Over the past two decades, Latinos in the United States have gone from being told that they did not belong in 2006, that they held the electoral balance of power in 2012, and finally back to rejection again with the election of President Trump in 2016. Changing societal messages and sometimes outright racism in the Trump era have affected political attitudes and participation, and Latinos are now more likely to follow and participate in politics despite having less trust in government, write Melissa R. Michelson (Menlo College) and Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti (California Lutheran University).
While barred from voting in US elections, undocumented immigrants can potentially participate in the political arena in many ways, such as attending meetings or joining protest marches and demonstrations. Previous research has found mixed evidence of the degree to which such participation occurs in the undocumented Latino community, and that it varies with political context, age at immigration, and undocumented collective identity.
Using a series of public opinion polls, we compare reported levels of political trust and rates of non-electoral political participation from 2012, after the reelection of Barack Obama, and from 2016-2017, after the election of Donald Trump. Overall, we find significant evidence that Latinos overall, including undocumented Latinos, were more cynical and more politically active in 2016 than in 2012.
Latino participation and democracy in the United States
The degree to which all residents of the United States, including citizens, permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants, are politically engaged is a reflection of the health of our democracy. As Irene Bloemraad notes in her book Becoming a Citizen:
“When residents of a country do not acquire citizenship or fail to participate in the political system, not only is the sense of shared enterprise undermined, but so too are the institutions of democratic government.”
Examining rates of participation among non-citizens in particular allows for consideration of the degree to which these new members of our society are being politically socialised into active membership.
Over the past decade, Latinos have experienced polar extremes in terms of societal messages about their degrees of belonging and political power. In 2006, Latinos were told that they did not belong. In 2012, they were told that they had the power to determine the outcome of the presidential election.
In response to this shifting context, Latinos were consistently politically active (e.g. the 2006 immigration marches), but their political attitudes shifted from cynical to more trusting, particularly among US citizens. Non-citizens and especially undocumented Latinos, in contrast, remained outsiders with high levels of cynicism.
In 2016, the political context shifted once again, particularly after Trump’s electoral victory. Trump entered the political arena in mid-June 2015 with an attack on Mexican immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists, and promised to build “a great wall” to keep them out. Chants of “build the wall!” became a staple of Trump’s campaign rallies and post-election town halls. Trump continued to make racist comments through to election day, and his anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions did not stop after he was sworn in as president.
Did Trump’s racism make Latinos more cynical about politics?
We hypothesised that this racism made Latinos more cynical (as a rational response to current events) and also more active (including increased political interest and reported participation) in empowering their communities. We expected to see these shifts among all Latinos, regardless of immigration status, including citizens, legal residents (documented non-citizens), and undocumented immigrants.
To examine Latinos’ interest in politics we used the 2012 Latino Immigrant National Election Study and the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey. As shown in Figure 1, interest in politics was much higher in 2016 than in 2012, across all types of Latino respondents.
Moving beyond reported interest to actual political behavior, both surveys asked respondents a similar set of questions about political activity across several types of political engagement, including attending protests, wearing a button or displaying a sign, and signing a petition. Overall, there is a clear pattern of increased participation on all items, as shown in Figures 2 to 4.
We also examined feelings of trust in government among LINES and CMPS respondents. As shown in Figure 5, in 2012 trust was strong across all three subgroups of Latinos: between one in four and one in five respondents said they trusted the government “just about always.” But just four years later, the CMPS registered much lower levels of trust in government, with fewer than one in 20 Latinos in any subgroup of respondents giving the “just about always” response. This is a significant drop in levels of trust.
Latinos in the Trump era
In 2012, Latinos were cautiously optimistic that a second term for Obama might bring immigration reform. The mass media proclaimed 2012 the year that Latinos would decide the presidential election, and the phrase “demography is destiny” suggested an even stronger political voice for the community as their numbers continued to increase.
Just four years later, however, the national mood had shifted dramatically. Trump’s campaign and early presidency were notably anti-immigrant and anti-Latino, with congress approving the first sections of border wall in Texas and California and increased enforcement of immigration law leading to front-page stories about deportations.
Latinos responded to this shift in the national context. Citizens, legal residents, and undocumented immigrants all reported increased levels of political interest, increased levels of non-electoral political behavior, and increased cynicism. This is no coincidence: Latinos were listening – both in 2012 and in 2016 – and their responses are logical reactions to the rhetoric and actions of Obama and Trump.
These data are an important reflection of how our political rhetoric and policies reflect our values as a country and our ability to live up to our reputation as a land of opportunity and a nation of immigrants. That Latinos across the spectrum of immigration status, including citizens, are now so cynical about their government is a troubling reflection of our ability to live up to our ideals.
• The views expressed here are of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Centre or of the LSE
• This article draws on the authors’ Back in the Shadows, Back in the Streets (PS: Political Science & Politics, 2018)
• This article originally appeared on the LSE USAPP blog
• Please read our Comments Policy before commenting