In recent years, meanwhile, the white working-class share of the electorate has dwindled, in part because of rising education levels, low native birth rates, and an influx of working-class immigrants—trends documented by Ruy Teixeira, the political demographer and prophet of rainbow liberalism, in his new book, The Optimistic Leftist. The promise of the rainbow coalition thus seems ever closer to fruition. Among true believers, every liberal defeat, up to and including the 2016 presidential election, is best understood as little more than the dead-cat bounce of white resentment politics.
Confident pronouncements about the coming triumph of the liberal coalition tend to neglect an awkward question, however. Who will be in control of this bloc when it finally achieves its inevitable victory? Will it be college-educated white liberals, who play such an outsize role in shaping the left’s ideological consensus today, and who dominate the donor base and leadership of the Democratic Party? Or will it be working-class Latinos, whom white liberals are counting on to provide a decisive electoral punch?
In the age of Donald Trump, college-educated white liberals consider right-wing white populists in small towns and outer suburbs to be the gravest threat to their values and, sotto voce, their power and influence. Many seem to assume that rainbow liberalism will remain deferential to the demands of avowedly enlightened, well-off people like themselves—yielding a future in which student loans for graduate degrees are forgiven, property values in gentrified urban neighborhoods and fashionable inner suburbs are forever lofty, service-sector wages never quite rise to the point where hiring help becomes unaffordable, and, of course, rural white traditionalists are banished from the public square.
But what if working-class Latinos aren’t especially interested in serving as junior partners in a coalition led by their self-proclaimed white allies? What if they instead support new forms of anti-establishment politics, rooted in grievances and vulnerabilities that place them at odds with liberal white elites?
To see why members of the Latino second generation might turn against rainbow liberalism, note the essential role their parents play in today’s stratified American cities. The mostly white professional classes of the country’s prosperous coastal enclaves depend on immigrant laborers to be their helpmates; these laborers, in turn, depend on these employers for their livelihood. Most of these immigrants aren’t laying the groundwork for socialist revolution, for the obvious reason that they are more concerned with providing for their families. Relative to native-born workers, newcomers are more inclined to accept low-wage work and to live in insalubrious conditions.
This is especially true of low-skill immigrants, who greatly increase their income by moving to the United States, even when doing so places them among the poorest of America’s working poor. Rather than look at other Americans, they typically compare their lot with that of other impoverished immigrants, or with that of the loved ones they’ve left behind in their native country. To be an immigrant is to be the author of one’s own fate—and to accept diminished status, low pay, and even dangerous working conditions as the price of economic betterment.