In the 1990s, Mike Madrid was a student at Georgetown University writing his senior thesis about Latino voting patterns and trying to predict how this group might change American politics in the future. The prevailing interpretation at the time was that Latinos were likely to become a permanent underclass, would almost certainly vote Democratic as a bloc for the foreseeable future, and would express themselves largely through oppositional, anti-establishment grievance politics. A contrasting conservative interpretation, advanced by Linda Chavez and a few other dissenters, was that Latinos would mostly follow the upwardly mobile path of previous immigrant groups. Recent immigrants, with little education or ability to communicate in English, undoubtedly would struggle. But the second and third U.S.-born generations of Latinos would meet increasing success in their pursuit of the American Dream and would choose to join the mainstream of American society. They might even vote Republican. 

After graduating from Georgetown, Mike Madrid returned to his native California to become a Republican political consultant with a particular focus on Latino voters. Over the next three decades, he became one of the country’s best-known political strategists, whose opposition to the nativist and populist direction of the Republican Party under Donald Trump led him to become a co-founder of the Lincoln Project. Now he has written The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority Is Transforming Democracy, which aims to answer the questions about Latinos and their American future that he first wrote about thirty years ago as a Georgetown student. 

Madrid believes that American politics, society, and culture will be profoundly transformed by the country’s demographic transformation as U.S.-born Latinos as a group continue to grow in size and impact. Latinos will “reinvigorate the American experiment” with their youth, comfort with pluralism as a people who combine European and Indigenous ancestry, and optimism about America and its institutions. Madrid emphasizes that “Latinos aren’t understood by either party, but the one that is able to define itself as the party of an aspirational multiethnic working-class party will dominate American politics for a generation.”

In this podcast discussion, Madrid discusses his upbringing as a third-generation Mexican American, his unique experiences as a Latino political consultant on both sides of the aisle, and his analysis of the rise of the Latino voting demographic — including his prediction that the Latinization of America will contribute to a feminization of America, given Latina women’s outsized contributions in education, public service, and community leadership. Ultimately he believes that Latinos may help both the Democratic and Republican parties “get their groove back” by moving past the politics of angry tribalism into a more hopeful and pluralistic democratic future. 


Mike Madrid: “You’re not a small minority. Quit thinking like a small minority now. The votes are there to move an agenda, but you have to think about who you were growing up before you got into the political process and saw political gain by climbing the ladders in both parties.” And that’s my hope for where we’re headed as a community.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center.

Kristie De Peña: And I am Kristie De Peña for the Niskanen Center.

Geoff Kabaservice: Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And we are delighted to be joined today by Mike Madrid. Among his many distinctions, he’s a political consultant of three decades standing and is principal at Grassroots Lab, which is a California-based campaign management and lobbying firm. He’s a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a well-known political action committee that has been occupying space rent-free in Donald Trump’s head since December 2019. And Mike is a nationally recognized expert on Latino voting trends. He’s the co-host with Chuck Rocha of the great podcast The Latino Vote, and he has just published his first book, The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority Is Transforming Democracy, which will be released by Simon & Schuster on June 18th. Welcome, Mike!

Mike Madrid: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be talking to both of you at Niskanen.

Geoff Kabaservice: Great! We’re excited to be talking with you. And congratulations again on The Latino Century. As I’ve said to you before, this is really a wonderful book. On the one hand, it’s a crunchy data-informed analysis of what is now the second-largest and fastest-growing minority voting group in the country. But it’s also deeply informed by your own unique experiences as a Latino political consultant on both sides of the aisle and in the bellwether state of California, as well as your own quest to understand how you and your community fit into the country as a whole and are finding your path toward the American Dream. It’s really a tour de force. And I was further impressed to find that you even created the book’s terrific cover painting of a Latino family variation on Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Mike Madrid: Well, thank you. That’s a fantastic encapsulation of the work. You kind of crunched thirty years of history into a very eloquent sentence, as you are more than capable of doing. And yeah, I paint as well. So I tried to get all of that thinking about how Americana and this country and this emerging Latino electorate, the Latino population, are blending and merging into one. So whether that’s through painting or writing, I think about it a lot.

Geoff Kabaservice: That’s wonderful. Can you tell me something about when you started the book and what you had in mind when you started working on it?

Mike Madrid: There’s really two answers to that. I think the earliest drafts I actually began in the early 1990s as an undergraduate at Georgetown University. I was studying at the School of Foreign Service and looking at demography and realizing that this change, this transformation, was going to be coming over the course of my lifetime. That’s where I was introduced to some earlier works… Linda Chavez’s book, which I think we’ll probably talk about, Out of the Barrio. But in earnest when I realized, “Okay, the time is now to sit down and do this,” was right after the 2020 election — after, again, compiling many decades of work as a practitioner all over the country and watching up close what both parties were doing.

I think in many ways seeing the devolution or implosion of conservatism as it’s been known since the end of the Second World War led me to challenge a lot of the assumptions that I was seeing and working with for most of my career. And I needed, I think, to explain what I saw, what my perspectives were about this emerging part of the population and the electorate — quite frankly, in many ways, as part of what optimistically I believe will be, if not the salvation, a key to solving a lot of the problems that ail American-style democracy at this moment in time. It’s really the transformation of our culture which is the promise that it brings. And so my perceptions of writing the book when I sat down in 2020 were forged and challenged from being a young man in the early 1990s and what I thought about at that time. And I think the book brings both of those together.

Geoff Kabaservice: And like I said, I do love that blending of the biographical and the analytical. Just as a technical matter, in the language of government policy the term “Hispanic” first appeared in the 1970 U.S. census, during the Nixon administration, which determined that 5% of the population was Hispanic. The 2020 census, by contrast, determined that the U.S. Hispanic population had reached 62.5 million people, or 19% of all Americans, making it the second-largest racial or ethnic group as compared to African-Americans at 12.1% and Asian-Americans at 6.1%. But as the title of your book indicates, you greatly prefer the term “Latino” to Hispanic. Why is that?

