Politicians have conveniently vilified Latinos for political gain for far too long. Coming of political age in California where Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who was described as too “wonkish” and “underwhelming” successfully won a second term as governor largely because of his anti-immigrant campaign tactics, I have heard racist commentary to prop up politicians for as long as I can remember. According to law professor Ian Haney López, politicians have been using coded language to disguise racist messages to win electoral support among whites in what he refers to as “dog whistle politics.”
Haney López demonstrates how this tactic has successfully been used by both political parties since at least George Wallace and the Republicans regained control of the South; however, it is about to implode this presidential election. The dog whistle fell into the wrong hands with Trump this time. Consequently, it will have disastrous results on the Republican Party during this presidential election cycle—some of which we are seeing already as Republican donors are not giving their money and long-time Republicans, such as George Will, are leaving the party.
Why aren’t dog whistle politics going to work during this presidential election? Two simple reasons: changing racial and ethnic demographics and immigration politics.
Demographics. According to a PEW Research Center finding, eligible voters from ethnic and racial groups will comprise 31% of the electorate making this the most racially diverse electorate in U.S. history. Furthermore, the largest number of Latinos will be eligible to vote in U.S. history at 27.3 million – up from 23.3 million in the 2012 presidential election. Of these Latino voters, PEW researchers point out: “Hispanic millennials will account for nearly half (44%) of the record 27.3 million Hispanic eligible voters projected for 2016—a share greater than any other racial or ethnic group of voters.” This brings me to my next point.
Immigration politics. The recent Supreme Courts 4-4 ruling that halts President Obama’s executive actions protecting undocumented immigrants will matter even before the issue is addressed by the Court again. This is because an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants have children who are U.S. citizens. As my co-authors and I detail in our study of undocumented Latino youth, Living the Dream, the racializing effects generated by our broken immigration system have had a permanent impact on their lives. These young Latinos have missed out on countless opportunities growing up—from participation in extracurricular activities and attendance at elite colleges where they have been accepted to being separated from their parents who have been deported. For most of these Latino youth, the U.S. is the only country they have ever known and it has attacked them and their families yet again with this Supreme Court decision. Most of these Latinos have grown up in mixed-status families and a majority of all Latinos voters have personal connections with someone who is undocumented.
Clearly, immigration matters to Latino voters. This presidential election will remind Republicans—who are supposedly all about family values and personal responsibility—that the personal is political for Latino voters and their families, as I’ve noted at NBC Latino News.
While the Republican Party falls apart before our eyes—in large part because of the racist messages by Trump—one can assume this will impact the other branches of government as well. With a Democratically controlled Senate and a new Democratic president that is sympathetic to immigration reform a new liberal Supreme Court majority will soon follow. All this will prove to be a window of opportunity to finally pass comprehensive immigration reform and may eventually threaten the race-based gerrymandering that has contributed to building today’s Republican advantage in the House.
Of course, all this will only happen if Latinos and other people of color turnout out in record numbers. I am hopeful that the results of this election show us all that the days of dog whistle politics are numbered.
~ Maria Chavez is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pacific Lutheran University and a regular contributor to Racism Review.