Latino politics scholar Gary Segura

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The widely published scholar unpacks the text he co-authored, Latino America, about the Hispanic influence on American politics.

Gary Segura is co-founder of the polling and research firm, Latino Decisions, described by Time in 2012 as the "gold-standard in Latino American polling." He's an American politics professor and Chicano/a-Latina/o Studies chair at Stanford, whose work focuses on issues of political representation and the politics to America’s growing Latino population. He's directed polling research that has completed over 80,000 interviews of Americans of all backgrounds and was one of the principal investigators of the Latino National Survey in 2006. Segura is also co-author of Latino America, which addresses the potential of the Latino community to drive the outcome of elections as soon as 2016.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So there is an argument to be made that no single ethnic group will have more influence on the future of American politics than Hispanics with the midterm elections just around the corner now. Courting the Hispanic vote may just be the key to winning both houses of Congress into the future.

Taking a deep dive into this territory is a tome titled “Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation” co-written by Matt Barreto and Gary Segura who joins me now. Professor Segura is professor of American Politics and chair of Chicano Latino Studies at Stanford University. Gary Segura, good to have you on this program.

Gary Segura: I’m glad to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: The word that jumped out for me – ’cause I’ve had these conversations so many times over the years – but the word that jumps out in your subtitle is “poised.” “How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation.”

They’ve been poised for quite some time, poised to do it. When do you think we’re going to start to see the impact – and maybe we already have, to your mind – of that influence?

Segura: Oh, I think we’ve already started to see some of it. In 2012, Latinos provided the margin of victory for Barack Obama, first time in the entire history of Latino voting. If Latinos had voted 50-50 or even 60-40, Obama would not have won the popular vote. So it’s the first time in history that Latinos could plausibly claim to have been pivotal.

That said, they’ve been pivotal in California and New Mexico and in other places in the United States for quite some time and are becoming pivotal in places that we wouldn’t even think of in the past. Like they could be outside the margin of victory in Kansas in this cycle or North Carolina. So Latinos are actually having influence in places that we don’t normally think of them.

Tavis: Given the deportations and the delay on meaningful immigration reform, do you think the Hispanic community is regretting that vote for Barack Obama?

Segura: I don’t think regretting, but I would say that the administration has been a source of frustration for Latino leaders and for Latino voters alike. Of course, Latinos don’t see that they have an awful lot in the way of options. The Republican Party’s rhetoric with respect to anti-immigration, sometimes anti-Latino rhetoric, is actually quite divisive and quite off-putting.

The Obama administration has done a number of things that the Latino population like. The Affordable Care Act is wildly popular. But the deportations are a definite problem and this most recent delay represents the third in a string of broken promises.

Tavis: I’ve said consistently – and this goes back many, many years. I’ve been at this for a lot of years now. I’ve said consistently, in my lifetime at least, that the Democratic Party takes Black voters for granted and the Republican Party all but ignores us. That line is starting to be applicable to the Hispanic community.

Segura: I think that’s a fear. I think that there are sort of three possible futures for Latinos, one of which is awful. And the awful future is the one that we have now where it’s a 70% to 75% Democratic constituency, but it is under-mobilized because neither party is investing in it.

But there are two possible futures. One is a 70-30 or 75-25 Democratic constituency that is highly mobilized and that the party is invested in. And the other alternative is a mobilized constituency that’s about 60-40 where the Republican Party has toned back their rhetoric and appealed to that portion of the Latino electorate that is winnable for them.

Tavis: My mind goes back to Jessie Jackson’s campaign. I was just a kid then when he ran in ’84 and ’88 and I remember the question being asked a thousand times. As a matter of fact, it was either Newsweek or Time magazine, I think Newsweek. One of the magazines put it on the cover of their magazine.

The question was, “What does Jessie want?” What does Jessie want? It couldn’t have been that Jessie was just running to be elected, but it was the question of what does Jessie want. I pose that question now to the Hispanic community, not that you can speak with one voice for all of them, but what does the Hispanic community want?

Segura: Well, at our last meeting [laugh]…

Tavis: Exactly.

Segura: It’s actually not a particularly radical set of requests. What Latinos want is really what Americans want. They want a decent job. They want their kids to go to quality schools that are effective in teaching. They want safe streets. They want affordable healthcare. That’s really the base needs of a community that’s still very heavily blue collar, very heavily working class.

And not unlike other working class communities of color and among whites, these basic necessities are still the central demands of politics that Latinos are focused on.

Tavis: What does it mean, then, that those demands on the part of the Hispanic community are the same demands that the rest of America has?

Segura: Well, I think that means two things. The first is that those who are engaged in the sort of fear-mongering that Latinos are somehow or another different than other Americans and are culturally not suited to fit into American society, that’s just cultural racism. It plays no real connection to reality. These are folks who have the same concerns and the same needs as all other Americans.

