Monday, February 7, 2011

The Structuring of Latino Politics

AS THE 2010 MIDTERM CONGRESSIONAL elections approached, attention to the role of Latinos in the electoral process increased accordingly. This is a familiar pattern, not only in the popular media, both the English and Spanish versions, but also among mainstream academics and political organizations. The format and framing of these works represent a continuation of the approach adopted by the numerous studies that have documented the growth and behavior in the Latino electorate, particularly since the early 1990s. These concerns focus on turnout, partisan loyalties and attitudes, pending or ongoing policy issues, elections or electability of Latino candidates, identifying local, statewide, and national elections in which Latino voters have the potential be the "swing" vote, etc. Although researchers differ in their assessments of the success or failure of these efforts, the underlying assumption of the vast majority of these studies is that the electoral process in the U.S. has the potential to promote the "interests" of Latino communities.
Yet there are few efforts to situate these electoral processes within their broader structural context. The result is a truncated and limited view of Latino politics. Although Latino electoral behaviors and trends are important phenomena, they do not occur in an institutional vacuum, and they represent only one dimension of Latino politics, which encompasses a much broader terrain defined by the multiple levels and forms by which Latinos act politically. A wide range of actions are undertaken by Latino community and neighborhood groups, community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, home associations, immigrant rights groups, student organizations, labor groups (often linked to domestic and other non-unionized service sectors), and professional organizations to advance their concerns and to affect policies and practices of both state structures and institutions of civil society within which their daily lives are carried out.
The kinds of actions undertaken and policies promoted by these kinds of organizations imply a normative concept of Latino politics that has as its ultimate goal the full incorporation in all spheres of U.S. society and that views electoral behavior as an indispensable but also limited mechanism for pursuing this goal. It is this dimension of full incorporation, then, rather than any particular pattern of electoral behavior, that should be the measure of success in Latino politics. What is most often missing from works that emphasize the primacy of electoral activity is any sustained and detailed discussion of how electoral behavior is linked to this more fundamental question of incorporation. And the discourse that focuses most directly on the level and nature of incorporation is that of political membership and citizenship. So it is really the issue of full and effective citizenship that provides the underlying normativity of Latino politics that is typically not addressed in studies or discussions of Latino electoral activity or patterns.
The challenge, then, is to develop modes of analysis that incorporate this broader conception of Latino politics and to understand how state, economic, and cultural power both affect the degree of Latino incorporation and often limit the possibilities and strategies for social and political change. We must, in other words, locate today's Latino politics within the context of the neoliberal agenda, which has sought to define economic and political policies since the late 1970s.

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