Examining Latino power in America

The Latino Century book cover

Q&A with Senior Fellow Mike Madrid

The “Latinization” of America, as Mike Madrid puts it in his forthcoming book, The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority is Transforming Democracy (Simon & Schuster) means a rise in optimism.

“Latinos, perhaps as a function of youth and the relatively recent arrival of so many who have placed us on a pedestal, are, as a group, much more oriented toward an optimistic, positive vision,” he writes in the book’s epilogue. “That is a generalization, but it is one based on deep knowledge, decades of polling data — and deep truth. Latino immigrants specifically poll as much more optimistic than other Americans. Despite being poorer and facing significantly greater obstacles in life, optimism about their lives and the country are considerably more positive than white, wealthier Americans specifically.”

Madrid, a senior fellow in UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology, who is hosting the school’s soon-to-be-launched Red County, Blue County, Orange County podcast, is a long-time American political consultant and one of the country’s experts on Latino voters. A co-founder of The Lincoln Project, he is a partner in GrassrootsLab, a political consulting firm.

He recently talked about his book.

What is The Latino Century about?

It is about how Latinos are going to be shaping and transforming American-style democracy, not just in the way that we are voting and voting differently going forward, but perhaps most importantly, culturally. Some of the attributes that we're bringing to society are trust and confidence in institutions. Optimism. But, at the same time, this hesitancy to be civically engaged and vote. 

At first blush, it appears to be contradictory data on what we're looking at and the way the Latino vote is behaving. But, when you look under the hood, which is what the book attempts to do, I think it all becomes very clear. I think it gives us a very good roadmap as to where we are heading as a state, as a country, and whether or not the American experiment is going to be healthy and continuing through the course of the the rest of the century. 

Please explain what you mean. 

As America becomes less of a white monolithic country, in eight short years, we will be a non-white majority country for the first time in our history. The whole concept of pluralism and what a true multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy means is going to be put to the test. We've had this mythology as a country for 250 years. You know, the idea that anybody can come here and become an American. But, we know that that has not always been true. There has been the legacy of slavery. There has been the taking of lands, that used to be Mexico, from the indigenous people who were already here. Not everybody has had a seat at the table. As we become less of a Western European nation, we face challenges of the very concept of what America means. The idea of our Americanness is going to be put to the test. 

How do you see America today?

The truth of the matter is democracy itself in this digital age is not doing well. The guardrails don't seem to be holding very well as we fully become ensconced in this digital age. There are tests from our foreign adversaries. There are problems with campaign finance reform, electoral college reform, all these needs. But, what I think is probably the most important is the recognition that there is nothing that can save a government or protect a constitution from people who do not believe in it or support it. 

Is there any hope?

I have found through the course of my work and research that the best, most optimistic, and hopeful dynamic that is working in American-style democracy's favor is our changing demography. The more Latino we become, the more optimistic, trusting, hopeful and collaborative we are as an American people. So, while people are looking externally for policy solutions to what ails democracy, we need to start looking internally and recognize that the answers to our problems are literally within sight. 

What has your research found when it comes to Latinos and politics?

We do a lot of stuff on what we call the education divide that is changing American politics. Democrats are quickly consolidating college-educated voters. Republicans are quickly consolidating non-college educated voters. With Latinos, we have a couple of very fascinating dynamics. Latinos are the fastest growing segment of our population without college degrees at the moment. So, they’re rapidly taking over the blue collar workforce and their voting increasingly rightward. They're shifting to the right and matching their non-Latino white peers. But, within that data is a big demarcation between Latinos and Latinas. The men and women in our community have very different educational trajectories. We have both the largest gender gap of any race or ethnicity in terms of our voting, but we also have the largest education gap between our men and our women in terms of college attendance and graduation, and that's what's driving that difference in voting behavior. Latino men who are moving toward Trump and Republicans. Latinas are more for Biden and the Democrats. Latinas are very pro choice. Latinos generally are very pro choice, which is a big change from 20 years ago. 

What voting predictions can you offer?

Latinas are increasingly in leadership roles. They're increasingly voting more. And, I think, in the next 10, 15 years, they will increasingly occupy higher levels of not just our politics, but in corporate America and academia and culture and society. The Latinization of America also is the feminization of America. Women will be playing a much more prominent role in society as we become less white. 

Interracial marriage rates are over 50%. More than 75% of Latinos are proficient in or English dominant now, and 70% of new homeowners in 2040 will be of Latino heritage. So, by economic and social and cultural metrics, this is an aspirational upwardly mobile group, but neither party is addressing the needs of a multiracial working class. So, we're seeing some challenges there that I think will limit the ability for Latinos to reinstill the belief in the American dream. If we fix that, we fix so much of what's wrong with our democracy. 

How do we fix it?

I think the first thing we need to do is engage Latinos where they're at. We have to drop the old stereotype of who we think they are, who we want them to be. There's this overemphasis on things like the immigrant experience, issues related to the undocumented, farmworker issues. Those are very important, but they don't speak to 95% of the population, 95% of voters anyway. Yet, at the same time, there's no party that has put out a Latino economic agenda, a Latino plan for housing, both construction and purchasing. So, until we start talking more to this voter like an economic working class voter as opposed to an aggrieved racial minority, we’re going to keep wondering why there are low voter turnout rates. We’re going to keep wondering why they don’t have these strong partisan anchors. We're going to keep wondering why they're shifting to the right or swinging back to the left and, perhaps most importantly, are increasingly buying into the idea of populism. 

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the two American politicians who overperformed expectations and polling with Latino voters because of their anti-party messages, the anti-establishment messages, and the the connection with populism, which is a sign that they don't have a stake in society. They don't have a stake in the parties. They don't have a stake in the future in the way that we would expect and hope for in a healthy democracy. 

Does your book offer politicians any tips?

Yes, the main one is to focus on the economy. The second is to recognize that what worked in the 1990s and early 2000s no longer applies. The third is if you're targeting Latino voters on communication strategies, focus on the generational differences and how far we are removed from the immigrant experience. Those who come here as immigrants have very different political attitudes than their sons and daughters, and very, very different attitudes than their grandchildren. Now we're actually able to measure and look at the fourth generation, and all of that shows a very different way of looking at and perceiving the world through both an economic and racial ethnic lens. We kind of stereotype and want to talk to Latinos as first-generation immigrants even though that is a fast shrinking part of the population. Almost all of the growth, about 80% of growth is now with the third generation and beyond, which is a whole new ballgame when we're talking to Latino voters. 

In The Latino Century, Madrid explains the importance of the culture change this way:

“Only a changed culture can save us, one where we are more committed to a sense of community and to each other’s well-being as much as the individual. A culture that is aspirational, optimistic, and confident about the promise of America and her future. A culture with a heightened sense of trust in social and democratic institutions like government, the media, the academy, our educational system, the Church, law enforcement, and the military. America is at a point where those who hold power and wealth have lost their capacity to keep the flame of what generations before us have handed down for two and a half centuries.”

Mimi Ko Cruz