Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Texas, arrives for the House GOP caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

There’s a consensus emerging in center-left circles about Hispanic voters and the Democratic Party. The argument posed by Ruy Teixeira and Matt Yglesias is that Democrats are alienating Hispanic voters, who are shifting to the Republican Party.

Yglesias notes that the “Hispanic vote” is a misnomer, that Hispanics are not a monolith, and that they are “normie voters” with diverse opinions. Democrats who have shifted left on economic and social issues in recent years, he argues, have wrongly assumed that they can retain the loyalty of the vast majority of Hispanic voters because of Donald Trump’s many racist remarks and the anti-Hispanic, anti-immigration bigotry that informs much of the GOP. Democrats, in his view, have mistakenly seen Hispanic voters as akin to Black voters, who remain overwhelmingly Democratic despite the party’s leftward shift. According to the Yglesias and Teixeira account, Hispanics aren’t tethered to the Democrats, and enough have been sufficiently offended by the party’s leftward drift to vote Republican. To reverse this trend, Democrats must woo Hispanics with pocketbook issues and play down police reform, climate change, and the preservation of democracy.

There are limitations to this analysis. First, as Yglesias acknowledges, gauging Hispanic cultural attitudes is an incredibly complex topic. Republicans, for instance, have long claimed that Hispanic voters constitute a conservative bloc that should naturally align with the GOP. But that’s rarely been the case. Pundits predicted Democratic doom when George W. Bush secured more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 reelection bid. Eight years later, however, 71 percent of Hispanics voted to reelect President Barack Obama. Second, if Hispanic voters should be treated as “normies,” the generational trends affecting normie voters also apply. Younger Hispanic voters (except for young Hispanic men in some geographic regions) are trending heavily to the left. Indeed, 69 percent of Hispanics under 30 voted for Biden, and Hispanic Democrats were solidly for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 and 2016 Democratic primaries. Third, despite recent Republican gains, Hispanics remain solidly in the Democratic column.

There is no reason to believe that Hispanics are tilting to the GOP because the Democratic Party has shifted too far left on the issues. The party’s embrace of marriage equality and abortion rights isn’t more problematic now than in 2012, when Republicans couldn’t break 30 percent with Hispanics. And, as Yglesias argues, Democrats have grown more populist on the economy, keeping with most Hispanic voter preferences. He believes that the solution to winning these voters is a relentless focus on pocketbook issues. (Cuban and Venezuelan voters are unusually wary of left populism for obvious reasons—but this is not the case for most other Hispanic nationalities.)

So, what has happened? Why has the Hispanic vote shifted right, even in an era of anti-Hispanic racism and xenophobia? Center-left pundits tend to dance around the issue to avoid controversy. Still, Yglesias came close last month to the third rail of Hispanic politics: the increasing salience of anti-Black racism as a focal point of electoral politics.

Anti-Black racism is our shared history’s most destructive and defining feature. It continues to affect every aspect of American life. Much of the white nationalist paroxysm gripping the Republican Party is a direct response to America’s first Black president. Obama’s election and reelection put racist whites on notice that they were no longer the silent majority, if they ever were. They have responded, as the South did during Reconstruction, by attempting to scuttle democracy through suppression and violence. This was successful in the 1870s and continued in the 1950s and 1960s. Obama’s triumph triggered its surge.

Simultaneously, the left developed an understanding during and after the Obama years that real progress is impossible without tackling white supremacy directly. Americans do not have universal health care, partly because many white people do not want Black people to have it, just as Americans have a record housing shortage because many white people do not want Black people to live nearby. The Black Lives Matter movement and an intersectional left-liberal alliance have foregrounded anti-Black racism to defeat the problem at its roots.

But white supremacy also affects Hispanic communities in complex ways. Anti-Hispanic racism is integral to today’s Republican Party. In 2015, Donald Trump came down the escalator of his eponymous tower raving about how Mexicans were rapists and murderers, but some, supposedly, were good people. More recently, Representative Paul Gosar, the Arizona Republican, voiced his approval to undercover journalists who claimed they murdered migrants on their fictitious Arizona ranch. The congressman suggested that many more people were ready to “take action.”

The centrality of anti-Hispanic racism to GOP politics has driven many otherwise conservative-leaning Hispanics toward the Democratic Party, as it has done with many otherwise conservative Black voters. So why aren’t Hispanics just as solid a voting bloc for Dems as the Black vote usually is? The answer lies in the ideology of white supremacy, which isn’t only embraced by whites of European descent. Millions of Hispanics increasingly consider themselves “white,” even though many whites of non-Hispanic descent do not agree and actively discriminate against them.

The undercurrent of anti-Black racism among Hispanics was apparent in the disgusting display of bigotry in the recording of three Hispanic members of the Los Angeles City Council. Prejudice thrives even among those subject to prejudice themselves. Democrats have been expecting, or at least hoping, that “people of color” would unite in solidarity to fight against the oppression they all share. Instead, it seems that there is a tendency to view political power as a zero-sum game—and if Democrats focus so much on combating anti-Black racism, that leaves less room for Hispanics in the coalition. When these voters tell pollsters that they see themselves as “patriotic” and strongly self-identify as “white,” and cringe at the emphasis on racial equity over kitchen table economics, their motives often aren’t altogether different from conservative whites who use the same coded language.

Some of this is simply unavoidable, and Democrats should not hold back on attempting to confront anti-Black bigotry because of it. But deemphasizing the salience of anti-Hispanic racism has allowed Republicans to have it both ways. 

Republicans have been stoking the flames of anti-Hispanic bigotry without suffering a concomitant backlash. This bigotry extends far beyond Republican politics on immigration, with which many Hispanics living on the border may agree. White nationalists fear being “replaced” by the Spanish language and people with browner skin and communicate that racism to their white supremacist base. Republican white supremacists make no distinction between first- and third-generation Hispanic immigrants and discriminate against them equally.

The “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is now a mainstream talking point among Republican politicians and Fox News pundits. Tucker Carlson stokes fears over “migrant caravans” like clockwork. Scaremongering about the border and manufactured crises, like fentanyl from Mexico in Halloween candy, has gotten traction with some Hispanics and whites. During the Major League Baseball playoffs, Stephen Miller helped launch one of the most racist ads in modern American history, which showed undocumented migrants “draining your paychecks, wrecking your schools.”

Democrats must inform Hispanic voters that no matter how they see themselves, Republicans will never see them as equal partners in the theocratic ethnostate they seek to build.

Republicans should pay the price for this, and Democrats could have made that happen by highlighting it more in speeches and advertising, and on the campaign trail. When white nationalists seize power, their discriminatory acts will affect all marginalized groups. And while many Hispanics share Republican concerns about new immigrants and the border, racist Republican policies and cultural attitudes against Hispanics will also affect second- and third-generation Hispanic American citizens.

Confronting anti-Hispanic racism is also crucial to solving anti-Black racism. Studies show that racist whites’ discomfort with Latinos moving into their communities increases their racist sentiments against Black people as well. America’s original sin of structural racism affects everyone, and solidarity against racism against all minority groups is the only way to end it. Abandoning social issues in favor of a strictly economic approach won’t win back these voters. Democrats will have a far better chance of bringing them back into the fold if they appeal to them on economic issues while also making it clear that white nationalism hurts us all.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.