Yesterday, Politico published the results of a poll which showed that a significant number of Hispanics (about 40%) were put off by Democratic messaging, specifically the use of the word “Latinx” as a gender-neutral way to describe Hispanic men and women. When Ed wrote about the poll, he pointed out that there is already a gender-neutral word which the overwhelming number of people in that group prefer. That word is Hispanic.
Today, NY Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has a piece responding to this poll. It’s titled “The Words Democrats Use Are Not the Real Problem” and early on he makes a distinction which I found interesting and which may be unintentionally revealing. According to Bouie, elections aren’t shaped by language, they are shaped by material factors and ideology.
Democrats, went the argument, were too “woke,” too preoccupied with “identity politics,” too invested in slogans like “defund the police” and too eager to embrace the language of the activist left. Terms like “BIPOC” (an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and especially “Latinx” alienated the working-class Black and Hispanic voters who shifted to Trump in key states like Florida and North Carolina.
It makes sense that this is where the conversation turned. People who work with words — journalists, commentators and political professionals — are naturally interested in the impact of messaging and language on voters.
At the same time, it is important to remember that language does not actually structure politics…The forces that drive politics are material and ideological, and our focus — when trying to understand and explain shifts in the electorate — should be on the social and economic transformations that shape life for most Americans.
Bouie goes on to say that words like “Latinx” may have been off-putting to some people but Hispanic voters’ movement to the right was likely driven by more fundamental things like wage growth and evangelicalism.
As my news-side colleague Jennifer Medina noted in a piece last year, “Hispanic evangelicals are one of the fastest growing religious groups in the country.” Churches remain important sites for political socialization, and evangelicalism is, at this juncture, a conservative force in American culture and politics.
At this point I was sort of scratching my head, wondering how Bouie could lay all of this out and still not see it. He’s right that ideology is a bigger factor for most people than mere language but what if language is acting as a strong signal of ideology? A word like “Latinx” is a dead giveaway that the person speaking has embraced a whole host of social and cultural views, i.e. it’s a marker of ideology.
I also agree with Bouie that religion has a bigger role in shaping people’s views than language, but speaking as someone who has spent a lot of time in evangelical churches over the years, I can tell you with absolute certainty that evangelicals have an entire cultural vocabulary of words, phrases and ideas that mark them as a member of that group. Other faiths have different words, phrases and ideas that mark them as distinctive as well. I could give examples but most readers probably already know what I mean. Language often acts not just as a way to transmit ideas but as a marker of someone’s commitment to a specific faith. Language can communicate identity.
Let me suggest again that the word “Latinx” is exactly such a marker. Latinx is not generalized PR language, i.e. a neutral way to refer to a specific minority group. Latinx is a distinctive word which marks someone as part of a left-wing cult, a cult that arguably behaves like a rival faith. If you hear someone using that word in earnest, you instantly know a lot about who they are and where they are coming from.
Anyway, I think Bouie’s general analysis is sound it’s just that he doesn’t seem to recognize that “woke” is already seen by a lot of people as a distinct ideology, one that is both easily recognized and very off-putting to an increasing number of people. It’s not really the slogans that are killing the Democratic Party, it’s the ideology behind those slogans.
Of course politicians are known to lie, so it’s possible to envision a woke candidate or spokesperson who learns not to express such obvious signifiers to avoid making themselves sound woke. But the thing about religion is that the people who hold to it most strongly tend to be the least shy about it. If you’re a die hard believer, you want to talk about it. You want people to know because you believe it really matters.
That’s the real reason Democrats are struggling to moderate their use of particular words and slogans that aren’t helpful to them. True believers don’t want to be muffled by practical concerns like winning elections. The people who have adopted the word “Latinx” want to say that word because they know it’s right. It marks them as enlightened in an almost gnostic sense. To not use it would be a betrayal of their core commitment to social justice and equality. So my guess is they’ll keep saying Latinx no matter how much evidence accumulates that Hispanic voters don’t like it.
Other factors may play a significant role in motivating how Hispanic voters choose to vote over time, but Democrats would be fools, especially after the thrashing in Virginia, to underestimate just how off-putting the new woke ideology is to a lot of people. You don’t have to take it from me. Take it from some of the commenters on this piece. Here’s the top comment:
I disagree. Words do matter, and they reflect policy. As a lifelong feminist, the words “pregnant people” specifically were the reason I’ve abandoned the Democratic party. To avoid offending 0.1% of the population that may not feel comfortable being called a “woman”, the left wants to call 99.99% of the population something neutral. Why don’t we say pregnant woman or pregnant trans/NB person instead? Another word that has meaning, and implications in our discourse: snowflake. We have too many of them right now, and it seems the American public is tiring of so much snowfall.
And the #2 comment:
Latino culture is naturally conservative. That’s why many Latino voters hold their noses and vote Republican. When someone uses the term “Latinx” it validates their feelings and voting preference. Democratic leaders need to stop bending to woke language and the policies and attitudes that language represents. Democrats must be seen as advocates for equal rights and success for all people – including white Christian men – and not as a party that favors those who have been historically disadvantaged over everyone else. Putting the term Latinx on ice would be one small step in the right direction.
From a woman in New Jersey:
But it’s not just the words that are turning off voters. It’s the emphasis on dividing Americans into smaller and smaller subgroups, each with a grievance against the rest of us, that will doom the Democrats in 2024.
Finally, I thought this was a pretty good point:
If “language does not structure politics,” then why are progressives trying to change language? If neologisms like “Latinx” aren’t about seeking new political formations and outcomes, then what are they about?
I am a progressive and want progressive policies to win, but find it odd when we advocate for changes to language, and then when it proves to be unpopular with voters, claim that it doesn’t really matter.
Here’s Colbert trying to sell Latinx.