Mike Madrid: That actually got changed in my own work, my own experience over the course of my political trajectory and my political understanding and working with not only the Latino community but the broader political community. Hispanic is actually the preferred term for most “Hispanics,” but now Latino is a much more political term than I think Hispanic is. Latino refers largely to people who come from Latin American ancestry — which in other words doesn’t include Spaniards. And that’s really the key distinction, where Hispanic obviously does. And Hispanic has a broader “Spanish-speaking country” connotation. What is emerging, though, is the political developments, the uniqueness of the political moment, and that’s why I’ve chosen to write the book in that direction. There’s a growing awareness and sense on both the right and the left that what we’re dealing with is a changing political paradigm, and both right and left are starting to use the term “Latino” more often. And I thought it was most appropriate.

Geoff Kabaservice: I will try to adhere to that distinction, which makes a lot of sense to me. Of course, some of this language is just ingrained in our politics and history. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously told your mentor Lionel Sosa that “Hispanics are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet.” A famous quote. Nonetheless, like I said, this distinction makes a lot of sense to me. The title of The Latino Century is a play on Henry Luce’s famous editorial “The American Century” that appeared in Time magazine in February 1941. That editorial was an exhortation but ultimately also an optimistic declaration that the coming century would be better for humanity because of the United States’ ascent to global leadership. And The Latino Century ultimately strikes me as an optimistic declaration about how the Latino community will contribute to a possible coming era of American greatness.

Mike Madrid: Another fantastic observation. That’s precisely correct, that’s exactly right. That’s why I chose that as the title. Look, we’re experiencing a unique demographic transformation for this country’s experience. We’ve certainly experienced more sizable immigration, as a percentage of who we are, in our past — that is absolutely true. And each time I think it has challenged our notions of our American identity and perhaps made us a better people, from my perspective: truer to our mythology, to our creed, to our belief systems about who we are as Americans. Latinos will not be a majority — perhaps not this century, maybe even beyond — because we’re starting to blend so much, we’re having a challenge in characterizing who we are, a challenge of who is going to actually determine what and/or if these characteristics are, these ethnicities and races are. There’s a big debate going on right now in the Biden administration whether or not to make Hispanic and/or Latino a race in the next U.S. census, which would have extraordinary ramifications on our data if nothing else.

But the point to your point is we will become a non-white majority nation, a non-European white country, within about eight years from now, in large part because of this Latinization of America, the extraordinary growth trajectory of the Latino population. And it’s going to have extraordinary cultural ramifications. 

And just like when we took on the moniker of “The American Century,” this optimistic view of who this American nation was becoming at that moment in human history, we also have to recognize that there are essentially two Americas that have emerged by our perceptions of ourself. One has an extremely negative, almost fatalistic view of the country and its future. I mentioned in the book that those over 65 — despite being the beneficiaries of perhaps the most privileged, wealthy, prosperous time in our history — have the most negative view of the country and its future of any generation ever polled through modern techniques. And at the same time, there’s this emergent America — largely younger, browner, more Latino, and poorer, also more recently migrated — that has an extraordinarily optimistic view of the American idea, of our social institutions. 

And I think I’m a very strong advocate for much more aggressive immigration in large part not for economic reasons — although that’s certainly there — not for a whole host of reasons, but primarily because culturally, at this moment in our history, we need to reinforce our belief in ourselves and our idea and our institutions. And that seems to be the demographic moment that is occurring that I’m most positive and optimistic about, and that’s why I chose the title The Latino Century.

Geoff Kabaservice: That all sounds good to me, and also seems to mark you as a Generation X person — that subtle yet somewhat backhanded slap against the Baby Boomers that I have felt myself for my whole life.

Mike Madrid: Really quickly, because that is so important… Gen Xers, I think our real role here in the American story is to be that bridge between the Boomers and Millennial generation. I’m growing less skeptical there will ever be a Gen X president; I could be wrong about that. But our role, I think, is to interpret the world to these generations before and after, these large cohorts. And I view myself as somebody trying to do that, to connect these two worlds of what America was in the before times and what America is emerging as now. And not to be too goofy about it, but I think that’s an important role for Gen Xers to play in continuing this American idea.

Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a pretty profound observation that I think we’re going to come back to. Let me at this point bring in Kristie De Peña, who’s Niskanen’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Director of our Immigration Policy department. Listeners to this podcast may also remember our episode where she spoke about her grandfather, whose father had immigrated to Texas from Mexico, and who became the first Hispanic judge in Nueces County, which is where the city of Corpus Christi is located. Kristie, you had some thoughts about the main takeaways from Mike’s book?

Kristie De Peña: I did. And first let me echo all of Geoff’s praise about the book. It’s rare that I read a book and am yelling “Yes, yes!” in response to some of the things that you were saying, so I really appreciated it. One of the most prominent takeaways that I saw, Mike — and I’d love for you to expand on it — is this idea and I think it’s fair to say probably some frustration with the labeling of Latinos simply as another kind of minority group that needs to be defined by racial and ethnic boundaries, rather than looking at the full story and understanding that this is a whole group of people who are really invested in a lot of economic issues. And it seems to me as though you were making the point that neither political party, especially in this moment, is responding to that desire. Can you talk a little bit about the failure to develop this working-class agenda that we’ve seen from both Republicans and Democrats and how you got to this conclusion?

Mike Madrid: Yes. There’s so much to that. I hope I don’t miss it all, but I also hope I don’t talk too long; that’s why I needed to write a book. I mentioned earlier that when I first began this journey of thinking about these ideas and looking at the demographic numbers of what was going to happen in the country over the course of my life and career, there was a rather profound book by an academic by the name Peter Skerry. And Peter Skerry wrote a book called Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority. I’m seeing some heads nodding there.

Kristie De Peña: Yes.

Mike Madrid: The question in Skerry’s book was essentially: Will Latinos (Mexican-Americans specifically) emerge as an aggrieved racial minority, the way the political infrastructure was postulating at the time and kind of became part of the vernacular during the Chicano movement of the 1960s where Latinos, Mexicanos, Chicanos — Mexican-Americans predominantly — were taking on the attributes of anti-establishment, counter-cultural, oppressed grievance politics? Or, as most of the data was saying, apart from that political infrastructure, would we emerge as the standard, typical, assimilative ethnic aspirational working-class group motivated more by economics? 

