We have been told for years by "conservative" immigration enthusiasts that Hispanics are natural cultural conservatives who will—Real Soon Now—flock to the electoral aid of the Republican Party in its culture war with liberals. The current gubernatorial primary campaign in California is providing more evidence that this is w-r-o-n-g.
Former L.A. mayor Richard Riordan is trying to convince Republicans to vote for him in the March 5th primary by claiming he'd be the most "electable" Republican in November. He's simultaneously catering to two groups who don't participate much in Republican primaries: Latinos, by promising to deliver lots of benefits to illegal immigrants; and white liberals, by making common cause with them on abortion, gay "civil unions," and gun control. These, note, are stances that Hispanics allegedly oppose.
What's interesting is the dog that hasn't barked. Neither Riordan nor Democratic Governor Gray Davis (who's clawing to position himself to the left of Riordan on cultural issues) appear at all worried about the theoretical contradiction in pursuing both East L.A. and West Hollywood. They believe—with good reason, as we shall see—that they can safely ignore the vaunted cultural conservatism of Hispanics.
California, long viewed as the promised land of the American middle class, has in recent decades been taking on something of the highly unequal social structure of neighboring Mexico. It is attracting both wealthy white liberals and the poor immigrants who serve them. Consequently, rising housing costs and chaotic public schools have sent the middle class fleeing to the inland West.
Of all states, California now has the lowest percentage of its population with a midlevel education (i.e, a high school diploma or some college). In contrast, California now has two million graduate degree holders and also a remarkable 2.2 million adults who have never seen the inside of a high school.
Native Californian couples with three kids and one income have been heading for Utah and Colorado. They are being replaced by newcomer couples from "back East" with one kid, two incomes, and an immigrant servant or two.
The Republican Parties in nearby states have benefited from this outflow of conservatives. But in California, the GOP was in danger of sinking beneath the waves, until Gov. Davis' dithering over the state's energy crisis gave Republicans new hope.
Still, the long run demographic trends look grim. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics cast 13.9% of the votes in the 2000 election in California, versus merely 4.4% in the rest of the country. George W. Bush won only 29% of their votes. Meanwhile, California's white population is increasingly made up of people who believe they are wealthy enough to insulate their few children, and thus despise less-affluent conservatives who want the government to help defend their children. California's whites, who once produced Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, gave only 48% of their vote to Bush in 2000.
Some Republican poobahs look to Riordan as the man who can fix both problems at once. The L.A. Times reported, "Much of the pressure on Riordan to enter the race came from national party leaders who see him as a vehicle to recast the party's anti-immigrant image in California."
And Riordan is also making a lot of non-Republican / non-Californian hearts thump faster. They hope he's starting a trend. Riordan is their favorite type of Republican: the kind that's not so damn Republican.
For example, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, humidly extolled:
"Richard Riordan may be the [national] Republicans' last chance… [O]n issues like abortion, gay rights, and immigration, he would make [ultraliberal Minnesota Senator] Paul Wellstone swoon… If Riordan wins, …the most powerful Republican outside Washington will disagree with core Republican principles. As governor of America's largest state, Riordan would have the political platform that his ideological soulmate Rudy Giuliani lacked. And he could conceivably launch the first serious liberal Republican presidential bid in a generation, a bid that would shake the GOP to its bones."
This is grounded on four misconceptions.
Still, Riordan may be an old codger, but he's a clear-eyed one. Because of his promiscuous financial ties to politicians across the spectrum, he was free to semi-plausibly position himself almost anywhere on any issue when he decided to run for governor. So let's pay attention to how Riordan evaluated the Hispanics.
Riordan obviously feels he can freely pursue white cultural liberals on abortion, gays, and gun control without alienating Hispanics. Hispanics, he believes, care far more about the bread and butter issues like immigration and benefits.
Gray Davis agrees. He's not worrying about appeasing delicate Hispanic sensibilities on abortion. Instead, he's spending big money to position himself to the left of Riordan on abortion. Right now, even before the primary, the Governor is running anti-Riordan ads revealing the shocking news that Riordan has in the past given money to candidates who were pro-life. Riordan, Davis inform us, has even expressed moral qualms about abortion!
Recent history supports these two expert politicians' assumptions about the unimportance of cultural issues to California Hispanics.
In an important article in the liberal The American Prospect (6/18/01) celebrating the rapidly growing power of California's Latino-labor-leftist alliance, the former L.A. Weekly editor Harold Myerson triumphantly observed:
"For years the conventional wisdom about the future of California politics was … that when Latinos finally got around to voting, their cultural conservatism would shift the state rightward … Their economic progressivism, however, has consistently trumped their cultural conservatism."
In California's myriad initiative elections, Hispanics have indeed sometimes voted on the cultural conservative side. But single-issue initiatives are largely a sideshow outside California. The process doesn't exist in the U.S. Constitution. Overwhelmingly, elections in America mean voting for people rather than for laws. And Hispanics who want to make a career getting elected overwhelmingly sign up as Democrats—roughly, nine out of ten Hispanic officeholders are Democrats. Thus, they overwhelmingly join coalitions with cultural liberals.
Further, as Myerson notes:
"But as wedge issues splitting Latinos from other liberals, these [culturally conservative initiative] measures were utter failures. While voting to the right on cultural questions, Latinos were voting to the left—well to the left—on economic matters. Compared with African Americans, they were more supportive of both a 1996 initiative to raise the minimum wage and a giant 1998 school bond measure. They were more decisive even than union members in rejecting a 1998 initiative from Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to curtail union political-action programs (Latinos rejected the measure by a 75-to-25-percent margin). On using the state and unions to promote economic opportunity, Latinos are the single most progressive voting bloc in California."
The economic situation of Hispanics has simply been too dire for many to give votes to conservative candidates just because they agree with them on culture war issues…if they do.
In the boom year of 1999, Californians at the 25th income percentile were making 9 percent less than their counterparts in the boom year of 1969 … The change is most apparent in Los Angeles County, which grew by 7.4 percent during the 1990s while the number of Angelenos in poverty rose by 64 percent.
Myerson never mentions the politically-incorrect reason why, despite their hard work, California's Hispanics make unsatisfactory economic progress. To use a Marxist phrase Myerson no doubt is familiar with, Latino-American citizens' wages are held down by the similarly-skilled "reserve army of the unemployed" that keeps arriving from south of the border.
(The law of supply and demand is why United Farm Worker leader Cesar Chavez hated illegal immigration from Mexico so much that he'd volunteer his UFW staffers to the INS as vigilante border guards.)
Message: If you want Hispanic-Americans to evolve into Reagan Democrats prosperous enough to afford to vote Republican, then enact the same reform that enabled an economically comfortable white ethnic working class to emerge in the middle of the last century: an immigration shutdown.
If, like Myerson, you want Hispanics to stay a borderline-poor proletariat, ripe for the kind of political radicalization going on in California, then keep the floodgates open.
If you want liberal Republicans to get control of the GOP, mass immigration might be an excuse. Except that liberal Republicans end up losing in the general election anyway. Democrats prefer real Democrats. Real Republicans stay home.
If you're a cultural conservative – well, you can console yourself that the immigration-driven growth of California's Latino-labor-leftist alliance is even worse news for libertarians.
February 05, 2002