The new freshman class in the House includes seven Latino Republicans — four from Western states (read non-Florida Cubans). Throw in two Latino governors in New Mexico and Nevada, and Sen.-elect Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and looks like the 2010 midterms produced no clear read on where Latinos stand politically.
This ambivalence frustrates both parties — but especially Democrats. Their expectations that Latinos would become the new black — and reliably vote for Democrats at a better than 90 percent rate — were again thwarted.
For the time being, anyway.
Conservatives now need to communicate their message — for which Latinos are surprisingly ready, according to a poll commissioned by The Heritage Foundation.
An even more interesting churning is likely to take place as we move from politics to policy. The political choice Latinos make in individual elections may prove less important than the philosophy of government they eventually embrace — which helps predict their success in America.
The fundamental choice, not surprisingly, reflects the national debate over the size and role of government. It boils down to two philosophies. Latinos can accept Big Government as savior, a last-resort guarantor of fairness and trusted supplier of help. Or, they can embrace the idea that civil society, with its multiplicity of personal contracts and arrangements, is a more reliable provider of freedom, material success and, generally, the good life — one that includes them.
Illegal immigration is only tangential to this binary choice — which is why the issue never becomes the talisman that groups on the left want. According to the poll, by Chay/McQueen, Latinos are no more liberal than the rest of the nation, when you control for age and wages.
Much will depend on how conservatives communicate their message. The liberal message is that America can be an unfair, even racist, society, where Latinos need government help to fully succeed. Conservatives must not get tripped up discussing illegal immigration and cultural issues in ways that feed this liberal narrative.
The border question is easier to address. Most Latinos are likely to understand that no country — especially a welfare state — can just open its border to all who want to cross it illegally. The one nagging question on the border issue is whether Latinos as a people are being rejected — which brings us to the much-less discussed cultural matter.
Conservatives, rightly sensitive to threats to the common national culture (which is what gives a country meaning and cohesion) must articulate a message of inclusion that points out the route for Latino integration and success. To do otherwise threatens to create an internal enemy of that culture — permanently alienated from the United States.
Communicating the conservative message should be easier than at first thought, if one looks at the implication of each choice.
Choice No. 1 means that Latinos can be suborned by promises of government largesse and are likely to fall into the gaping maw of the Victim Industrial Complex. The result is likely to be voting for candidates who promise to redistribute wealth from earners to non-earners. It means yearning to change the face of American culture because it is an ugly visage of ignorant saps who cling to guns and God in moments of need. It means voting for government benefits — not only in the form of economic supports but of affirmative-action programs that give Latinos priority.
More than 60 percent of Latinos arguably opted for this choice in 2008, when they pulled the lever for Barack Obama. The president sought to build on that in 2010 by urging Latinos “to punish their enemies” by voting for Democrats — a comment so maladroit that he apologized almost immediately.
However, that moment of candor was revealing. Choosing government as arbiter of resources among groups promises a never-ending inter-communal clash that divides the nation and tears the culture apart.
There are at least three additional reasons why Latinos should know that the liberal elixir comes with a warning label.
Whatever else it may promise, it could well, by definition, consign Latinos to underclass status. Remember, you would only continue to get free stuff (taken from others through taxes) if you’re in the underclass. Succeed on your own at your peril.
And the free stuff won’t make you happy. Study after study demonstrates that only “earned success” provides satisfaction -- not winning the lottery, inheriting a pile or getting government hand-outs.
Most important for those who want America to continue to prosper, the society this is likely to produce would be less fair and create less wealth. The scraps Latinos and everyone else fought over would be more meager, because the talented (Latino or not), would probably produce less once confiscation curbed incentives to succeed. The cost of the implied entitlements might also bankrupt the country faster.
Choice No. 2 is a more natural fit. It aligns with the aspirations that attracted Latino immigrants to this country in the first place. They can strive to join the middle class and become the latest in a long list of immigrants from the world over who have realized the American Dream.
Embracing such policies would almost be a self-fulfilling prophesy of success. Those who rise earlier, work harder and constantly seek opportunities to improve will want to see their hard work rewarded with material possessions that are beyond government’s confiscatory power.
Those who cherish American traditions because they intuit that they are intricately linked to America’s success are likely to prefer policies that conserve the culture. Those who understand that the family is the fulcrum of the good life and a bulwark against decadence will, like so many immigrants before them, strive to keep their own household intact -- choosing pro-family policies.
It is true that the GOP has had its share of trouble with Latinos over the years. California Gov. Pete Wilson’s support of an anti-illegal immigrant referendum is still remembered by some. We saw an example of this most recently in the California governor race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. When Whitman’s “nanny episode” occurred, what Latino support that Whitman may have had quickly collapsed.
Conservatives shouldn’t assume that the natural affinity Latinos may feel toward conservative policies is enough to overcome negative feelings stirred by such episodes.
But the Chay/McQueen survey shows that Latinos would be receptive to conservative policies. After all, they reject relativistic values; view the United States as a land where a man or woman can still get ahead by wits and effort, and prefer a smaller government that gets out of the way. Conservatives have a powerful message to deliver.
And deliver it they must. Benjamin Disraeli, writing about the uneasy assimilation of Jews into British society in the 19th century, wrote “They are the trustees of tradition, and the conservators of the religious element. … Thus it will be seen that all the tendencies of the Jewish race are conservative. Their bias is to religion, property and natural aristocracy; and it should be the interest of the statesmen that this bias of a great race should be encouraged and their energies and creative powers enlisted in the cause of existing society” (emphasis added).
The “tendencies” of Latinos today are just as conservative. Their real “enemies” are not those who seek to empower them, but those who would frustrate their ambition, hinder their talent and impede their success.
Mike Gonzalez is vice president for communications at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Politico