And there were a lot of challenges to that question because of the heightened zeitgeist of the era — the increased awareness of the Black civil rights struggle certainly being one. The other was frankly just the proximity of Mexico and Central America to the United States, which allowed for a slowed assimilation process compared to what we saw at Ellis Island at the turn of the last century, where if you jumped on a boat from Italy as a teenager — some of these beautiful stories we heard — you crossed the Atlantic and were never coming back. That was it. You left the homeland, the mother country, and you made America your home. As you know, a lot of us go home for the posadas every year. There’s a seamlessness to the border, let alone technology making that constant content and cultural assimilation slower. And then of course just the size and scope of what we’re talking about and the length of it, the duration of time of these many decades-long migratory experiences.

What we have always known is that Latinos, Mexicanos, every country of origin that has ever been… We’ll have one Cuban sort of exception here, we’ll pin that for a moment. But economics has always been, by a wide measure, the primary interest politically for which these economic migrants came. And they’ve been telling us that for many, many years. But so strong is the need for both parties to essentially create a caricature to identify something racially and ethnically with a bloc that they view, a voting bloc that is not white — it needs some sort of narrative to define something different but something that’s not the same. And immigration became the way to leverage that, particularly among Latino political activists and politicians. 

And I’m not suggesting that’s bad. It’s perfectly reasonable. But politicians do what politicians do. They’re going to go to where the cameras are, they’re going to go to where the headlines are, and they’re going to feed a narrative that the media was all too ready to consume. And the Republicans essentially needed to respond to that, often unhealthily, which just fanned the political flames of this narrative.

But as the Republicans and Democrats took this issue, the immigration issue, and made it a racialized ethnic identity, a core issue to the community, Latinos in the middle were saying, “We don’t really understand what you’re talking about. I mean, we get it, but we’re telling you overwhelmingly that affordability is our issue. Jobs are our issue, upward economic mobility is our issue, housing is our issue” — bread-and-butter economics. And when both parties have truly, for decades, never created this multi-ethnic, working-class, aspirational agenda, Latinos unfortunately have developed the lowest voting turnout rates of any of the major ethnicities and races in the country. And we also have the weakest partisan anchors by a pretty wide stretch, a wide measure. In fact, even in California, the fastest group disaffiliating from both parties are Latino voters.

And we’ll talk about this more, I’m sure, but as we get further and further away from the immigrant experience, the gap between this political narrative of immigration and the need and demands for economic concerns are getting so disparate that it is truly transforming not just the Latino community and its voting behaviors, but it’s really challenging both parties’ orthodoxies and notions of their own ideology. Because they’re increasingly not working.

Geoff Kabaservice: Just on that subject, it does seem that you say at a few points in your book that part of the reason for low Latino turnout is that neither party really makes a distinctive pitch to Latinos. And therefore, in that sense at least, it’s hard for them to differentiate the parties.

Mike Madrid: That’s a big part of it. I think one of the areas that I have been advocating for many years, and I also touch on this in the book, is… I try to take as much of an evidence-based approach as I possibly can. And I’ve been talking about this for many years, as have other people, and I think my perspective is slightly different than most. I equate the problem not necessarily as a cultural one or even a politicization one. It’s really, to me, much more of an economic one. If you look at poverty rates and those at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, and overlay that with the voter file, there’s almost a direct correlation between no civic engagement (especially voting) and stubborn poverty levels, or at least slowed poverty levels. We can talk a little bit more about why that is. But if you add that onto the fact that neither party is speaking to what Latino voters are loudly saying clearly is its number one priority, which is economy and jobs, then you’ve got to ask yourself: What incentive is there to vote?

Literally in practical economic terms, neither the government nor the private sector is working. In one generation we’re not seeing these increasingly high rates, certainly in California, and we’re getting better data from other states now that shows a difference. And I think that accounts for the difference between California, as an outlier, and the rest of the country. But there’s also the fact that they’re not even saying what Latinos have been telling people they want to hear. That is a sign of how strong the need is for the parties and the elites and the leaders in both parties to caricaturize this community through a racial and ethnic lens. Even though people are literally saying, “This is what we want you to tell us about,” they’re saying, “Well, no. We’ll do this to help your community and help you out because we know what’s better and what you really want anyway.”

And I say that… There’s one caveat. I mentioned Reagan’s famous quote. And as much as you could tell that I was motivated largely, as young man, by Reaganism and conservatism in that mold, there is something a little condescending about that statement: “Hispanics are Republican, they just don’t know it yet.” As a political practitioner now for thirty years, I never presume that the voters aren’t intelligent or aware enough to know what is best for them. They do. It’s just that we don’t listen well enough. And so I would change that a little bit to say Republicans don’t know yet that Latinos should be voting for them — something to that effect. I’ve kind of flipped that around a little bit and maybe approach it that way now that I’m a little bit older in the business.

Geoff Kabaservice: Since you raised the subject of your background, Mike… As you know, I always ask people on this podcast to tell me something about their origins and how they came to their political development. But it’s especially relevant in the case of you and your book. So, since you did mention this in the book, your grandparents on both sides came from Mexico — or, to be a bit more technical, the territory that pertains to the current state of Mexico?

Mike Madrid: Yes. On my father’s side, my people are from the New Mexico Territory and have been there for centuries. On my mother’s side, my people are from Durango and Sonora, northern states. And as I say, they’re desert people on both sides. So the Southwest itself is part and parcel of who the Madrids and the Arguelles are on both sides of my family. And there’s a certain conservatism that comes with that. The LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano would call it a “rancho libertarianism.” There’s a certain rugged individualism that comes with desert folks. And those strains are absolutely there. They’re not necessarily anti-government, they’re just very individualistic — more so than I think the Latino culture in general is. I mean, it’s also a very communal culture, which is not atypical of countries who haven’t had as aggressive a maturation with the Industrial Revolution, for example. The individual is not viewed as isolated, and the importance of the individual is viewed in the Latino community only in context as to their value in lifting up the broader family.

