Everyone's an Expert on the Latino Vote, Except Latinos
The most interesting development out of this weekend's Nevada caucus votes had little to do with Hillary Clinton winning a large percentage of the Latino vote -- that was predictable. More fascinating was the sudden and exponential surge in the number of experts in Latino politics.
It was tragicomic to watch non-Spanish speaking pundits explain the 'reality' of the Nevada vote while standing in the artificial light of the casinos during one of the first caucus meetings held entirely in Spanish. Reporters had to wait for translators to tell them what campaign workers were saying before they could report it to us. Understanding the electoral needs of casino, hotel, restaurant and other workers who labor in a new economy -- and require new hours for voting -- proved very difficult for many in the media to understand.
It was no less difficult having to watch the white, and some African-American, political commentators on MSNBC, CNN and other networks tell us that the Latino vote for Clinton reflected "black-Latino tensions." The New York Times newspaper had earlier echoed these observations in a story that caused frustration in the Latino blogosphere. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a publication that has no Latino editorial staff and publishes very few stories a year about the country's 46 million Latinos, the magazine showed off its newfound expertise in a story which detailed how Latinos are Clinton's electoral "firewall," thanks to the "lingering tensions between the Hispanic and black communities." It's hard to know how they know this when only one serious polling organization in the country conducts polls in a language other than English.
Yet everybody, it seems, has something to say about Latino politics. Everybody that is, except Latinos.
The awkwardness and simplicity seen and heard in the coverage of the Latino electorate illustrates how ill-equipped the news organizations, the political parties and the society as a whole are to understand and deal with the historic political shift previewed in Nevada: the death of the black-white electorate. Simplistic talk about the Latino vote provides another example of how we live when the 'experts' and their organizations are increasingly out of touch with the dynamism and complexity of the electorate and the general populace.
As a result, the growth of the very diverse Latino electorate will likely force the revelation of more inconvenient truths. Principle among them is the media's conclusion that anti-black racism among Latinos explains why they voted Clinton and not Obama in Nevada. Story after story tries to fit the Latino vote into the procrustean bed of old-school, black v. white politics.
Typical of these conclusions are statements by the liberal New Republic's John Judis. He explained Latino support for Clinton this way: "Latino immigrants hold negative stereotypical views of blacks and feel that they have more in common with whites than with blacks." Judis backed his claims with a modicum of academic seriousness as he quoted "experts" like Duke University political scientist Paula D. McClain. McClain told me in an interview that she neither speaks Spanish nor watches the primary source of Latino news and political information, saying: "I don't watch Univision." Quoting her makes little practical sense.
It only makes sense when we consider how ever-expanding Latino power in Nevada and across the country is pushing up against people's fraying sense of nationhood and citizenship. Latino citizens and voters, not undocumented immigrants, are the targets of many liberals. These liberals long for the simpler days of a black-white electorate, a less-globalized country. Like Clinton, Obama and all Republican candidates, they support the political and racial equivalents of the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino border wall.
So instead of considering that Latinos reflect the new complexities of our political age, we should, experts tell us, simply swallow the black-white political logic of the previous era, like the half-moon cookies our grandmothers made. Ignore whatever you think of the Clintons -- they have more than 15 years of relationships, name-recognition and history in the Latino electorate. Outside of Chicago, Obama has less than two years. Never mind that Latinos may still be wondering about why Obama did not, until recently, secure the support of most black voters. Never mind about the political amnesia about how the country's last black candidate of national stature -- Jesse Jackson -- defied the prevailing racial logic during the Presidential primaries of 1988, when his Rainbow Coalition secured almost 50 percent of the Latino vote in Latino-heavy New Mexico counties like Santa Fe and San Miguel and 36 percent of the Latino vote in the largest Latino state in the country: California.
The Latino experience of the right-of-center Clintons and the left-of-center Jackson, who the Illinois senator did not ask to campaign for him, raises questions about Mr. Obama's political operation and his political agenda. Time will tell us what was behind the Latino support for Clinton in Nevada. And who knows, maybe the experts telling us about Obama, Clinton and other candidates' fortunes in upcoming primaries will do so without the black and white lens that has proven obsolete in the face of a new country.
By Roberto Lovato
January 22, 2008