Latinos Study the Tea Party, But Will They Drink the Tequila?

A few weeks ago – shortly after the election – the Pew Hispanic Center released a study with a bombshell of a headline, the kind that digital marketing professionals take great care to craft because, if done right, the results can be huge: “National Latino Leader? The Job is Open.”

As with most great headlines, the facts of the story were framed for effect. The Pew study, based on a recent survey of 1,375 U.S. Latinos, had found that nearly two thirds could not answer when asked to name the person they consider “the most important Latino leader in the country today.” Second most popular answer? “No one.” Of course, there are many ways to interpret these numbers. But Pew’s headline swiftly spawned hundreds of similar headlines – on columns, blogs, and yes, on Twitter – which is all about headlines – for stories debating whether Latinos even need a single national leader. (We’re too diverse. And, by the way, what other ethnic groups have “national leaders”?) And yes, people are still writing. It was a great result for a minor survey. The “Leaderless Latinos” debate has legs, as they say in the entertainment business.

For the headline, you can’t really blame the editors at Pew. It’s what they do. It’s hard to get anyone to focus on real research in the new “attention economy.” Still, there’s something important that’s missing in this story, as reported both by Pew and the many people who have so far weighed in. The great “Leaderless Latinos” debate has ignored the conditions in which mass movements get started, and leaders are made, particularly when the groups they represent are so complex and diverse. And there’s no better case study than the Tea Party, as unseemly or unsavory as that might seem to some, but perhaps not all Latinos.

Why does this matter to marketers? Well, already there are rumblings from an emergent group that professes to mimic the Tea Party, not in substance but “in its grass-roots organizational style.” The name for this group: the Tequila Party, of course, according to a now widely discussed article last weekend in the Las Vegas Sun.

And it’s interesting that the party has an informal supporter in Robert de Posada , the man who was recently inducted into the Latino Hall of Shame – perhaps fairly – for urging Latinos not to vote. That’s prompted many folks to wonder if the Tequila Party is for real, or masterful sleight of hand by marketing pros.Too early to tell. In the meantime, here’s what marketers across the political spectrum can learn from the Tea Party and see why Latinos might very well adopt the Tea Party model.

Movements start with the disenfranchised. In one of the more thoughtful reactions to the Pew study, syndicated columnist Esther Cepeda noted, “the 48 million Latinos who comprise the nation’s largest minority are not an oppressed class forced to set aside such factors as diverse as native country, preferred language or citizenship status.” It’s a fair point – Latinos today may not need the next Cesar Chavez. But it fails to address what Pew and other research groups have uncovered about how most Latinos feel about big tent issues like discrimination. Pew recently reported that 61 percent of Latinos surveyed say “discrimination against Hispanics is a ‘major problem'” – more than 7 points higher since 2007, when the survey was last conducted. Nor does Cepeda’s column fairly address the recent vote in Nevada and California, where tough Republican stands on immigration pushed Latinos leftward. It would be foolish to underestimate Latino sentiment in the next election, just as it was foolish to underestimate what The New Yorker writer Ben McGrath described as the “longtail of disaffection” that came together as the Tea Party in 2009 to 2010.

Movements start on the ground. If Latinos in 2012 rally around a similar strain of disaffection, it would not be the first time. Looking back at the farm labor movement in the early sixties, Froben Lozada recently told the Houston Chronicle, “It can happen again. It can be very quiet and silent now, but you never know when they [the people] will all of a sudden start raising all kinds of hell.” But if it does happen again, and history is a guide, it will certainly start at the grassroots. Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s recent book on the Tea Party movement confirms what many marketing pros suspected. And many students of the movement have noted that the social Web was a huge accelerant for organizing at the grassroots. The movement began with a true local effort, only later supported by big national interests.

Movements create platforms for leaders, not leaders with platforms. Finally, what are the chances that a movement today can create a single national leader? Again, look at the Tea Party movement, whose rank-and-file take special pride in not having a single leader (Lepore and others have recorded the words of many Tea Party followers who openly disdain Sarah Palin). Just the same, the movement has served as a platform for numerous candidates to get known, get elected, and get a national audience.

If Latinos self-organize for 2012, a similar platform might emerge. As for the Tequila Party, I doubt that many Latinos would come together under such a facetious umbrella (and one that reinforces a cultural stereotype). Safe bet is that the Tequila Party is a trial balloon for a far more serious effort. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m betting that the inspiration – the Tea Party model – will appeal to many disgruntled Latinos, on the left and on the right. And whether that means more national leaders or just more local leaders, who knows? But leaders will arise, and some will surprise, I am sure. In 2012, Pew may have to come up with a different headline.

UPDATE: The original version of this column identified Robert de Posada as a spokesperson for a group of politicians that has been speaking about starting the so-called Tequila Party. De Posada subsequently told ClickZ that he has no formal connection with the group – and this column has been corrected to reflect that.

Related reading

Website landing page vector graphic