Superman got his power by being dropped to Earth. He came from another galaxy that operated according to different laws of physics. Spiderman became powerful after a spider bit him. Wonder Woman got her special powers from Olympian Deities.
Roberto Suro recently wrote a New York Times editorial where he asks the question “Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?” Suro provides a good description of how Latinos have not become more powerful. But, unlike what we know about superheroes, he nowhere explains what it takes to become powerful or to lose it.
So, where the hell does power come from?
In one of her songs, Diana Krall sings plaintively “What do I have to do to make you love me?” The answer is, of course, obvious. She can try giving him flowers or a kiss or a hug or sex. She can tell him “I’m sorry.” Whether any of those actions or words will cause her beloved to open his arms again to her is not assured. Her beloved must still value what she has to offer if she is ever going to be able to make an impression and get his love back again.
Humans, unlike superheroes, get our power from each other. It does not come from outside, from external accidents, superior beings, or unusual laws of physics. We cannot influence those who do not engage with us. We cannot affect the way they think, act, or feel if we cannot offer them something of value. Two year olds know this well. They automatically spew out a barrage of “no’s” to any entreaty a parent or anyone makes to them. And by those declarations, those two year olds reject and prevent the adult’s attempt to influence them. “Comete esto ahora mismo!!” “No” dice el Niño embullado con su poder.
Suro tells us that we Latinos have tried marching and voting. Yet, still, immigration reform is not a political priority for either political party. He wrote that
“Latinos have claimed a political destiny based on their population numbers, but the numbers that count in politics are those that decide elections. On that score Latinos have a dismal record to overcome.”
That is true. Demographic growth and voting have not delivered the policy and legal changes Latinos seek. However, is it true that all that Latinos have to do to reverse this political failure is, as Suro concludes, to show up on Election Day? Only if you think that political power comes mostly by voting. We have plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite.
Voting is an integral part of the democratic process. But it is not the most important part, especially today. There is, for instance, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. That court decision unleashed and amplified the already caustic power of money in elections. How does a mostly poor Latino community succeed against that? It can be done. But it won’t happen with money or, more accurately, with Latino money.
Those without money can compete in this corporatized republic. The Tea Party movement has proven that. This group of mostly disaffected white middle class conservatives and evangelicals managed to upend Republican congressional leadership, elect scores of Tea Party supporters, as well as push the Republican Party and it’s presidential candidates harder to the right. But a great deal of that success has come because of the financial support they have received.
The Tea Party Movement has received generous financial support from the Koch brothers as well as from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. In addition, the Tea Party has the focused and uncritical support of an entire media empire and faux news distributor in Fox News. The millions of dollars and media attention the Tea Party has received has elevated what is a small, fringe, and extremist political group into a mainstay of public consciousness and recognition. They became well known, tapped into a growing white American fear and resentment, and hijacked the Republican Party political agenda. As a result, they were able to leverage that support into a power that outpaces its actual size of about half a million active members.
In comparison, the mostly Latino Dreamers Movement has not received comparable support from financial elites and media. They have received funding from groups such as Unbound Philanthropy, the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and other groups such as the National Education Association (NEA). Most of that money has gone to organizational development, lobbying in Washington, and scholarships. Why the difference?
The major reason why the Dreamers did not have the impact of the Tea Party is that its goals are narrow, affecting mostly Latino immigrant youth. They sought changes in law in order to more fully participate in educational opportunities and the “American Dream.” Financial support came from those few who agreed that existing immigration laws violated moral and democratic principles. The Dreamers were, unlike the Tea Party, not seeking to transform the very structure of how the state taxes, spends, and relates to the economy. The latter are the kinds of issues that make both conservative and liberal economic elites salivate.
Those different outcomes for the Tea Party and the Dreamers provide clues as to how to create more political power for Latinos. We have to think of what Latinos can offer the general public and the economic elite that will motivate them to support and reinforce our political goals. The problem is that I really can’t think of one such issue. Will we get support to prevent random and traumatic deportation? Not likely. What about our poor wages? Some support exists for this issue, but only as a general push to raise the minimum wage for everybody. The current economic stagnation means that a higher minimum wage will not translate into direct improvements to Latino wages, especially since so many of our community work off the books.
The conservative attempt to roll back voting rights is an important structural issue that can galvanize bipartisan support in this society. However, the weight of public opinion and support seems skewed towards restricting voting rather than expanding it. While some bipartisan financial and political support for voting rights has emerged on the national level, the conservative political machine has focused on and succeeded in changing and rolling back voting rights at the state level. They have succeeded in changing public opinion. Today, a large majority of Americans support more restrictive voter ID laws, which are a solution to a non-existent problem. Thirty-two states have passed voter ID laws as of 2015.
The irony is that any success in fighting restrictive voter ID laws will do very little to improve Latino political power. The reason is simple. Elections are not as important to politicians as they used to be. Politicians are concerned about elections. They want to get reelected. Congressional politicians have to win elections every two or 6 years. But getting reelected depends more on money than on policies, legislation, or the voter’s interests.
Congressman Steve Israel, about to leave Congress, recently confessed that, when he first entered Congress, he was “advised that if I didn’t raise at least $10,000 a week (in pre-Citizens United dollars), I wouldn’t be back.” How does a poor Latino community compete with that? How do we contribute and offer the dollars that will make the hundreds of Israels in Congress, other levels of government, and the media answer our phone calls, welcome our visits, as well as open their minds and hearts to our concerns?
Politicians spend more time each day they serve in Congress on raising money than on constituent communication and service. They know without money, they can’t win. And that means that Latino sources of power will remain severely limited for the foreseeable future. It also means that Latinos will have to think of new ways to amass power that are not focused only on tactics like voting. We have to develop strategies for power that can inspire non-Latinos to join and support our causes, goals, and policies. Without that, we will forever be stuck asking, pursuing, and hoping for love… but being very disappointed.