Originally Published in National Review
David L. Leal - April 1, 2021
The GOP should return to its modern roots in Reagan
We have all heard that Latinos turned California blue. According to the familiar story, Governor Pete Wilson and California Republicans played nativist politics in the 1990s by supporting Proposition 187 and other Latino-bashing ballot initiatives. The strategy was a short-term success but a long-term disaster. While Republicans made gains in the 1994 elections, the hunter became the hunted: Latinos mobilized in reaction, overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party, and realigned California politics. As Latino and immigrant populations continue to grow, Republicans fall further behind every year.
If this story is true, then the California GOP has no realistic path to power. At best, it must hope for a quirky set of circumstances that bring an occasional Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s mansion. If the story is more complicated, as this essay argues, then a political way forward exists despite the irreversible demographic transformation of the state. In short, the state GOP can attract new voters and rebuild a conservative coalition by reinventing itself in the image of Reagan, the two-term governor and immigrant-friendly optimist who championed the opportunity society.
The question of what happened in California is crucial to understanding the political implications of demographic change in the U.S. In the 21st century, almost all of America’s population growth will consist of “minorities,” which collectively constitute a majority in a growing number of states. According to the “demography as destiny” theory — eagerly anticipated by Democrats but feared by Republicans — minority and immigrant voters will power a blue wave that realigns national politics in a progressive direction. According to this domino theory, California is just the first in a series of states that will fall to Democrats.
Some conservatives see a dystopian future of Anglo population decline, minority and immigrant population growth, and increasing support for socialism and “cultural Marxism.” This is called “replacement” in nativist-populist circles, and the end result is America somehow becoming Nueva Cuba.
This is hogwash, of course. As with so many political tales, the reality turns out to be more complicated. In particular, the claim that Latinos and immigrants are die-hard Democrats and ideological leftists who will change America is false to the point of slander. The political future of California and America is not, and never has been, preordained by population change.
The claim that California politics was reshaped by the ballot initiatives of the 1990s is debatable. One reason is that it does not clearly map onto election results. We do not see a simple pattern of one party losing or gaining in the 1990s and 2000s. While Republicans did make gains in statewide offices and the state legislature in 1994, the national red wave of that year may have been more consequential than Proposition 187. While this was followed by Democratic gains in subsequent elections, that appears more like a return to the status quo than a new blue wave.
In addition, the political reaction to the ballot initiatives of the 1990s was concentrated among Latino immigrants, not the Latino population more generally. This is problematic for Democrats because it suggests that the impact of the “Latino” political reaction is limited. If the party’s advantage is strongest among newer arrivals, they have the extra hurdle of naturalization before they can vote.
While Democratic gains were evident by the 2010s, we cannot assume that this is only about Latinos. Two events happened in the 1990s that changed California’s electorate. The first was the end of the Cold War and the resulting decline in spending and employment in the California defense industry. (Remember the movie Falling Down?) At the same time, the tech industry boomed, attracting a large number of workers, including many migrants from other parts of the country and immigrants from abroad. The state therefore saw conservatives leaving; liberals and libertarians entering; and Latino, Asian-American, and immigrant populations growing. None of these changes was good for the GOP, but the story was not simply about Latinos and ballot initiatives.
Both the Left and the Right are invested in a narrative of Latinos who do not assimilate. Liberals need Latinos to remain distinctive, while conservatives drastically underestimate their ability and motivation to assimilate. You would not know it from the political debate, but research overwhelmingly finds that over time and across the generations, Latinos have moved to the mainstream across key social, economic, and political dimensions.
Some on the left and some on the right also believe that Latinos are ideological leftists who want socialism and open borders. In reality, Latinos are best understood as a New Deal electorate, a bread-and-butter constituency; they resemble the ethnic Italian and Irish voters of the 20th century more than they resemble today’s Hollywood liberals. They have relatively low levels of income and education, so they mostly support the party that says we’re from the government and we’re here to help. But over time, as Latinos, Asian Americans, and immigrants achieve the American dream, they will be increasingly open to the message that the government that governs best, governs least, as many of them already are.
