Believe it or not, there are many who refer to George Bush as the nation’s first Hispanic president. While not Latino by heritage, he has led one of the most racially/ethnically diverse administrations in the history of our country. With one look at his cabinet it’s evident to see. Seven out of 15 of the nation’s highest posts are held by minorities, including three Hispanics: Anna Escobedo Cabral as treasurer of the United States, Carlos Gutierrez as secretary of Commerce, and Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general. The diversity of President Bush’s cabinet is evidence that he is acknowledging the contributions of Latinos, and other minorities, to the advantage of the United States.
Outside of Washington, D.C., the president and other conservatives are reaching out to and engaging Latino communities across the country – and they have been doing so long before the 2000 presidential election. They are meeting with religious leaders and congregations, talking to school boards and parents, addressing senior citizens and college students, and disseminating talking points and PowerPoint presentations to local and state leaders all along the way. A key part of their strategy is the recruitment of Latino youth, who are being approached by conservative groups before they are even eligible to drive or vote. All of these efforts are creating inroads for the conservative movement. For proof of this assertion, one should look no further than the increase in the Latino vote for George Bush in the 2004 election.
While this strategy is becoming more evident and effective, in contrast, progressives seem to be a step behind: still strategizing, polling and conducting focus groups, developing “appropriate” messages, and rehashing the effectiveness of past strategies. Without question, the conservative Latino outreach strategy has been carefully thought out and linked to a long-term political plan. The pressure is now on and progressives need to catch up.
So why are conservatives making headway within the Hispanic community, a group largely considered a chunk of the progressive base? The answer is simple – people respond when they are being listened to; it’s human nature to want to feel valued and appreciated. Conservatives have learned this lesson and are taking advantage of it. They are winning with Hispanics in the same way that they won the majority of the voting population in 2004 – by appealing to their sense of patriotism, faith, and hope.
While the country is a long way away from Latino voters becoming a significant voting block for conservatives, progressives will need to turn inaction into action to avoid being left behind. If leaders of the progressive movement don’t learn from their missteps, it will be a loss felt not only at the polls, but in all sectors of public life.
There are, however, steps that can be taken to cultivate and strengthen the relationship between progressives and Latinos and it centers on dialogue.
Outreach: Connecting with Latinos and understanding the different communities that are included within the Hispanic/Latino umbrella is essential. Acknowledging that these terms refer to multiple communities (emphasis on plural) and to people who prefer to identify with their heritage/country of origin is an important lesson. While there are similarities among the people that comprise the overall Latino/Hispanic community, there are also regional, cultural, religious, and linguistic differences among them. This can, and many times should, translate into different messages and can mean different methods of delivery. Because Latinos have different perspectives and experiences to share, progressive must be willing to reach out to multiple individuals and multiple communities.
Dialogue: Hispanics must be invited to the table, from the beginning of the discussion, to address the issues that are important to and impact them. This dialogue must be honest and sincere, and will demand a significant level of transparency. For far too long, minorities in general and Hispanics in particular have been taken for granted. In the past, when they have been called to the table, it was not to share in discussion or participate in the decision-making process. It was to accept a token piece of the process while others at the table made the big decisions without them.
Follow-up: In reaching out to and collaborating with Latinos, progressives must commit to follow-up and mean it. Bringing people to the table, engaging them in conversation and then disengaging them is an unacceptable approach. Latinos are the largest minority population in the U.S. The impact of policy on Hispanics, and the Hispanic impact on policy, will continue to grow as we move further into the 21st century. Anything less than a commitment to outreach, dialogue and follow-up is not a solution.
These steps may not produce immediate results or solve any political dilemmas, but they are necessary in making good on so many promises, building goodwill, and learning about the largest minority group in the United States. Progressive must wake up and realize that in too many ways we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the Latino community. These efforts will not only serve to nurture and magnify relationships, but will also create the next generations of active, engaged progressive Latino citizens and leaders of our multi-ethnic nation.
Elena Rocha is a domestic policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.