Immediately after the polls confirmed that Barack Obama had been elected for a second term, pundits across the country announced that Latino voters had finally made their voice heard. The sleeping giant has awoken, they exclaimed. The new shift has caused the Republican Party to think about its future and the need to change its tone toward Latinos and others. It should. This could mark the start of a sea change.
It's not the first time a new class of voters started to flex their political muscle. Just look at our own history.
Territorial politics were dominated by a Republican Party representing a white oligarchy and its business interests for nearly 50 years. Republican supremacy had a lot to do with voter exclusion. The immigrants from Asia were not allowed to vote because federal legislation stopped them from becoming citizens.
The exclusion, however, could not extend to their children. The first section of the 14th Amendment guarantees that anyone born in the United States is a citizen of the United States. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that that right extended to territories of the United States too.
This meant that the Hawaii-born sons and daughters of Asian immigrants were citizens, while their parents were not. It also meant that an entire generation of children who grew up watching disenfranchisement, social exclusion and economic inequality was going to someday be able to vote and participate in their government - rights that their parents were denied.
Many in the Republican Party then saw that change was on the horizon. In the 1940s, while the Republicans still controlled the territorial Legislature, they adjusted their policies. For example, Republicans passed the "Little Wagner Act" that allowed cane and pineapple workers to organize and join labor unions. By the 1950s, they had become much more moderate than their Mainland colleagues. Asian-Americans were on the ticket and William Quinn was a model Hawaii Republican who worked with the opposition.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, most of the new electorate of Asian-Americans did not embrace the party that made life difficult for their parents. With every election, Democrats won more and more seats. In 1954, they took the Legislature and the congressional delegate - a nonvoting member of Congress. The Democrats have never lost control of the state Legislature since that election.
Ironically, no one on the Mainland seemed to notice. When Hawaii entered the union with Alaska in 1959, Mainland politicos believed that the two additional states would maintain the balance of power: The Republicans would keep Hawaii, the Democrats Alaska. Of course, we all know what happened. Hawaii has consistently sent Democrats to Washington and became the home state for national figures like Daniel Inouye, Eric Shinseki and Barack Obama. Oddly enough, Alaska switched too and gave us big-name Republicans like Ted Stevens and Sarah Palin.
Hawaii's history shows that when a generation that comes of age under the shadow of discrimination and inequality starts to vote, we can expect a momentous shift in power.
So what's going to happen in Arizona?
There, the Republican Party controls the state and most local governments. It faithfully sends Republican senators and representatives to Washington. It has passed laws authorizing police officers to demand those suspected of unlawfully entering the United States to provide documentation of their immigration status. This is where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arapaio continues to get re-elected. Arapaio's policies include a tent city for inmates (he even called it a concentration camp) that exposes them to Phoenix's elements day and night.
What about Texas with its similar "papers please" law? Or Alabama, which passed anti-immigration laws so strict that workers left crops abandoned and rotting in the fields? And what about Kansas' secretary of state, Kris Kobach, the lawyer who helped write these laws?
The change in the Republican Party has already started. Mainstream leaders are talking about reaching out to Latino voters but are finding opponents within their own party. Many, like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have clearly shown that unless the Republican Party changes, it will be left behind.
Across the country a new generation of Latino citizens who were born and raised in the United States is gradually reaching majority age. They have witnessed - like the Asian-Americans in Hawaii decades ago - disenfranchisement, economic inequality and state-sponsored exclusion.
Thanks to the 14th Amendment, once they are able to vote, they will have the ability to radically shift the balance of power in these traditionally red states. If the Republican Party continues to target them and their parents, then the wave of change that started in Hawaii could reach the Mainland. Arizona, Texas and even the Deep South could go blue and never look back.
- January 25, 2013