Following Joe Biden’s election to the presidency, American media commentators and establishment politicians have been attempting to explain why the Democrats won at the top of the ticket but failed miserably down-ballot. Some party elders, such as former Senator Claire McCaskill and current Representative Jim Clyburn, have blamed a loss of “moderate voters” on divisive “identity politics” issues such as abortion, trans rights and defunding the police, while others have focused on the seeming defection of non-White voters to the Republicans.
This faltering support among voters of colour is widely cited as being central to the Democrats’ failure to flip Florida or Texas in November’s presidential election. Particular focus has been given to the voting patterns of the Latino electorate. In heavily Cuban neighbourhoods in Miami and Mexican-American districts along the Texas border, voters shifted drastically to the right – with support for Donald Trump increasing by up to 55 points in some counties.
In reality, the nationwide exodus of Latino voters to Trump is largely a false narrative. Nationwide, Latinos voted for Biden in roughly the same numbers as they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (about two-thirds Democrat to one-third Republican). Non-White voting blocs, which are widely listed as African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, were crucial to delivering decisive Blue victories in the urban centres of pivotal swing states, such as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit and Atlanta.
So if the majority of Latino voters backed Joe Biden, why, in specific locations like Miami and South Texas, did Democrats lose Latino support?
Understanding the “Latino” identity
In the American lexicon, “Latino” frequently signifies a non-White racial group of people originating from countries south of the US-Mexican border. In actuality, Latinos comprise a multi-racial, multi-ethnic amalgam of people, the majority of whom originate from Spanish and Portuguese settler colonies. The term engulfs everyone from the Aymara people indigenous to the Andes to the Italian petty bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires, as well as the West African slave descendants living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or the Palestinian Christians residing in Chile. “Latino” simply flattens all of these people into one apparently homogenous group.
This blanket terminology obscures the racialised and classist hierarchies that exist in Latin America; hierarchies that define the experience of immigration for those crossing the US border. Migrant experience is based on many factors, including one's country of origin, class and immigration status.
Understanding these dynamics provides insight into some of the voting patterns that were reported after last month’s election. Over the past 60 years, the majority of Cuban Americans (as well as Nicaraguans and more recently Venezuelans) immigrated to Miami and other sprawling cities in south Florida when left-wing governments came to power in their former countries and threatened their status as the bourgeois ruling class. Cubans in the US, who are on average better educated than the wider Latino immigrant community, tend to earn above the median income and more widely identify as 'White'.
The assertion that the class interests and motivations of these voters are the same as those across the diverse Latino community negates the way in which race and identity operates in political reality. It makes sense that particular subsets of the Latino electorate might support Trump, who won the hearts of America's home-owning middle class in 2016.
What is interesting, however, is the increased turnout for Trump among poorer Mexican-Texans living at the southern border, who are less likely to identify as White. Many have pointed to this demographic’s traditional, conservative Catholic values and 'machismo culture' to explain support for strongman figures such as Trump.
Yet 77% of Latino voters in California, predominantly of Mexican descent, voted for Biden. Elsewhere they helped turn Arizona Blue and other Catholic communities, such as Puerto Ricans, overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in record numbers across the country. As for traditional conservatism, Mexican-Americans at the southern border, as well as Latinos in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, carried socialist candidate Bernie Sanders forward with unprecedented support in the Democratic primary, giving him the nickname “Tío Bernie”.
Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment overlooked the contributions of Latino voters throughout the presidential campaign. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the only Latina politician to address the 2020 Democratic National Convention during prime-time hours, and she was given just 60 seconds to speak. Latinos were not considered to be part of Biden’s pathway to victory – a line that came directly from his campaign.
Re-imagining ‘divide and rule’ on the Right
Yet while the Democrat establishment refuses to acknowledge the diversity of the Latino electorate, Republicans have realised that, in a new era of marked demographic shifts, they cannot continue to exploit the same old dividing tactics. A burgeoning, multi-racial middle class has emerged across the US, where the wealthiest 20% of income earners own 79% of the US’s aggregate wealth – meaning the traditional race and class conceptions, which have yielded conservative majorities in recent decades, must be reinvented.
The most salient examples of these new divisions are the conceptions of ‘the coastal elites of New York and Californiaְ’ versus ‘the middle of the country’. Both narratives effectively excise the predominantly Black and Brown working class along the coast, from those who live in the projects of the Bronx to those in the homeless encampments of West Oakland. These groups are being left behind by the American elite, just like Iowan dairy farmers and Appalachian coal miners.
Trump’s rhetoric around "immigrants who came here the right way" versus those who "are illegal" is another example of a new political identity being built. This has been taken up not only by Trump’s white nationalist base, but by Mexican Americans who live in the country legally and wish to distinguish themselves from those who are made undocumented by American domestic policy and a violent border regime.
In this way, Republicans have creatively exploited established prejudices and divisions within communities of colour to create new imagined enemies through processes of race-making.
A bold path forward for the Left
The Left must be imaginative in building solidarity between groups that share a common experience of material suffering across racial lines. Supporting universalist policies, such as provision of healthcare to all and tuition-free public universities and colleges, provides an opportunity to rebuild this diverse coalition.
Biden seems to have begun to acknowledge his campaign pitfalls, with news of the proposed appointment of Medicare-for-All supporter Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is also beginning to pivot toward the cancellation of student loan debt as a method of undoing the racial wealth gap between Black and Latino borrowers and White graduates.
The Democrats must push further on these policies, and coalesce the multi-racial, multi-generational working class around wider issues, such as worker exploitation and the tearing apart of families and communities at the hands of border enforcement. These issues must be framed as ones that affect not just undocumented people and communities of colour, but shape the broader living and working conditions of the entire working class.