And those values are very much a part of what I grew up with, and it’s why I think the Jack Kemps of the world, the Reagan rhetoric, really, really spoke to me. It was kind of a natural blend, saying, “The more we as individuals have the right and ability and capacity to rise, the more we are free to lift others up. Why would you not do that?” That was the way I was raised. That’s the whole point. The whole point is to not just succeed by yourself, it’s to succeed so that you have greater opportunity to lift others up.

Geoff Kabaservice: So both your parents were born in Los Angeles during the 1940s, which I seem to remember was also the time of the Zoot Suit riots, although your parents would have been too young to remember that. But that involved major hostilities between white U.S. servicemen and teenagers, mostly in the Hispanic/Latino and Black communities. You were born in Los Angeles as well, but at an early age your family moved to Ventura County, to the little town of Moorpark, which I know of only because it’s next to Simi Valley which is where Ronald Reagan’s library, museum, and ranch are now. So you had the interesting experience of seeing both the city, the barrio, and then also this new edge of the suburbs, which became whiter and more prosperous as you grew up.

Mike Madrid: Yes. Let me talk about Moorpark a little bit, because it was a one-off-ramp town growing up. My family moved there in 1971. At the time it was literally the end of the freeway coming from Los Angeles. And this was the only place where my folks could afford a new home. Neither of them had come from families of homeowners and rising prosperity. My father had just come from his service in the Navy, and they wanted to buy a home and escape the city — again, not an atypical route of growing up in the city and moving out once you’re able to afford it. And they found this little town called Moorpark. 

And one of the beauties of Moorpark was that at the time it was a very tranquil, field-working town. It was an agricultural town. The name “Moorpark” is actually a variety of apricot, and across the street from my home were hundreds of acres of apricot trees and orchards. And over time the workers, the seasonal workers, would come. And I was very aware of that, growing up, that these were Mexican migrants. This is how the economy works in this part of the country. And by the time I had graduated from Moorpark High School, they had begun construction of what would become the Reagan Library right above those fields. So if you go to the Reagan Library — and everybody should — there’s this beautiful view. It’s basically the vista from my neighborhood. It has these field workers in the shadow of the glorious cathedral of American freedom of the Reagan Library — at least in my estimation. 

And so that contrast was very much a part of my life. They were both wholly me. Reaganism — I grew up in the 1980s in Southern California, for goodness’ sakes. Moorpark also had one other peculiar distinction, and that is that it was the only city in all of California during the 1980s that had a shrinking Latino population. Every other part of the state was dramatically growing with Latinos. And that’s an important distinction because it really gave me the opportunity to understand not only my immediate family life and culture in my home, but how to survive in the context of my community and then in the larger state around it. 

I really got nimble at understanding identity, and how things played, and what Latino identity — Latinidad, as we called it — was. And there were so many facets to have to navigate as a young man coming of age during the Reagan ‘80s. And so that navigation I think helped me become a better political consultant, candidly. But it also gave me the tools to understand both sides of what people found to be very peculiar, which was an expertise in Latino identity and politicization, and Reagan conservatism as I knew it and have loved and cherished and pursued  it throughout my life.

Geoff Kabaservice: What was it that made you want to become a Republican as a young person?

Mike Madrid: My parents were never politically engaged, but they were very politically aware. They were voters. They taught us to vote. They never ran for office or anything like that. But heated political discussions were welcome — in fact encouraged — at dinner every night. We talked about topics of the day. And I don’t know that I was ever convinced to become a Republican. I just think I was always a Republican, in large part because of the values that I was raised with — which seemed at odds with what my father’s politics and my mother’s politics were.

And we would run out these scenarios on economics, largely, for a lot of foreign policy. My most formative memories were yellow ribbons around the oak trees during the Iran hostage crisis and gas lines — even- and odd-numbered license plates during the energy shocks and crises of the late ‘70s, inflation, stagflation… One of the reasons I really wanted to bring home this story in the book was… I’m not trying to make a perfect comparison between then and now. But when you see rising inflation and weakening currency in a blue-collar family, when you see America look or feel weaker abroad with enemies taking advantage of the situation, and when you see somebody come up with some certainty in Reagan’s… From Reagan, I was getting a confidence, a surety of who we were.

Of course with Trump, I see this false bravado. But I get it. I get the appeal to working-class people. I grew up in that environment. And I’m not going to equate the two, but I’m going to say I do see overlap. I do see those correlations. I get it. And that was one of the reasons why I really thought that I needed to start my trajectory there. 

To be honest with both of you, I would have written a much more data-heavy book. But as the publisher said, “Nobody wants to read that. You and ten people want to read that book. We want to have something more accessible to people, and so you’re going to have to tell the data story through your narrative.” And that’s how we ultimately got there. And so I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it, because it’s very hard to do. Talking about a family moving from the city to the burbs is a story about assimilation. To bring in these cultural values was the way that I paint the color and the picture of the data behind it.

And I worked with migrants my whole life. My dearest friends growing up were the sons and daughters of immigrant farm workers, while my father, for at least part of his career, commuted to LA and worked at a bank. So there were different levels that I was seeing day in and day out while my community was getting both more white and less white at the same time.

Geoff Kabaservice: Thanks, Simon & Schuster!

Kristie De Peña: That’s great, and I think that that narrative really resonated with me while I was reading the book. One of the cultural things that jumped out at me that I was hoping that you could dive into a little bit more is this idea that the Latinization of America will also lead to the feminization of America. And certainly we have seen some recent examples of that in the Mexico elections. But I’d love for you to expand a little bit more on that, because I thought it was a really interesting idea.

Mike Madrid: Thanks for that. I really wanted to spend more time on this. I actually wanted to write a book on it, I just don’t know that I’m the right person to do it. There’s so much to unpack here. So there is a chapter which tries to dispel or at least temper the idea of machismo, and that it’s a macho culture. So much of when I’m talking to people and trying to explain it, it’s like, “Well, they like Trump because he’s a caudillo, he’s a strong man. He’s a Latin American strong man.” And the truth is, anybody who’s keenly aware of our culture knows we are a matriarchal, female-driven culture  in all of the best ways, I believe. And it is not a straight easy line.