Latino values are therefore American values, and immigrants want to achieve the American dream, not change it. If Republicans seem hostile to immigrants, the party will leave millions of votes on the table.
Luckily for the GOP, Democrats seem determined to underperform with Latinos. The party takes them for granted, fails to understand their beliefs and motivations, neglects them until the end of election cycles, engages in questionable outreach tactics, and hopes for turnout miracles that never happen. Democratic ineptitude all but invites the GOP to move in and make gains with Latino and immigrant voters, which actually happened in 2020 despite predictions to the contrary.
For California Republicans who want to win elections and shape policy (as opposed to spreading conspiracy theories and “owning the libs”), the answer is staring them in the face. Reagan showed the philosophical compatibility — and electoral potential — of pro-immigrant politics and principled conservatism.
Reagan not only signed into law the large 1986 amnesty and never regretted it, but he also welcomed the world to America. In 1952, he said that “any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel half across the world was welcome here.” In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, in describing his vision of America as the “shining city,” he said that “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” In a 1984 presidential debate, Reagan said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.”
Realistically, no other path exists. Just hoping for occasional victories based on Democratic overreach is an admission of defeat.
Imagine a California GOP that broke away from the tone and in some cases the substance of the national GOP. Imagine a party that emphasized “compassionate conservatism” and “the opportunity society” to expand the conservative coalition in a way that worked in hyper-diverse California.
As part of this effort, the party might consider the following: actively welcome people from across America and around the globe who believe in these ideals. See the diverse voters who are open to a principled conservative message of smaller government, lower taxes, lighter regulation, timeless values, local communities, and personal freedom. Argue that Democrats divide the pie while Republicans make it bigger. Cultivate a new generation of Latino, Asian-American, and immigrant leaders. Take a page from the LIBRE Initiative, which is busy making the case for opportunity and freedom to Latinos.
This might lead to fractures among current party supporters, but if a business is spiraling toward bankruptcy, you either close it or change the product.
California Republicans, maybe to their own surprise, can build on a long history of connections to minority and immigrant communities. In 1875, Romualdo Pacheco (R., Calif.) became the state’s first Latino governor (he remains its only one) and was subsequently the first Latino in the U.S. Congress to represent a state. The first Latino outreach by a presidential campaign was Eisenhower’s effort to recruit Mexican-American veterans in California. The late Matt Fong, the son of long-time Democratic secretary of state March Fong Eu, was a Republican state treasurer in the 1990s; his career illustrated how party allegiances can shift across the generations. And we all remember Arnold, the two-term governor and Republican immigrant in an era of supposed Democratic dominance. The Pacheco-Eisenhower-Reagan-Fong-Schwarzenegger legacy is a counter-narrative to the Pete Wilson–Proposition 187 story, if the party is willing to use it.
A Latino and immigrant-friendly approach might also convince more Anglos to support the party. Such an effort would recognize that many such voters want to support the party of limited government but do not want to be associated with an unnecessarily divisive politics. Some believe that by his outreach to Latinos, George W. Bush not only attracted a record-high level of the Latino vote but also enhanced his support among Anglo independents and moderates.
Republicans often forget that, despite the anti-immigrant elements in the party, a significant share of Latinos nevertheless supports GOP candidates. For instance, the 2018 California exit polls indicate that 36 percent of Latino (and 35 percent of Asian-American) voters supported the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Two years later, 23 percent of California Latinos (and 22 percent of Asian Americans) supported Trump — a much smaller number, but even that share was not trivial. This is not a bad base, and the numbers are inconsistent with the story of Latinos as implacably and uniformly opposed to Republicans because of Proposition 187.
Republicans do not need to receive every Latino and immigrant vote — just enough to create a winning coalition. Rebuilding a conservative coalition that can win in California may be a slow process. Democrats did not make electoral gains overnight because of Latino and immigrant population growth, and Republicans will not reverse them immediately. Over time, as Latinos and immigrants continue to assimilate in the classic American manner, they will be increasingly open to the Reagan message, as many already are.