11/30/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The Latino Vote Goes Far Beyond Immigration

Much has been made of the fact that in 2012, Latinos once again voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. Nationwide, Obama won the Latino vote by a margin of 72 to 23 percent -- even more resoundingly than 2008, when he won 67 to Senator McCain's 31 percent. Not only did Obama win a larger share of Latinos, but they also comprised a larger portion of the total electorate: 10 percent, up from 9 percent in 2008.

Many analyses pin this lopsided margin on the candidates' positions on stereotypically "Latino issues." Governor Romney's sharp turn to the right on immigration and his harsh rhetoric on the need for "self-deportation" surely mattered, as did the Obama Administration's June decision to halt deportation of nearly one million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.

As The Wall Street Journal put it in a Nov. 14 column, "polls regularly show that immigration is not a priority for Hispanic voters, but how border policy is discussed still matters as a threshold and symbolic issue... we are a long way from Ronald Reagan's welcoming GOP." (The Journal also notes that this rhetoric also alienates other minority voters, such as Asian Americans.)

But Republicans must realize that it is a gross oversimplification to think that the answer to their demographic problems is as simple as softening their rhetoric. Channeling more enthusiasm for immigrants is a cosmetic solution at best. Troublingly for conservatives, evidence is growing that Latinos support Democrats because of a broad range of policy reasons, including support for a more robust welfare state, and greater investment in education and health care.

This is not to say that Latinos automatically back all government initiatives. We by and large come from countries where the rule of law is weaker than it is in the U.S. The lack of meritocratic systems and rampant favoritism mean that government is more often than not standing in the way of our personal development -- not facilitating it. Thus, the higher value that Latinos place on personal responsibility and industriousness, over and above other ethnic groups.

Indeed, Pew's attitude surveys show that, if anything, Latinos possess a greater faith in hard work and meritocracy than the average American. Seventy-five percent say that those who work hard can get ahead, versus 58 percent of all Americans who think so. This shouldn't be surprising; many Latinos have risked their lives crossing a militarized border in able to find a job and provide for their families. Yet, as David Brooks points out in The New York Times, the repetitive paeans to small government, the insistence that it is the lens through which to see all problems in America, simply don't resonate with Latinos. It seems most don't equate "big government" with wasteful subsidies and lazy "takers."

This conundrum should cause us to ask ourselves: Is "big" vs. "small" government even a valid question anymore? A robust defense of entrepreneurship and the private sector is still politically popular, but Latinos -- like many younger Americans - don't see this as mutually exclusive with more government. Rather, they are looking for effective government.

One of the primary reasons for this shift is awareness of America's increasing inequality. While middle class wages have stagnated -- remaining essentially the same since 1988 -- upper incomes have soared. This has happened at the same time that the productivity of American workers has surged, continuing to outstrip the rest of the world. Across the American middle class -- including, but not limited to, Latinos -- there is a growing realization that the gains from our unprecedented productivity are only accruing to a tiny minority.

What Latinos are looking for, then, is not a handout, but rather government policies that address the structural factors keeping the hard-working middle class from sharing in the growing economic pie. The factors, for instance, that make it unaffordable for a two-income household to send their children to college. The factors that make health care coverage or a comfortable retirement unachievable after a lifetime of hard work. That make it nearly impossible to find a job with a technical school degree, much less a GED.

Latinos are not looking for subsidies, but rather solutions. The talk radio charge that immigrants come here lured by welfare benefits is, as The Wall Street Journal points out, absurd. Not only are undocumented workers not eligible for Social Security, Medicaid, and other federal entitlements, they also, compared to the average American, use less of the social services that they are eligible for. What they are looking for is an opportunity to translate their industriousness into upward mobility -- the American dream.

Finally, for Latinos, family is at the center of that dream, but perhaps not in the way that Republicans would like to think. Latinos sent $69 billion back to Latin America in remittances in 2011, an 8 percent increase over 2010, and surveys back up the Latino commitment to traditional family values. But this doesn't automatically translate into conservative social views. When we think about family we don't think about hot button issues like gay marriage and abortion. In Latin America, we are less used to seeing these in the public policy discussion, and thus they don't have as much traction as Republicans are used to. "Family values" are, for us, not a religious talking point, but a concrete web of trust based on loving relationships that provides us the safety net and the connections to progress in life.

Until Republicans understand these fundamental attributes of the Latino experience, they will have trouble closing the gap with Democrats. A less dogmatic stance on immigration -- and a vocabulary that recognizes immigrants as an integral part of the American fabric -- is a good start. But what Latinos really care about -- like other Americans -- is finding concrete solutions to our economic challenges.