It’s a very complicated relationship from La Malinche, who is the mother of our people essentially, right? This is Cortez’s native bride, indigenous bride, who is either castigated as a traitor or is a savior, depending on your perspective, and if that doesn’t tell you about Mexican culture, I don’t know what does. Or the idea that we have the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgen as a national symbol of pride. It’s so hard to see western European countries embracing that the way that Latin American culture has. And I mentioned we have obviously the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift from the French. We didn’t set out to do that. She’s beautiful, she’s a wonderful symbol, but we have historically, especially in times of conflict, gone to Uncle Sam, right? Uncle Sam is the way we view ourselves, as a stronger figure. Mexican culture rallies around the Virgin of Guadalupe. She became the national symbol as a form of revolution, and I think it’s just fascinating to have people take on an icon of the religion of the oppressor to then use as a catalyst for revolution against the oppressor.

It’s just so Mexican, meaning it’s so conflicted, it’s so blended, it’s so mixed — which is the beauty and the magic I think of the culture. We have been stuck in this black-and-white paradigm, as I call it in the first chapters, understandably, in this country. And I think there’s this possibility of having a glue that can actually make us a little bit more seamless as a people. But I do quantify it a little bit more than just Mike Madrid’s ranting and subjectivity on this, talking about culture. 

We have a very high propensity to elect women in leadership roles. And I point to California, which is the most heavily Latino state in the Union. We have more women in our legislature, Hispanic women, than men. There’s a good chance we’ll have three Hispanic Republican senators, female Latinas, and no Latino Republicans on the Senate side. 

And it’s not just a California phenomenon. Texas, I think, is like 45-55. Florida is 45-55. So it’s not just a Mexican thing. New Jersey, I think is 75-80% now, Hispanic women. And so in many ways, women are doing something that white women haven’t been able to do since suffrage, which is essentially meet parity in representation numbers. And I know that’s going to bring a very significantly different perspective on the role of government and our sense of identity as Americans and where we prioritize issues culturally. 

Now, a couple caveats on this, because this is really important and probably why I’m not the right person to do this kind of research work. That doesn’t mean that those notions don’t change. I came of age at a time when there was a lot of discussions about the need to get more women into office because they were more reasonable and they were more collaborative and they were more focused on issues — and now we’ve got Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, and AOC on her side. And that’s not disparaging, but these are pretty sharp partisan-ideological warriors. And they’re not emblematic or obviously representative of women, but they definitely show the capacity to say, “Maybe we need to rethink some of those assumptions about gender roles and gender identities.” 

I prefer to say that in many ways, women are truly as equal as we are: “You’re just as crazy as we are, or as extreme as we are.” And for the moment, I think that Latino culture is bringing something very different, very positive, and I think one of the things that I’m most hopeful and positive and optimistic about is this female perspective to not only our governance but to our culture and to our world. What are your thoughts on that? I mean, does that make sense?

Kristie De Peña: Well, I mean it does. And I would be remiss not to talk a little bit about the Republican Congresswoman Salazar from Florida and Democratic Congresswoman Escobar from Texas, who came together and introduced one of the most comprehensive bipartisan immigration bills that we have seen in the better part of five or six years. That really does, I think, offer some kind of answer to the economic question that you have posed in your book. Of course there are always going to be outliers, but certainly I think that there are some really good examples of how that is working positively here as well.

Mike Madrid: Yes. And real quick, let me add a little bit more, because just I am really intrigued by this. Latinos have the largest gender gap of any race or ethnic group in the country, and a lot of that is a function of the education divide. Hispanic women are going to college at a considerably larger rate than our men are, and that divide is larger than any other race or ethnic group too. And that is having very significant political and partisan impacts, where women are voting much more with the Democratic Party than Hispanic men are. But it doesn’t take long. Three, five, six, eight, ten years down the road, it’s not just that there are going to be more women in elected office, Hispanic women, there’s going to be more Latinas in C-suites and in corporate leadership and as the heads of nonprofits and in the leadership of our institutions as a result of that education divide. And again, I think it’s going to be very profound, very, very quickly, and I think it’s going to change a lot of who we view ourselves to be.

Geoff Kabaservice: I don’t want to sound a dissenting note here exactly, because I’m all in favor of more Latina leaders. I did have Richard Reeves on my podcast a few months ago, who also pointed to this gap in the educational attainment rates of men and women. And he pretty strongly posited that part of the reason we’re seeing lower rates of dating and family formation among the younger generation has to do with the fact that these young men are looking at less optimistic economic prospects because they don’t have the same higher education attainment as women, and that women tend not to want to marry men who have less educational attainment than they do. Part of the strength of the Hispanic community to this point has been its families, and I wonder if the phenomenon you are pointing to represents a sort of shadow danger there.

Mike Madrid: Yeah, for sure it does. And I don’t think it’s a dissension at all, I think you’re just contributing very richly to the discussion. Like I said, I don’t know. This is all new, which is what makes it so fascinating. Here’s what I will say, and this is purely anecdotal, but we do a lot of research work for a group called HOPE, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality. It’s a women’s group that’s looking to get more representation in elected and appointed office. They’re now a national organization. They’ve been in some of the Southwestern states for about 15 years. But we presented this finding to them, this educational divide, saying, “This is going to be a challenge,” and we looked at the representation numbers. And the first question — and it was largely a group question — was “What do we need to do to help our men?” 

Which was fascinating. I don’t know that that would’ve come from other groups. And I don’t mean that disparagingly, but to me that’s the cultural imperative. If I’m ahead, it’s only valuable as long as everybody is being pulled ahead. And to me, that was kind of Jack Kemp: a rising tide lifts all boat. The “lifts all boats” was what mattered. That’s what compelled me with the ideology and the belief system, and I see that playing out every day. 

So yes, I am very concerned about that, Geoff, very concerned. Because it’s going to create a massive set of policy problems for men broadly, and Latinos specifically if the gap is even bigger there. So we do need to ask those questions, I just found it fascinating that the people that were catalyzing that question when I presented the data were our women saying, “This is not good.” It wasn’t like “Good for us,” patting ourselves on the back and saying “Look what we’ve accomplished.” It was: “How do we help our men?”

