Latinos contribute much to American society. Our culture, economy, and public service wouldn’t be as rich without them. Does our political system recognize this contribution by taking their interests into account in making laws and policies? I’m not sure, but I believe we’re often looking in the wrong place to find out.
Representation of Latinos involves much more than simply casting ballots. It’s a constant effort to organize around their interests—which are many—and convey their wishes to the decision-makers as well as to find out what is possible from them. Decision-makers, in writing laws and making policies, require accurate and constantly updated information about what the people want, how they will react to decisions. The links need to be flexible and constantly changing to keep up with changing conditions and divisions among Latinos. This constant communication with constantly changing channels is the core of representation, not electing a delegate who may change his mind.
In recent weeks, Obama and Romney have been courting the “Latino vote.” One might think that this is where the action is relevant to Latino representation. Latinos presumably want broadly sympathetic presidents, congressmen, and state and local officials. Elections are an obvious way of securing that form of representation. But it is a very blunt instrument. Latino voters will not agree which candidate will represent their interests, nor be able to make sure that in fact the positive rhetoric of the candidate toward them will turn into policy. Think of George W. Bush’s positive attitudes and “promises” to the Latino community before his election in 2000. They barely affected policy once elected. This is not a comment on Bush’s character, since 9/11 and two invasions intervened. But it is a comment on the limits of elections as instruments for representation.
Latinos do find other channels of influence in politics, as do any industry association, labor union, professional organization, regional grouping, or religious group. Latinos, only sometimes led by formally elected congressional representatives, are in many different associations that connect with important decision networks. Representation of Latino interests depend on whether Latinos are incorporated, and whether those who are include the broad interests of Latinos among their demands.
Many Latinos are not citizens and cannot vote, reinforcing the need to develop flexible representation. Non-citizen Latinos are not only illegal immigrants, but also vast numbers of Latino businessmen, diplomats, traders, tourists, entertainers, engineers, and students. Many people important for policy cannot participate in elections because in many fields of work, entertainment, study, production, trade, and research, there are a significant number of non-citizens. They are brought in because they wish to participate, but also because to make rational law and policy, decision-makers need to know what crucial non-citizens are thinking. They have to find a way to bring in what I call “quasi-citizens”: people who are not formally citizens, but who have enough of a stake in the laws and policies being made to actively participate in the decision networks that lead to decisions. Even in the unlikely and immoral case that we wish a system will rule only for the benefit of non-Latinos, there is a need for the connections that constitute representation of the quasi-citizens. Many important Latinos fall into this category. They play a big role in our culture, society, and politics.
Latino culture is a large part of our own. I remember learning many years ago that sales of salsa had overtaken ketchup. I knew things were changing—for the better.
There are millions of Latinos working here. Migrants constitute a significant part of the agricultural and service work force. Latinos also have a substantial presence in the medical, legal, academic, and other professions. They are in many businesses. In public service, a great number of Latinos are in teaching, public services, and the military. They need to be represented politically, because they are part of us.
To assess whether Latinos are making themselves felt in politics, we need to spend less time on Latino voting rates, citizenship statistics, and share of congressional seats. We need to explore more how Latinos, citizens and quasi-citizens, play the game of influence in the many, changing decision networks of our polity.
The author is a professor of political science emeritus. He is the author of “Reforming Democracies: Six Facts About Politics That Demand a New Agenda,” which will be released in January 2013.
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