January 16, 2004

Commentary

Latinos: A Growing Independent Political Group?

By Emmanuelle Le Texier

In the last fifty years, American politics has been through a silent and rarely described political change. The fact is individuals that identify themselves as politically independent now outnumber Democratic and Republican parties’ identification. All surveys carried out show that Independent affiliation grew tremendously from 24% of the population in 1952 to 40% today. Although these results do not mean the end of bipartisan politics, they might announce that Independent are today a swing vote in American politics. Interestingly enough, when studies identify Latinos in majority with the Democrats (usually about two thirds), their partisanship followed the same general trend since the 1970s. Latinos are increasingly choosing an Independent line.

On January 9th, during a conference entitled “Beyond the Middle: The Multiple Dimensions of Latino Political Independence”, organized by the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California - San Diego, political scientist Zoltan Hajnal (UCSD) provided some key explanations. Thanks to the analysis of a multi-dimensional survey, the researcher could mention preliminary results that may impact the future of Latino Politics in America.

Although conventional studies accounted that independent identification was almost exclusively a White phenomenon, Latinos provide a critical test case to understand the growing choice of being independent. First, they constitute the major immigrant group in the United States. Second, their ethnic or racial self-identification might determine their partisanship or non-partisanship. Third, they might also focus on a different set of issues not really covered by mainstream parties. Thus, Latinos’ choice of being politically independent might be much more political than meets the eye.

On the one hand, Latino independents could be characterized as apolitical, unable to make a decision between Republicans or Democrats because they lack of interest in politics, they don’t get information or they have a scarce knowledge of the political system (a reasoning usually applied to recent Latino immigrants). In that case, social isolation, residential segregation, low-income and educational levels, as well as low levels of assimilation will explain the increasing independent choice. This hypothesis means that the more acculturated Latinos are, the less independent they will be. Otherwise stated, Latinos would follow a linear evolution from being independent to being identified towards main party (and probably mainly to the Democratic Party, except for the Cubans leaning towards the Republican party).

On the other hand, Latinos independents could be characterized as critical political individuals. Being independent would result from a choice and a rejection of the traditional bipartisan American politics. Latinos, turned off by the two main parties, might decide not to be part of the current political system. This hypothesis challenges common visions of Latinos being apolitical and passive, because it means that Latinos can be equally familiar with the political system but influenced by their social group and by issues specific to their community. In particular, the feeling that racialization matters in the opportunities you have or the sense of link you develop with your community might affect strongly partisanship and political involvement. Sociologist Gabriela Sandoval, Visiting Scholar at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (UCSD) pointed out that this second perspective really challenges the three-stage process usually applied to Latino voters. The view that, along time and assimilation, Latinos will go from a position that states ‘I don’t know’ the system, to being independent (I know the system but I am not able to choose), and finally to traditional partisanship, is too simple.

The growing Latino demographics will definitely translate into changes for the U.S. political system. Latinos will be not only a swing vote for presidential and legislative elections courted by mainstream political parties. Their political independence might also transform the bipartisan system into a more open and multi-partisan system.

Emmanuelle Le Texier is a guest scholar, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Institut D’Etudes Politiques de Paris-France. She can be reached at eletexie@weber.ucsd.edu

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