Geoff Kabaservice: That is very interesting to hear, and I particularly think of this because education along with politics was part of how you got on the upward mobility track in America. By your own admission, you were an indifferent high school student. You went to Moorpark Community College, you got a political appointment to the State Board of Community Colleges, and then you transferred to Georgetown. And I’m fascinated by the whole Georgetown episode because there you are, not too far removed from the barrio and a very different kind of environment, rubbing shoulders with a lot of the children of a segment of the elite. You in your senior thesis on Latino voting trends found the template for the next thirty years of your career, which is fascinating and exactly what meritocracy and higher education is supposed to be about. And yet at the same time, it seems that Georgetown had a very difficult time figuring you out. They slotted you into Latin American Studies departments when you wanted to write about changing American politics. It’s just a fascinating episode.

Mike Madrid: Yeah, and as much as Georgetown was having trouble with me, I was having trouble with Georgetown. Look, I was a Mexican American kid from Southern California that grew up in a lower-income family, first generation. My sisters and had all graduated from college, but certainly not going to the East Coast to go to school. And a lot of what I felt candidly was dislocation, it was alienation. And I immediately recognized it because I was reading Ruben Navarrette’s work, I was reading Linda Chavez’s work, and I was saying, “I’m not feeling oppression. I’m at Georgetown, you know what I mean? This is not oppression. But there’s a lot of alienation in this realization that America is probably not quite the mythological meritocracy that I’ve been taught that it is. I’m here with sixth-generation Georgetown kids, and no matter how rich I get or how smart I am, I am not going to be in their social strata.”

And that’s a part of human need and human interest in figuring out where I’m at in the cosmos, and that began this longer search to figure out: Were other people feeling like me? And what does that mean politically? And it really did challenge a lot of my core assumptions at a young age. And I’m grateful because it did provide, literally… A lot of the questions I’m asking now were the same questions I was being challenged with as a young man in the early 1990s.

Kristie De Peña: I’m so glad, Mike, that you brought up Linda Chavez’s book. Both of your books share some points of commonality and overlap, but I’d love to hear a little bit more about where you drew some differences or what you learned from that book back then and how it influenced or shaped your thinking now.

Mike Madrid: I’m taking a deep breath because it’s such an honor to even be asked that question. Again, as a young Mexican American kid to have read that book — and thank goodness it was a paperback, because I couldn’t afford the hardback copy — and reading it and rereading it and going, “Who is this courageous woman who is saying what I feel and has the data to back it up, and is taking all these slings and arrows from this political structure that’s built up around it?” She was just such a hero of mine. And in many ways, she was the pioneer staking ground and saying, “No, this is what’s going on. The data proves it and I’m going to show it.” 

And I’m honored… I’m not trying to equate myself with that work. But what I’m positing is that what we knew and defined as Latino/Hispanic which she challenged then, we are now seeing huge numbers of growth in the third and fourth generations. I’m trying to say that demographically we’re on the cusp of something equally profound and equally different. And what I want to do in many ways is challenge that conventional wisdom. If I’m 1%-2% as successful as she was, I consider that a success — I mean truly. It was just such a monumental work, especially for a Latino kid reading it and saying, “Wait a second.” Like you said, when you’re cheering on loudly when you’re reading a book, you know you’ve got a good one, and that was her book. It just spoke to so much of culture and experience. My hope is that in some way I can continue that discussion on to the next generation, and I’m hoping that’s what The Latino Century does.

Geoff Kabaservice: I think it does. And as you know, Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, and we’ve always put so much value on what she brings to the American political conversation. Both you and Linda had a somewhat similar role in the early parts of your career in that you were sort of the piñata at the party whenever there would be discussions among Hispanic/Latino activists and political figures. And you were called all kinds of names and you were told that the concerns you were raising were bringing down the community. 

And yet there were two things that came out of your going back to California and becoming a political consultant and active with the Republican Party there. On the one hand, you had a front row seat at the implosion of the Republican Party, which starting with Proposition 187 in 1994 made enemies of the Latino community — and has paid for it, and hasn’t adjusted even to the present day. 

But then on the other hand, even as Latinos are rising to become the largest ethnic group in the state of California, as California is becoming a one-party state there are so many ways in which Democratic governance actually disadvantages Latinos — in terms of being subject to poor public education, in terms of being subject to poor public services, having higher rates of impoverishment and imprisonment… And I wonder if you could just tell me what that was like to witness over this time and whether you’re seeing any kind of gradual acceptance now from people who once criticized you so strongly.

Mike Madrid: Wow, that’s such a great question, and it’s such a deep question for me personally. Linda’s book gave me strength, it gave me courage. And the fact that she had written it… Look, I think I’m ahead of my time with this book. That means she was decades ahead of her time. Her writing that, like I said, gave me not just the foundation and the strength to stand firm and say what was true to my experience and what I lived through my life and saw with my own eyes, but — and this was really important — she brilliantly backed up her arguments with data. And what I learned from that book was if you have data, that’s your greatest shield.

And notice I didn’t say sword, I said shield — because it’s incoming. You’re taking incoming. And you’re one voice, and you’re going to stand up in that meeting or at that conference or on that panel and say, “That’s not what’s happening,” and you’re going to take a lot of incoming. And I took a lot and I still take a lot — and I’m bracing for it now as the book comes out, because there’s going to be a lot of criticism of it. There will be a lot of criticism. 

It has been made easier because of Biden’s dramatic shift on immigration. We should talk about that. I had a piece in The Atlantic yesterday talking about that change. I feel like in many ways the timing of this book could not be better because a lot of the arguments that Linda has made in the past, that I have made over the past three decades, are now so evident that they are not really debatable.

And I’ll give you a number of specific examples, but from California especially. I wanted to go back there from DC. I had planned on spending my career in Washington DC as a young man. I moved there planning to not come back to California. But once I got to DC I realized, “Oh no, I need to get back, because when I watch this unfold it’s going to tell me a lot about this point of my life and my career.” And there’s no question that by virtually every economic metric, Latinos in California are doing worse than any other group — not only in the state, but also than most other Latinos in other parts of the country. Economic mobility, multi-generational poverty rates, the housing and affordability crisis that disproportionately impacts us — on and on and on and on. I could just keep going with it. 

