Policy, Please: A Gen Z Perspective on Hispandering and the 2020 Democratic Debate

Hugo Balta

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By Eva-Marie Quinones

“La sit … la situation ahora es inaceptable.”

If any viewers of the first night of the Democratic primary debate heard a low, guttural sound in the distance as Cory Booker launched into his remarks on President Trump’s attitudes towards immigrants, it was likely millions of Hispanics groaning at his mediocre attempt to court Spanish-speaking voters (the debate was simulcast in Spanish on Telemundo, so there was no accessibility issue).

Only 2% of Latino voters said the candidate’s ability to speak Spanish as important to them in a UnidosUS poll. But speaking Spanish (apparently, regardless of the quality of said Spanish) is a clear signaling mechanism, a way to show voters a candidate is presente without any substantive policy work to improve the position of Hispanics in America.

In previous times when Latinos were not considered a key voting bloc this may have been sufficient, but blatant Hispandering — attempting to court the Latino vote via obvious overtures to key demographic aspects of the Hispanic community that have little impact beyond rhetorical persuasiveness — is no longer an effective way to capture voters. We want better.


First, there are the issues that disproportionately affect Latinx Americans (thanks, Elizabeth Warren,for ensuring nonbinary members of a population with a large LGBTQ+ community were included in your language). Immigration is a key issue here.Only Michael Bennett said crossing the border should remain a criminal rather than civil offense, while John Hickenlooper said that women and children should remain detained together rather than ending the process of detention, a callous lack of consideration for the desperation of asylum seekers making the difficult journey to the border. This instantly placed these already-unpopular candidates at the bottom of my rankings: a cage is still a cage even if your mother is in that cage with you.

On the first night, Julian Castro emerged as a standout candidate by suggesting crossing the border should be neither a civil nor criminal offense, presenting a plan to provide a pathway to citizenship,and acknowledging the need to decrease push factors for immigration by investing in the Northern Triangle to combat violence and create economic opportunity via what he termed “A Marshall Plan for Central America,” which Booker echoed.Kamala Harris also presented a strong plan to reform immigration on the second night: she supported reinstating DACA, deferring deportation for parents of DACA recipients and veterans, and banning private detention centers, while highlighting Joe Biden’s association with the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had not committed any crimes under Obama.

Improving status of people of color

What policies would a nominee adopt as President to improve the status of people of color? Though not every candidate had the time to answer, Amy Klobuchar’s answer was a noted flop: Klobuchar talked about economic opportunity for all and policies to improve education opportunities and childcare for single parents, which will help low-income individuals that are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, but mentioned no clear, targeted policy to address community-specific problems. Again it was Castro that performed the best, noting that even if educational outcomes improved and low-income workers had better support services and wages, discrimination would still be a barrier;because the Latinx community faces violence from the police as many African-Americans do, policing must be reformed and an agenda of racial justice must be implemented. A rising tide won’t lift all boats equally, and Castro and Booker were clear to recognize that.

With three million people denied voting rights and a poverty rate nearly double that of Mississippi, the poorest American territory, Puerto Rico should be a top national priority, but it clearly isn’t. Julian Castro was the only candidate to mention Puerto Rico on the first night when he discussed a plan to fight rising sea levels and extreme weather that have battered the islands. It was disappointing to see Beto O’Rourke discuss plans to combat disenfranchisement without discussing the only American population with a 100% disenfranchisement rate: residents of American territories.

But Hispanics don’t just care about Hispanic issues.

I’m not just Hispanic, I’m American, and I care about the economic prosperity and security of the American state as much as (or even more) than anything else because despite the ham-handedness of her response, Amy Klobuchar was correct in that poverty reduction and a war on inequality will mitigate social ills and improve everyone’s well-being. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, excelled at proffering policy-driven solutions to support the poor and middle class via an expanded social safety net, improved early childhood education, and healthcare reform (I found Bernie Sanders’ solutions lacked the nuance and polish Warren and Booker presented on the first night, unfortunately). Their policies offer differing degrees of welfare state expansionism and there are clear ideological divides present, but voters should look towards any of these candidates as top contenders to deliver strong programmatic reforms.

Climate Change

No candidate stood out as particularly effective on climate change, not even so-called “climate change candidate” Jay Inslee; all candidates agreed climate change was a problem but offered no targeted solutions other than a vague commitment to “international agreements.”  On foreign policy, Castro, Booker, and Tulsi Gabbard shone, but Gabbard’s previous homophobia disqualifies her for me and many other Gen Z’ers. Pete Buttigieg offered fewer specific policy solutions but framed his approach that showed careful consideration of American values and a unique appeal to a combination of cosmopolitan and Midwestern values.

It is without a doubt that Julian Castro offered the most comprehensive plan to help Hispanics in America excel. But while Castro was notable, he failed to be exemplary with regards to economic issues in the same way Warren and Booker were. He is similar to Kamala Harris in that his policies were generic but well-rehearsed, and similar to Pete Buttigieg in that he’s able to make relate any question to fundamental American values and demonstrates a capacity to serve as a moral as well as a political leader. If Hispanics want the most progress for members of our own ethnic group, Castro is the clear choice, but it’s unclear he’s the best choice for America writ large.

Instead of flocking to Castro in blind allegiance, we should evaluate the totality of his domestic and foreign policy,and urge other presidential candidates to adopt similar policies and lend a similarly high level of consideration to the Hispanic community. Such a discrepancy in the level of consideration given to Latinos in the first debate was disappointing: it’s not enough to have one candidate with a Latino-oriented platform; they all must be similarly committed to engendering Latino progress so that the community succeeds regardless of which candidate received the nomination and voters have the most choice in selecting a candidate that represents both their political views and their interests.  

Eva-Marie Quinones is a doctoral student in Political Economy and Comparative Politics at Yale University. Her primary research focus is modeling voting behavior, using economic methods and formal theory.

In addition to her academic interests, Eva-Marie is a strong proponent of civic engagement, and has previously co-directed a nonpartisan student voting initiative affiliated with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, served as Head of National Youth Engagement on the organizing committee of the Unity March for Puerto Rico, trained high school and college students in debate and Model UN, and worked with several political campaigns.

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