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The GOP’s Latina/o Strategy: A Mirror for Catholic Social Ethics

The GOP’s Latina/o Strategy: A Mirror for Catholic Social Ethics

Nichole M. Flores


Even while the 2016 presidential election is still more than a year away, pundits have begun to predict who will become the 45th President of the United States. In particular, observers are preoccupied with questions pertaining to the role Latina/o voters will play in the race. The GOP’s response to its lagging appeal among Latinas/os reveals a deeper issue pertaining to the party’s relationship with Latina/o communities: while Republicans are willing to talk about Latinoas/os, they fail to cultivate any meaningful relationships with Latinas/os that would help define a platform that responds to their critical concerns in ways that respect and protect human dignity. Further, the GOP’s ineptitude in considering let alone forging relationships among Latina/o and other racialized communities reveals an uncomfortable truth about methodology in our own discipline: ethicists similarly fail to foster relationships with Latinas/os that ought to shape and inform our responses to social issues facing Latina/o communities. Cultivating solidaristic relationships—those defined by participation, mutuality, equality, and vulnerability—is necessary for generating a substantive response to the concerns of the Latina/o communities rather than a cosmetic one.


The GOP, reeling from its failure to respond to shifting national demographics including the increased influence of the Latina/o vote, shifted into crisis mode after the 2012 general elections. Party administrators frantically convened a study to identify a better strategy for appealing to this bloc. The study concluded that the difficulty originated in a lack of understanding among Latinas/os of the party’s platform rather than the content of the platform itself. The GOP takeaway from the study was “It’s not us, it’s you.” Latina/o GOP surrogates Alex Castellanos and Ana Navarro thus took to national speaking circuits to translate the GOP platform to Latinas/os. Navarro addressed the necessity of adopting a less restrictive social platform and respecting the intelligence of Latina/o voters by making appeals through policy rather than cultural pandering. Castellanos promoted his brand of “New Republicanism,” arguing that the conservative agenda can attract younger voters—including the 50,000 native-born Latinas/os who turn 18 and become eligible to vote each month—through emphasis on what he calls “organic” solutions to economic, political and social issues. These rebranding efforts have been accompanied by an earnest search for Republican presidential candidates who are culturally competent with Latinas/os.


The GOP has bet the farm on this strategy, but the party’s own presidential candidates threaten to topple it before the first primary ballot is cast.  Despite some of the candidates’ familiarity with Latina/o culture and fluency in Spanish, their rebranding efforts are frustrated by, for example, Donald Trump’s inflammatory claim that all Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. Trump’s racist comments ignited a searing response from Latina/o leaders. Even so, Trump’s vitriol catapulted him into an early lead among GOP candidates, an advantage bolstered by support from nativist voters. If his strategy proves successful, then we can expect to see other GOP candidates adopt similar policies that idolize the exclusionary status quo over individual and communal flourishing among the citizenry.


The GOP establishment is thus rightfully terrified by Trump’s success in early polling. Yet, this intra-party struggle reveals a more basic problem: the GOP’s Latina/o strategy failed to eradicate fundamental biases that adhere to race and immigration status that are affirmed by many candidates and voters. A part of this failure can be attributed to an inadequate method for engaging Latinas/os. While there is a great deal of talk about the significance of their ballots, there is very little conversation with Latinas/os about the conditions which prevent genuine political participation and empowerment. These relationships are risky to the status quo since solidarity could lead to substantive changes to the GOP agenda on issues such as immigration, human trafficking, racism, education and poverty, and international economic policy. The GOP’s failure to cultivate genuine relationships and solidarity with Latina/o communities continues to dictate the deeply entrenched biases of the party’s platform instead.


U.S. political dynamics often hold up a mirror to Catholic theological ethics, revealing our own disciplinary politics and methodological shortcomings. In the case of the GOP’s bankrupt Latina/o strategy, this mirror illuminates an ongoing methodological issue that hinders adequate engagement with Latinas/os in Catholic social ethics: even as we recognize the burgeoning presence of Latina/o Catholics in the U.S.—almost half of Millennial Catholics are Latina/o—we too are accustomed to talking about Latinas/os rather than talking with and attending together to the nuances of Latina/o experience in responding to the urgent issues in Latina/o communities. Indeed, sincere concern for Latina/o flourishing can expose a cultural and methodological ineptitude threatening our discipline. For example, Latina/o theologians and ethicists have often been left out of conversations and collaborative projects about immigration, despite the necessity to eradicate odious forms of anti-Mexican and anti-Latina/o racism.  How can theological ethics foster conversation with Latinas/os that better supports theological inquiry and the societal common good? By attending to contextual experience in the place of the often lone albeit lofty abstract thought, even as the discipline strives to identify normative claims that undergird social justice. Failure to do so threatens the future of our discipline in a rapidly changing ecclesial context.