So I have the data now, and the respect, because… A lot of Latino politicians were my friends coming up. Alex Padilla, the Senator from California, and I — we were in our late twenties together, and he’s a friend, he’s a dear friend. We disagree on a lot, but we agree on a lot. A lot of the members of the congressional delegation, Latino members, they’re good friends. I ran Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign for governor, for goodness’ sake, largely because he was challenging his own party as mayor. He stood up and said, “This is not working. This is a wreck. A lot of these policies I was advocating for don’t work.” And he was right. And so we met and have challenged the pillars of both of our parties. 

And that’s also why — sorry to go on and on, it’s just such a deep question for me. But the reason why I felt the need to have this book be so data-driven was because for thirty years, that’s the habit I had to build up. That was my shield. I had to protect myself with the data. And what I learned through the process of making this book more accessible was: “You accomplished it, you did it. You’ve been at the highest level on both sides. You did the Lincoln Project. You’re the only Latino that’s had that experience. Tell us that story.”

And so now I’m not really as encumbered by the attacks. It’s more just a passionate plea to the community and most importantly to the leaders in the Latino community, the elected leaders: “You’ve got to change course. This is not working, and most importantly, you know it’s not working. You know that we’re creating bad policy for our kids and for this next generation. And you’re not a small minority. Quit thinking like a small minority now. The votes are there to move an agenda, but you have to think about who you were growing up before you got into the political process and saw political gain by climbing the ladders in both parties.” And that’s my hope for where we’re headed as a community.

Geoff Kabaservice: Mike, a lot of this podcast focuses on the concept of moderation, and I have been accused, sometimes with some justice, of trying to fit everybody into my procrustean bed of being a moderate. But sometimes you do in fact make explicit that your vision of moderation as well as what the community generally stands for is in fact fairly moderate. 

One of the qualities of moderation in a sense is its betweenness, and that’s a theme that you return to frequently. Hispanics are not fully Indigenous nor fully white, they’re neither Black nor white. And it seems also that they’re different from Democrats in adhering more to these family values, but also different from the Republicans in that “social conservatism” is something altogether different. Democrats are at home with the demographic changes that are taking place in this country in a way that Republicans are not, but Democrats are also in many cases deeply unsympathetic to the aspirations for upward mobility of Hispanics, many of whom work in construction or in small businesses. That’s another sense in which Hispanics are between: they’re between the Democrats, who are the party of the extremely rich and the extremely poor, and the Republicans, who haven’t fully taken on the role of an aspirational working-class party.

There was a line in your epilogue that I thought was just terrific. You said, “I am, above all, fighting for something not against something, and this is a positive, optimistic vision of a truly pluralistic American culture that pulls us into the future and takes us back from a dark and dangerous period of angry tribalism run amok.” I can only applaud. But I also have to ask what kind of specific policy prescriptions would you put on a platform for either party that wanted to have this kind of aspirational, working-class, multi-ethnic appeal?

Mike Madrid: First, thank you for that. Very kind. Let me say this… Latino voters are the moderates in both parties, and the reason why is because we are working-class, multi-ethnic voters. And as I point out in the book, the Democrats are increasingly having trouble with the working-class part, and up until very recently Republicans have been having trouble — and wide segments of the Republican Party still have trouble — with the multi-ethnic part. So as Latinos grow in number — and we’re starting to hit some really fast growth rates in the voter rolls now — Republicans are going to have to become more multiethnic in order to be successful, and Democrats are going to have to become more working class in order to be successful. And societies with strong working classes tends to be pretty stable and pretty moderate and focused more on economics and the nuts and bolts of governance than those that are not. So I want to use that as a predicate.

The question you asked was kind of specific, about what specific policy proposals can we talk about. One in five Hispanic men work in the residential construction industry or a related field. That is an extraordinarily huge number. If interest rates triple in three or four years as they have, and our currency devalues by 20%, which it has, the affordability of homes specifically is a gut punch to at least 20% of Hispanic households. The multiplier effect of that is manyfold. So let me be real specific: Somebody needs to develop a Marshall Plan for housing in this country. People say, “Well, there’s only so much the federal government can do.” Yeah, well, do that! Do that as a start. Incentivize states to be putting sticks in the ground. That’s a problem for the Democratic Party specifically, because a lot of its constituency does not want to see that kind of growth.

Latinos are the opportunity and growth bloc of the future — or of the present and increasingly of the future. If you have a growth mentality, an abundance mentality, that ideology that I was immediately connected with as a young Latino man in the ‘80s with Reaganism and conservatism, that’s where you start. Build, build, build. And it’s not just the Build Back Better and government spending that’s going to happen ten, twenty years down the road after we get these bonds to market or whatever. I’m not saying that’s bad; we’ve needed that for a long time. But we really need to get to housing — not just for the immediate jobs impact, but we need to get Latinos into owning homes. First of all, voting rates triple when you buy a home, because you’re invested in your society. And it would be a sin, it would just be sinful if this optimistic, confident, trusting demographic started to lose that because we made housing virtually impossible to attain in this country, and lose that sense of ownership and optimism in the American dream and idea.

I can go industry by industry, we can talk about specific policies. But if there’s one policy, it would have to be a full-frontal assault on the housing and affordability crisis — not just for the jobs it would create, which would be explosive, but for the ability to get people vested in this country, to give them an ownership stake in society, and to start building wealth generationally the way immigrant groups have for our whole 200-year history.

Geoff Kabaservice: What you’re saying is very much aligned with what we hear (and what we participate in) in terms of the Abundance movement, supply-side progressivism, Ezra Klein’s call for a liberalism that can build again. And I think that’s true of housing, it’s true of energy, it’s true in a number of fields. You also call for educational reform. What did you have in mind there?

