a more indispensable partner in the Democratic coalition, they will begin to redefine their party more than it defines them. Perhaps then, Democrats will rediscover the indispensable ingredient in any successful strategy to forge equal opportunity: hope.
Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times