.The Latino Century

Will Immigrants Save the Country?

In dark times, we all need a little pick-me-up now and then, and Mike Madrid is here to offer a full jolt of optimism, albeit long-term optimism. Here in Santa Cruz, it’s not at all hard to believe that in the United States we are now living through “The Latino Century,” as Madrid, a longtime political operative and data expert from California, puts it in his new book.

Madrid believes that over time—over decades—the political and cultural importance of our growing Latino population will shift the country in new and unpredictable ways, primarily toward more optimism and tolerance of others.

The Hispanic population of Santa Cruz County swelled over the years from less than 10 percent in 1970 to 34.2 percent in 2020, and continues to grow.

At my local Bay Federal Credit Union branch in Capitola, I’ve often had customers both in front of me in line and behind me in line step up to the teller and dive into fluent Spanish; but as Madrid points out, second- and third-generation Latinos are much less likely to speak Spanish, and they are focused on issues beyond immigration and border security, despite what many Democrats lazily assume. Eighty percent of new Hispanic voters are U.S-born, and most speak more English than Spanish.

These new Latino voters just might save the country, Madrid believes—and they might even do it this year, as Madrid will discuss at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m., in conversation with former Santa Cruz Supervisor Ryan Coonerty about his new book. The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority Is Transforming Democracy.

“Honestly, I feel like this is the most important book to read if you want to understand the next two decades of American politics,” Coonerty says.

“Madrid is this crazy mixture of an artist, a demographer, and a cold-blooded practitioner of brass-knuckle politics. He brings each perspective to his book and it creates this rich analysis. He doesn’t pull punches about how bad the parties have been about reaching out to Latinos, but the underlying message is so hopeful—Latino politics is fundamentally optimistic.”

POLITICAL OPTIMIST According to author Mike Madrid, America is changing in ways that will restore confidence and trust in democratic institutions. PHOTO: PHIL DESMANGLES

Madrid, born and raised in Southern California, splits time between Sacramento and Mexico, and yes, he is a painter (that’s his artwork on the cover of the book). He’s a former political director of the California Republican Party who worked on the George W. Bush presidential campaign of 2000, but in 2018 he crossed party lines to work with former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on his (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign for California governor.

Knowing what he knows about both parties, Madrid has advice for both on doing better with Latino voters, but above all he has a warning: If Democrats don’t wake up, now, this month and next, and adjust their message to Hispanics for the 21st century, they risk losing.

Madrid watched last week’s presidential debate between Biden and Trump in Colorado, where he was appearing on debate panels at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

He joined many of us in finding the debate hard to watch, but here’s his take as a longtime expert on elections: “Debates don’t make a significant impact on the trajectory of a presidential campaign—they just don’t,” he says. “Trump is going to be sentenced on July 11, and that’s going to swallow up the news cycle. Then on to whatever is next.”

Democrats are known for panicking, but the post-debate frenzy surprised Madrid. On Twitter, he wrote that maybe the post-debate panic might be the jolt that some rank-and-file Democrats needed to wake up and fight the very real specter of a Trumpist takeover.

Madrid cited Animal House to suggest maybe the bad debate performance wasn’t the end of the story for Biden in 2024, as many appeared to believe, quoting the line, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

He also observed to his nearly 150,000 Twitter followers that Democrats seemed to be reliving the trauma of Trump’s 2016 win over Hillary Clinton all over again.

“After writing this book and experiencing how both parties approach Latino voters, it’s also becoming clear to me that both parties have a fundamentally different approach to campaigns—and democracy,” he said last Friday in a phone interview. “Republicans have a much more zero-sum, winner-take-all attitude. Democrats still think this is a high-school debate club, and that winning ideas wins campaigns.”

What did the debate show that was really new?

“Democrats have nominated a feeble, frail old man, but the choice is between that and a lying lunatic who is unhinged,” Madrid says. “Those are the choices. We’ve known all this for at least the past two years, so there was no new information in this debate. But somehow for people seeing that was jarring and unnerving.

“Biden had a weak performance, there’s no question about it, but so did Barack Obama, his first time as incumbent, and so did George W. Bush, and so did George Herbert Walker Bush. It’s not uncommon.

I think what happened is Democrats are reliving 2016: There’s this outpouring of deep-seated fear and grief and anxiety. If they’re not able to channel that into action they’re going to be paralyzed and they won’t win the race and they won’t win America forward. So many people are paralyzed by fear.”

On the flip side, if Democrats can make a few adjustments, Madrid believes Biden can defeat Trump nationally. His advice is to focus more on pocketbook issues and an optimistic vision for working families, not divisive cultural issues.

“Until the Democratic Party reengages as the idea of who they think they are, which is an FDR, New Deal, working man’s party, they’re going to continue to lose votes,” Madrid said last month in Sacramento at the launch party for his book.

Madrid rails against what he calls “sombrero politics,” which has been the standard Democratic approach to Latinos for generations, playing mariachi music and talking about farm workers and expecting that to play well with middle-class voters thinking about college for their kids.