Mike Madrid: Well, boy, that’s a big one, and again it’s thorny too. And I say this from personal experience. Like I said, I graduated from Moorpark High School with a 2.1 GPA. I was a smart kid, but I fell through the cracks. And obviously I’ve got a lot to blame for that — I’m not going to blame anybody else — but the system failed me too. I mean, I was a pretty smart kid. I was voted, by the way, Most Likely to Succeed — with a 2.1 GPA! — so my peers knew I was a pretty smart kid. It’s just that the system just didn’t have the resources or the concern, frankly, or the focus to care. But I got a second shot through the community college system. Like I said, I made a comeback. I built something of myself. 

One of the things that bothers me the most in education is sort of state-specific: We’re not even allowed in California to keep performance data year-to-year, because the unions won’t allow us to. That is incomprehensible to me. How can you fix things when you’re not even allowed to know what’s wrong? And there may be some data available, but the data you need to determine performance metrics and outcomes is not hard to aggregate and to use and measure against. It’s not hard. We have that capacity, we’ve had it for decades. The fact that we’re not even allowed to collect it tells us how fundamentally broken the way we’re approaching educating our children is.

And let me tell you what that leads to. California always brags about its job growth, and we do create a lot of jobs. But about half of our jobs are for high-tech, highly-skilled STEM industry employees that we have to import from other states and countries because we are not educating our own children — overwhelmingly brown and Black students — to perform those jobs. So the other half of jobs are service-sector jobs. That’s a failing of the public school system. There’s no other way around it or to say it. That is a failing of our public education system, and it’s failing overwhelmingly Black and brown kids when we have jobs waiting for them. We have more than enough jobs at the higher level if we would just educate them, and we don’t and we won’t. It’s not because we can’t, it’s because we lack the political will to challenge the pillars of the Democratic Party.

And that’s just problematic. That was one of the reasons why I worked for Antonio Villaraigosa for governor. He said as mayor that brown kids can’t even read in Los Angeles. Read! We can debate on everything else, but when your kids can’t read, that’s the line. That’s just not permissible. And that was when he really challenged his own party, and the labor unions hate Antonio to this day because of that. And I’m so proud of him, because… A lot of people in my own party hate me, because I stood up to and challenged it too. You stand up and you do the right thing. It’s obvious to do it. I guess it takes courage for a lot of people to stand up and do the right thing, but I just don’t think it does. I think that’s why we got into politics in the first place.

Geoff Kabaservice: Mike, when I was reading your book, I had this sinking feeling because I knew that there were so many fascinating subjects that I wanted to talk to you about that we would not have time to talk to you about. Kristie’s copy of your book here has so many stickers in it that it’s almost as though there’s one on every page. And we don’t have time to talk about your work with the Lincoln Project, how you actually did the data component of that project that was probably more important than the more notorious ads, how you were kind of the anti-Steve Bannon and positing a counter to his negative Leninism…. Just so much, including your state-by-state coverage of states like North Carolina and Hispanic voters there as well as in Nevada, California, Texas, and on down the list.

But there is one question I wanted to ask you about, which is that you say Latinos are among the most optimistic segment of the American population and that they have more faith than other groups in institutions in American life, including obviously our democracy, our courts, our legal system, but also higher education, voting, the military, police, the media… You can kind of go on down the list. Do you think that sense of optimism is going to translate into either of the political parties if Latinos become more significant players in those parties?

Mike Madrid: Great questions. Let me first apologize for my long-winded responses. We probably could have covered a lot more territory here, but thank you again for the interest. Let me answer by saying this, and I’m glad you asked it because I’m literally in the middle of a New York Times op-ed on just this topic. The question really… And a lot of the data is so new that we are just kind of guessing. What we do know is this: Latinos, by a wide metric, are much more optimistic than any other race or ethnic group. A lot of that is a function of age; young people are just more optimistic than older people are. But it is pervasive amongst virtually all social institutions except for two: the Republican and Democratic parties. And that’s an important distinction, and it’s a bright-lights distinction that is telling us something.

I’m going to be honest: I’m not exactly sure what it is yet, but I’m going to be watching very closely. And here’s why… The two American politicians that have dramatically overperformed polling, election-day predictions and conventional wisdom were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. There is absolutely an emergent Latino populism which flies in the face of the data I just said about confidence in institutions. Populism almost by definition requires some anti-establishment thinking, or at least the proclivity to be anti-establishment. And so where we are seeing the anti-establishment sentiment most pronounced is in the political system itself, with the two-party system. It’s not necessarily anti-government or anti-media, academia, church, military, none of those, but with the two parties themselves. 

And I think that the one potential corrosive toxicity of cynicism that could quickly seep in is if Latino politicians themselves do not start to challenge the parties with an agenda focused on a multi-ethnic Latino agenda. And it doesn’t have to be framed as a Latino-specific agenda. It can be a class agenda, and it should be a class agenda. Now, the fact that it’s mostly and quickly becoming more Latino makes perfect sense. But that’s how you advocate for your community. That’s how you represent the people that sent you there. And that frankly is how you start to mitigate some of the anti-establishment sentiment that exists: to actually (I know this is shocking) speak on behalf of the people that voted you to office — or in many cases chose not to vote because of this rotten-borough effect that’s starting to develop in a lot of these communities.

So I don’t know if that answered the question, Geoff, but what I will say is this: There is this huge opportunity to re-instill and refresh the belief in American institutions, American-style democracy, and the whole idea of being American in the first place. I believe that at this time of extraordinary fragility in our system, when everybody’s watching the undercarriage of democracy shaking, and going “How do we save this? How do we save this?” — the answers may literally be inside of us as a population as we transform into something new. The danger is if Latinos themselves don’t challenge the system and redefine it in their own image — not for ethnic or racial reasons, as they’re showing less and less of a proclivity to do, but for those aspirational, middle-class, blue-collar working values that are necessary for any society to work.

Geoff Kabaservice: Wow. Mike Madrid, thank you so much for talking to us today. Congratulations on your book, The Latino Century: How America’s Largest Minority is Transforming Democracy. And I really look forward to everything you’re going to do in this next election cycle and the discussion that your book is bound to promote. Thank you again for being with us today.

Mike Madrid: It was an honor to be with you. Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.