But the second thing is it makes possible coalition politics. The Latinos can work within the structure of both political parties provided those political parties reach out and try to include them.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, Gary, but what do you make of the fact that the Republican Party clearly has, if they were to choose it – it’s like “Mission Impossible.” Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to put forth a platform and to put forth policies, Republican Party, that the Hispanic community would find of interest.

So, given how disappointed they’ve been in the Democratic Party not really stepping up as they thought they would, it’s like a good running back. You see a hole, you run through it. Why do the Republicans not run through that hole?

Segura: I think there are a couple of different reasons for that. The first is American political parties are not top-down and hierarchical. No one’s in charge. George W. Bush, love him or hate him, really understood that Latino growth was an opportunity for the GOP, but the rest of the team wasn’t really on board.

So even though George W. Bush got 40% of the Latino vote in 2004, by the end of 2005, the House of Representatives authored a really Draconian anti-immigration bill which set into motion the 2006 immigration marches and widespread Latino mobilization on behalf of the Democrats in 2006. So there’s not a unified party.

The second is – and I think you’ve talked about this before – that the GOP has made a little bit of a deal with the devil dating all the way back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and that is knowing that their economic platform is not majoritarian. They have to pull together a majority based on some other issue and part of that has been race going back to Nixon’s strategy.

So the entire segregationist wing of the Democratic Party moved into the GOP and, during Barack Obama’s two elections, somewhere between 85 and 98% of white voters in Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana voted for the Republican nominee not because they’re all well-to-do, but because they had other motives, right? If the Republicans were to reach out across racial lines, would it cost them some of those working class whites?

Tavis: Let me use your phrase, Gary, like or loath. Whether one likes it or loathes it – and I have done both from time to time – it is the case that, in the African American community, we are wed to charismatic personalities.

I wonder whether or not one of the ways to usher in this Latino transformation, one of the ways for them to move from being poised to being really about the business of affecting our politics, is for the right personalities to show up. Is that the way in? And if that is the way in, in part, are those personalities already on the scene?

‘Cause I could throw names at you. I won’t do that. You know them better than I do. But I’m just trying to get at to what extent personalities will start to open up. I mean, she’s not running for office, but, my God, I look at what Justice Sotomayor has done. You get my point, though.

Segura: I do. Latino political leadership has not been as charismatic or as individualism sort of driven as African American political leadership has been over the last 30 or 40 years. There’s a lot of sort of middle rank Latino players, but no really national figure in the way that, for example, Jessie Jackson was a national figure, Al Sharpton was a national figure.

And neither was Barack Obama, interestingly, right? So this was a state senator 10 years ago and now he’s a second term President of the United States. So I think the Latino reality is going to be something similar to that. Someone should emerge…

Tavis: There’s a young kid out of San Antonio, though, who’s now in Washington who is being pushed by the party, by nobody else.

Segura: That’s right. And so there are a couple of different folks who could be promoted to the ticket and it’s possible, even likely, that one or both political parties will have a Latino on the ticket in 2016.

And Joaquin Castro and Julian Castro, most notably the latter who’s now the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, are names that get kicked around a lot. In some respects, they may be even more likely because they’re from Texas and so what’s their next job? Because statewide office is a ways away.

Tavis: As I look at this subtitle again, how this community is poised to transform the politics of the nation, it occurs to me that’s what some folk are scared of, that the politics of the nation are going to be transformed when this community comes into its fullness. So when you say transform the politics of the nation, what do you mean by that?

Segura: What I mean is that while demography is not destiny, it can certainly shape and constrain the realm of the possible. Latinos have gone from 3.4% of the electorate when Bill Clinton was elected to 10% of the electorate last year. By the 2020 or ’24 election, we’re talking about 15% more.

And in the meantime, the GOP gets nine out of every 10 votes from non-Hispanic whites and that population is shrinking. So until and unless that party finds a way to grow its base at the presidential level, the Democrats are going to have quite a good time.

Tavis: But should the country be “scared” of that transformation?

Segura: Well, I’m maybe the wrong person to ask [laugh] because I’m a Latino. But I actually don’t think so. I think that everything that I know about Latinos, which is quite a lot and I’ve devoted my life to it…

Tavis: You’ve been Latino your whole life, I take it [laugh].

Segura: I’ve been Latino my whole life. But more importantly, I’ve been studying them for quite some time. You know, this is an incredibly dedicated, hardworking population whose children come first, who want more than anything to find a way into the middle class and to home ownership, into a job that good benefits and a comfortable lifestyle. They want their kids to go to school, and even those undocumented aliens that we hear so much negative about are really people who came to look for a job.

Tavis: It’s a book you might want to consider reading. It’s called “Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation,” co-written by Matt Barreto and our guest tonight, Professor Gary M. Segura. Gary, good to have you on the program. Congrats on the text.

Segura: Thank you very much.

Tavis: Thanks for coming on.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: October 23, 2014 at 12:17 pm