What the Government Shutdown can teach us about Latino Politics

By Victor Landa, NewsTaco

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” That’s brilliant. Stanford economist Paul Romer said that back in 2004 to a group of venture-capitalists – you know, the guys with boat loads of money looking for ways to make boat loads more. There’s prophesy in that statement, given the current political standoff.

I understand, there’s something vulture-like in the idea of scavenging an economic meltdown, looking for business carrion. But we aren’t surprised.

And we shouldn’t be surprised at the prospect of gaining advantage form a political crisis. Make no mistake, legislative paralysis; executive branch brinkmanship; government shutdown; and standing on the edge of a government default is a crisis. This isn’t the way our system was set up to work.

So what’s the opportunity?

That depends on who wins the political stare-down between the President and the handful of GOP fringe dwellers who’ve taken over the Republican Party. The point is that this political crisis has two defining characteristics: it’s manufactured and it’s finite. We didn’t need to get into this mess, and we will find our way out of it. We’ll just have to wait to see who wins.

So if we know this thing is going to end, one way or another, what can we learn from it? From a Latino perspective, lots.

There will be those who’ll argue that we shouldn’t separate Latino politics from the rest of the American body politic, and they’re right, we shouldn’t, and we’re not. We’re just looking at the whole from a particular perch on the political landscape.

How did we get here?

George Freidman wrote a spot-on analysis for Forbes of how our national politics ended up in the present mire. He takes us back to the 1970’s as a watershed era, when political power began changing from Political Bosses to  political funders and ideologues. It used to be that the party structures responded to and were propped up by local and regional bosses who chose state delegates, who in turn chose the delegates to the national conventions. Patronage and corruption were well oiled and efficient. It was in the bosses best interest to acquiesce to a middle road and compromise was an acceptable norm.

Then came a wave of reform, and state conventions were widely replaced by primary systems; bosses and regional chairmen no longer handpicked candidates. The leaders no longer controlled but rather presided over their parties. The old patronage system was replaced by the ability to raise money.  “The paradox of the reforms,” Friedman writes, “was that in breaking the power of the bosses, money became more rather than less important in the selection of candidates.” Power turned to the hands of the wealthy. And the wealthy poured money into ideology politics.

The idea had been to reform the system in order to return power to the people, but the people weren’t interested. Participation in primaries fell below 50 percent.

Keep in mind, this was in the 1070’s when the Latino population totaled 4 percent of the U.S. population.

Latinos have entered a very different political way of doing things.

As the Latino population has grown and matured politically (we have a long way to trudge on this path), the system of voter apathy and the prominence of money has entrenched. Add to that the emergence of digital media, ideology bubbles and gerrymandering and you have the present day polarized politics – and the government shutdown fiasco.

But after the fiasco is done there will be lessons to learn, especially for the Latino community, and there lies the opportunity.

Latinos aren’t positioned to take direct political advantage of this mess.

For all the talk of the potential Latino political power, we still don’t vote in the numbers we should. And the muscle we do have is far removed from the states and congressional districts that have sent the radical GOP-ers to Washington. Neither do we have the wealth or the habit of political contribution to grow and sustain political influence.

The opportunity is to recognize the voids and fill them:

  • Voter apathy doesn’t belong to the non-voter. Instead of lamenting that Latinos don’t vote, we should be asking what we can do to change that situation. Instead of asking why Latinos are apathetic we should own the answer, and ask Latinos that are plugged-in to get other Latinos to vote. The slogan shouldn’t be “Latinos need to vote,” it should be “Latinos should get other Latinos to vote.”
  • We need to create Latino wealth. I’m not talking about rich people, we have plenty of those. I’m talking about wealth that invests in community, and in politics. This is a long term proposition and there are many people working toward that end. PAC’s are formed, venture capitalists are investing in Latino start-ups and small businesses are growing at a fast rate.
    • According to a Tomas Rivera Policy Institute study “The number of Hispanic households earning more than $100,000 annually grew 126 percent from 1991-2000, compared with 77 percent for the general population.”
    • Poverty is still a major concern, I’m not attempting to down-play that fact. But poverty and it’s tired narrative aren’t the only story worth telling. We need to create a new narrative centered on possibility, contributions and a future that includes Latino prosperity.
  • Latinos need to foster a community habit of philanthropy. We give at church and we buy plates at fundraisers, but we have yet to embrace the idea of funding our own politics. The truth is that  we may have Latino candidates, but as long as they’re funded by non-Latinos they dance for whoever is paying for the band. Digital technology gives us the possibility of long-tail political contribution, where many people, contributing a little can equal the force of heavy-donor ideologues.

For Latinos, the opportunity wrapped in the shutdown is a clear path. There is no guessing at what needs to be done. The politics of decades past no longer work in today’s environment – as much as the tried and true methods have served us in the past, national politics has turned a corner and we must turn with it: Voter registration and participation must become a personal thing among those already registered and voting – not something left to institutions; Political empowerment only works if it’s led by economic empowerment;  And we must learn to fund our own politics, on both sides of the aisle – leading by example and using technology to make political donation accessible to all ($5 given by 1000 people equals one $5000 contribution, and we have the numbers to make it happen).

This political tantrum in Washington will pass. What will we learn from it?

[Phto by  United States Government Work]

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