After Donald Trump and the Republican Party made gains among Black and Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential election, a chorus of voices emerged to blame the outcome on Democratic messaging.
Democrats, went the argument, were too "woke," too preoccupied with "identity politics," too invested in slogans like "defund the police" and too eager to embrace the language of the activist left. Terms like "BIPOC" (an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and especially "Latinx" alienated the working-class Black and Hispanic voters who shifted to Trump in key states like Florida and North Carolina.
It makes sense that this is where the conversation turned. People who work with words — journalists, commentators and political professionals — are naturally interested in the impact of messaging and language on voters.
At the same time, it is important to remember that language does not actually structure politics. Yes, a political message can persuade voters or, on the other end, help them rationalize their choices. And, yes, a political message can be effective or ineffective. But we should not mistake this for a causal relationship.
The forces that drive politics are material and ideological, and our focus — when trying to understand and explain shifts in the electorate — should be on the social and economic transformations that shape life for most Americans.
With that in mind, let's return to the debate over the Democratic Party's declining fortunes with Hispanic voters. (In all of this, it is important to remember that even with the significant shift to Trump, who improved on his 2016 total in 2020 by 10 percentage points, according to Pew, Joe Biden still won 59% of the Hispanic voters who cast ballots.)
Does a term like "Latinx" alienate some portion of the Hispanic voting public? A recent survey says yes. According to a new national poll of Hispanic voters, only 2% chose the term to describe their ethnic background, and 40% said it offends them either "a lot" (20%), "somewhat" (11%) or "a little" (9%). To the extent that Democratic politicians and affiliated voices used the term — demonstrating their distance from the communities in question — that may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some Hispanic voters. But it does not follow from there that use of the term explains anything about electoral trends among Hispanics. For those, we have to look at the material and ideological shifts I mentioned earlier.
It would be too much for a single column to give a full inventory of those changes. But I can point to a few. First, there is the economy. In areas like the Rio Grande Valley of Texas — where Republicans made major inroads with Mexican American voters in 2020 — rising wages for workers in the region's oil and gas industry helped shift some voters to the right. Nationally, there's evidence that some Hispanic voters credited Trump with wage growth and rewarded him with additional support. In general, upward mobility and a greater sense of integration into the mainstream of American society has made a significant number of Hispanic voters more open to Republican appeals.
Playing a similar role is evangelical religion. As my news-side colleague Jennifer Medina noted in a piece last year, "Hispanic evangelicals are one of the fastest growing religious groups in the country." Churches remain important sites for political socialization, and evangelicalism is, at this juncture, a conservative force in American culture and politics. It makes sense, then, that Hispanic evangelicals are also much more likely than their Catholic counterparts to vote Republican.
According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, "Hispanic Protestants" were more likely than all other Hispanics to approve of Trump's performance as president, his handling of the economy, his handling of "racial justice protests" and his handling of the pandemic. Hispanic Protestants were also much more likely to say that "Christians face a lot of discrimination."
There is also the long-standing effort by Republicans to mobilize Hispanic conservatives for the Republican Party.
"For the past half century," historian Geraldo Cadava writes in "The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump," "Hispanic Republicans and the Republican Party have been deliberate and methodical in their mutual, sometimes hesitant, embrace." Beliefs about relations with Latin America, about "the United States as the protector of freedom in the world" and about "market-driven capitalism as the best path to upward mobility" have helped Republicans build a durable bulwark among Hispanic voters, one that the Trump campaign built on with focused and sustained outreach.
Entangled in these social and economic transformations is a long-standing and potent American ideology that slots some people as "makers" and others as "takers," to use Mitt Romney's off-the-cuff language to donors during his presidential campaign in 2012. Although traditionally associated with whiteness and masculinity, this "producerism" holds sway and currency across the electorate. That's part of why candidates in both parties scramble to associate themselves with blue-collar workers and why some Democratic proponents of the social safety net insist that their policies provide a "hand up, not a handout."
I think that a part of Trump's appeal, especially for men, was the degree to which he embodied the producerist ideal. His image, at least, was of the commanding provider, who generated wealth and prosperity for himself and others. Put another way, the prevalence of producerist ideology in American society helped frame Trump — previously the star of "The Apprentice" — as a political figure, making him legible to millions of Americans. Hispanic voters were as much a part of that dynamic as any other group.
The point here is not to write an exhaustive explanation of what happened among Hispanic voters in the 2020 presidential election. The point is that our constant battles over language are more distracting than not. The whys of American politics have much more to do with the ever-changing currents of race, religion and economic production than they do with political messaging. And no message, no matter how strong on the surface, will land if it isn't attentive to those forces and the other forces that structure the lives of ordinary people.