Progressivism’s “Latinx” Problem

Why is Elizabeth Warren describing Latinos with a term that few would use themselves?

by Ross Douthat

Everyone remembers the image that demonstrated Donald Trump’s cluelessness about Hispanic voters: the picture, from May 2016, showing him grinning like a fool over a tortilla bowl, with the immortal tweet attached: “Happy #CincodeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

That Trump tweet received entirely deserved scorn from practically everyone in my profession. On the other hand, nobody save a few carping conservatives found anything unusual when Elizabeth Warren, possible Democratic front-runner, began conducting her outreach to Hispanic voters using the term “Latinx.” (Though she did take a little flack, after the first Democratic debate, for pronouncing it “Latin-X.”)

But if Warren’s linguistic move seemed normal to journalists — in our world, the phrase “Latinx” is increasingly commonplace — it’s still a curious one for a politician doing outreach. There’s very little evidence that “Latinx” is a thing that many Hispanics or Latinos call themselves, at least in the kind of numbers that normally determine how political candidates talk.

“Though Latinx is becoming common in social media and in academic writing,” a recent Merriam-Webster “words we’re watching” entry noted, “it is unclear whether it will catch on in mainstream use.” And last week a progressive pollster ran the numbers and found that it hasn’t caught on at all: “Despite its usage by academics and cultural influencers, 98 percent of Latinos prefer other terms to describe their ethnicity. Only 2 percent of our respondents said the label accurately describes them, making it the least popular ethnic label among Latinos.”Agree to disagree, or disagree better? Broaden your perspective with sharp arguments on the most pressing issues of the week.

Beyond its novelty, there are obvious reasons for that stark unpopularity: When spoken, “Latinx” sounds like neither normal English nor conversational Spanish, and it looks like what it is, a word designed for ideological purposes rather than for felicity in speech. If you are deep inside progressive discourse, you will immediately understand those purposes — “dismantling the default masculine” of romance languages, centering gender neutrality or nonbinariness in place of a cisgender heteronormativity. If you are outside that discourse, politicians who use it will sound like they don’t know how to say “Latino,” or like they’re talking to an audience that doesn’t really include you.

Which, for a politician, seems like a bit of a problem. One of the common defenses of political correctness is that it’s just a synonym for politeness, for calling people what they themselves want to be called and showing sensitivity to minority experiences and burdens that men or white people don’t share. Which is sometimes true: The example of white people whining that they don’t get to say the “N-word,” for instance, shows how anti-P.C. sentiment can sometimes reflect a desire to ignore history and flip common decency the bird.

But just as often the language of P.C. has more to do with imposing elite norms of discourse on a wider population that neither necessarily wants them nor fully understands their purpose. This is a particular issue as highly educated white liberals become more progressive on racial issues than many African-Americans and Hispanics; in that context the language that dominates progressivism often emerges out of a dialogue among minority activists and academics and well-meaning white liberals, without much engagement with the larger minority population, its assumptions and habits and beliefs.

That lack of engagement turns the politeness argument on its head. It is certainly polite, if you operate in a social world where most people of Latin-American descent describe themselves as Latinx, to use the word in conversation and correspondence. But in their public-facing rhetoric, Democratic politicians are speaking to people who mostly don’t use that word, don’t prefer it to other labels and may not even recognize it. So a politician who uses it, especially a white politician who uses it, may come across as condescending, jargon-dependent and, well, rude.

This weekend I wrote about how the increasingly ideological character of the Democratic Party could create a policy problem for its presidential nominee, by forcing a figure like Warren into a detailed defense of a likely-to-be-unpopular, unlikely-to-pass proposal for Medicare for All. Warren’s adoption of “Latinx” is a different example of this problem: There’s no policy here, but the rhetoric still suggests that Warren is distinctively beholden to a hermetic academic-progressive world, to a point where she doesn’t know how to talk to the less-ideological, less-woke, maybe-even-somewhat-conservative Hispanics whose votes her party needs.

One question about a more progressive Democratic nominee, Warren or Bernie Sanders, is whether either can win back white Obama-Trump voters in the crucial Electoral College states of the Upper Midwest — states where Warren, in this newspaper’s polling, currently trails Trump. But a related question is whether progressivism can succeed in consolidating the larger share of the Hispanic vote that Democrats expected in 2016 and didn’t get — an 80 percent rather than close to a 70 percent share, which would tip states like Florida and Arizona and even Texas and make Trump’s Rust Belt resilience moot.

It’s possible, as many progressive activists insist, that the way to achieve that consolidation is by energizing and organizing nonvoters through a campaign that runs clearly to the left. But a lot of Trump-era polling shows the president holding or even expanding his Hispanic support, and it shows Warren, in particular, struggling with Latino voters, both in the primary and the general races.

Which is what you’d expect if, as my colleague Tom Edsall has argued, Hispanics (and African-Americans and Asians) now represent the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, the pocketbook-conscious, somewhat culturally conservative flank. In that case they’re a constituency where a less-bigoted-seeming G.O.P. could make substantial inroads, and where even a figure like Trump, if the economy is strong enough and the Democrat seems sufficiently culturally extreme, can at least win enough minority support to keep himself competitive.

This is why it matters that the signals that Warren sends when she adopts a phrase like “Latinx” are the cultural equivalent of the policy signal that she sends with Medicare for All. In both cases, she’s telling anyone who listens that a vote for the Democrats isn’t just a vote against Trump (which a clear majority would like to cast) or a vote for popular liberal policies (of which there are many) but a vote for the new progressivism in full — no matter how many Americans, of all ethnicities, are distinctly unready for its rigors.

Note: this op-ed was originally published with the title “Liberalism’s Latinx Problem.”

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for the New Times.


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