Democrats get a lot of bad advice from so-called Latino experts, he thinks, and trip themselves up on even trivial details like what to call their Hispanic outreach effort. “Latino Americans for Trump” lands a lot better with working-class Hispanics than “Latinos con Biden-Harris.”

Given the potentially disastrous consequence of a Trump return to office (from increasingly compromised abortion rights to radical right-wing courts run amok to the likely de facto destruction of NATO with Putin puppet regimes targeted for Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Madrid’s warning has vital importance.

As he likes to point out, 10,000 new Latino voters are being added to the rolls every day, on average, a community with a dramatically different world view than the bitter, angry invective of aging white males, the group that drives support for Trump’s MAGA movement.

“The over-age-sixty-five cohort, which is much whiter, wealthier, educated, home-owning, has the most negative views of the country,” Madrid said in an interview. “A lot of them just believe America has gone anyway. Even though they’ve had all the privilege and all the blessings of the most comfortable generation America’s ever had, they (fear) they’re being replaced. They’re tearing it down on the right and the left. There’s just no confidence in it.

The Latinos are coming up going, well, we have this natural belief and trust in social institutions because of the way that we’re culturally constituted. That’s helpful. That’s that glue that a society needs to hold itself together.”

Madrid was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and played a decisive role in its work helping defeat Trump in 2020, but subsequently left the group and has no affiliation with it. He grew up admiring Reagan and, later, George W. Bush, but thinks the Republican Party of the Trump era represents a singular danger that could end up destroying the best in our democratic tradition, always deeply flawed, but at least aspirational.

“We need Electoral College reform,” he said. “We need campaign finance reform. We need ranked choice voting. Those all may or may not be true. …. But that’s not what’s going to save democracy.

What’s going to save democracy is literally us changing who we are and we’re blessed at this moment to see that literally our own DNA is changing, we are changing. America is changing, and it’s changing with the attributes we need to restore confidence and trust in those institutions.”

More immediately, key races in November will go down to states where Latino voters play a decisive role—especially in certain House races in California, for example Central Valley Republican Congressmen John Duarte and David Valadao both face tough reelection fights, as well as Nevada and Arizona.

For anyone in the Santa Cruz area who would like to see Trump lose in November and also wants to see Democrats flip the House of Representatives, removing Trump lackey Mike (“God talks directly to me, like Moses”) Johnson from his position as Speaker of the House, in favor of Biggie-quoting Hakeem Jeffries, Madrid recommends getting involved through phone-banking and door-to-door canvassing.

As a data expert who has been squinting through reams of poll data for decades, Madrid warns against following horse-race polling too closely. His own read of the data shows an advantage for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but it’s a narrow one.

On social media, Madrid—@Madrid-Mike at Twitter—has kept close tabs on the odd phenomenon of double-digit protest votes in Republican primaries, even after former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley pulled out of the race.

“The magic number for Trump is 10 percent,” Madrid tweeted in early June. “If Trump is losing more GOP votes than that on Election Day he’s very likely toast. It may not sound like much but that kind of hemorrhaging isn’t unprecedented but you gotta go back pretty deep to get to those numbers in presidential history.”

The struggle at hand is about much more than just winning one election, though in this case, democracy itself will likely rise or fall this November.

Ron Steslow, a fellow Lincoln Project cofounder—who now has a popular podcast, politicology.com—had this to say about Madrid’s message in The Latino Century: “In the right hands, with the skill and courage to wield it, this book is a weapon for winning—not just campaigns, but the battle for the soul of our nation.”

Madrid believes there are serious risks to Democrats in emphasizing progressive issues that turn off more centrist voters.

The very term “Latinx” bothers him, since it’s used by a very small number of Latinos. “The problem with a lot of white, college-educated progressives is they’re so unrelatable now to these constituencies that they’re literally speaking a different language,” Madrid said in an interview.

“People of color is part of that. It is a meaningless term, and I don’t want to suggest that African-Americans specifically consciously use the term the coalition builds because they knew that they were numerically never going to have the numbers.

“At a time when they were trying to break through, it’s been in use really since about the ’70s. They were trying to add other people to the coalition to make their case more and push more. The problem is it equates the quote-unquote oppression of all of these people as one and the same and even worse, it creates a binary structure where what it really means is non-white.

“That’s a meaningless term, especially for Latinos. Because again, the third- and fourth-generation Latinos, first of all, are racially white. Hispanics are white. We’re an ethnicity, not a race. That’s an important part of it.”

“The other part is when two thirds of Latinos by the third generation don’t see themselves as different than ‘a typical American,’ it’s not hard to infer that they don’t see themselves as people of color. They don’t see themselves as racially, even ethnically distinct.”

“It really comes down to the need of Democratic elites to explain their policy positions and their own projection of ethnic sensitivity as the primary issue through which non-white people view the world.”


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