The Indifferent and the Defiant

Battered by poverty and coronavirus, South Texas should have been deep blue turf for Joe Biden. It wasn’t. But in the Rio Grande Valley, the story is less about growing conservatism than about the rise of nonvoting — and despair.

The town of Roma in Starr County, South Texas. (CMH/Flickr)

In the weeks following the presidential election, pundits puzzled over the Democratic Party’s miserable performance in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, where the poverty rate is double that of the state as a whole.

These four counties along the US-Mexico border had gone blue in every presidential election since 1972. They did this time, too — but barely. The Democrats’ numbers looked like they’d been cratered by a meteor.

The arresting trend prompted a national conversation about the mindset of the average Latino Hillary-Clinton-to-Donald-Trump voter in South Texas and what it suggests about the future of the nation’s partisan alignment. Predictably, however, this conversation elided the most decisive voting bloc: those who don’t vote at all.

The excitement over relatively high 2020 turnout obscured the reality that, even at its best, the United States trails nearly all developed democracies in electoral participation. Clinton-to-Trump voters in the Rio Grande Valley were vastly outnumbered by eligible voters who sat out the contest.

One of those nonvoters is Edward De Leon, a twenty-three-year-old barber who lives in La Feria, a town of seven thousand people surrounded by cotton fields and grapefruit groves. La Feria lies between Brownsville and McAllen, the two poorest cities in Texas, just seven miles north of the Mexican border. Like the rest of Cameron County, it’s majority Latino, though there are non-Hispanic white residents, too — especially in winter, when a handful of snowbirds known as “Winter Texans” take up residence in the RV parks.

“It’s like the towns that you see in the movies, with the little Main Street with the little cafés on the side,” says Edward. But La Feria and the greater region are also “disconnected from the rest of the country, because it’s sort of in between Mexico and the United States,” Edward observes. “No one cares about us down here. We’re just not very important. And a lot of people think that Donald Trump cares about them.”

Edward watched as support for Trump grew among Latinos in South Texas last summer and fall. It used to be that “no one liked Republicans,” he says, but “this year, I noticed that the amount of people who would come around in their cars and their big trucks with their Trump and MAGA flags was huge. Even if they know he’s racist and everything, people still think that he’s looking out for the little guy.” The pro-Trump roadside rallies and caravans Edward saw were racially mixed, white and Latino, “which is very strange. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Edward primarily attributes the rise in support for Trump to the president’s vocal opposition to the economic shutdowns, which closed businesses and put many people in the Valley out of work. Anecdotally, Edward says he’s noticed an uptick in the number of homeless people on the streets of Brownsville and McAllen — “the poor begging the poor.”

“I think people are really tired, especially after the quarantine,” he says. “Barely making ends meet, not being able to put food on the table.” In the absence of any serious prospects for substantive economic relief to help them weather the pandemic at home, Edward says people just want their jobs back, and plenty believed Trump was the one who could make it happen.

Like many of his neighbors, Edward’s life has been disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. But he wasn’t persuaded that the answer was voting for Trump, who strikes him as a con man. Edward was also unmoved to vote for Joe Biden, whom he considers politically and mentally vacant, “a placeholder for Kamala Harris to eventually become the president.”

Unimpressed with his options and resentful of the whole spectacle, he abstained.

Left in the Lurch

In the run-up to the election, liberals clucked their tongues at nonvoters, frequently accusing them of revealing their privilege and failing to act decisively on behalf of the less fortunate. But Edward De Leon is not privileged.

He grew up poor in the Valley, with a disabled mother and a father who traveled all over the state to work construction jobs, sleeping in distant motel rooms and sending money home. “It was very hard for me and her to survive,” he says. “We were a low-income family, struggling every day. I would go to sleep hungry.”

Eventually, Edward plans to have his own family, and he wants more financial security for his future children. But he has struggled to get on track. “I did my best in school, and then, come my senior year, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to afford college at all,” he says. “It hurt me. I really wanted to be something bigger, and I couldn’t, and I had to get over that.”

Still stung by disappointment, Edward got a job at Home Depot and put himself through barber school. When he finished, he started working at barber shops. Things were going well for a while. “I finally made my little dream. I got my own place. I had my girlfriend. I worked very hard for this, and it was treating me good. And then the virus hit, and they pulled the rug out from under me and didn’t help me out.”

All around him, Edward saw the destruction wrought by the simultaneous economic and public health crises. He moved back in with his parents and got a job at McDonald’s. Two of his aunts died of COVID-19.

For Edward, the experience of the last year has felt like more than a setback. It’s felt like confirmation that society isn’t set up for people like him to succeed.

“To be hungry when you’re ten and not be able to afford to fill your stomach, to want to go to college but not be able to afford it, to lose your income and not have the government help you, it’s very disheartening,” he says. “It hurts so bad to work so hard just to be thrown back to square one. That’s what I learned this year. You can lose everything in a few days, and no one’s gonna help you out.”

Politically, Edward was disposed to cynicism before the pandemic. He’d been a supporter of President Barack Obama, but he grew disappointed when he learned more about the administration, including its fervor in pursuing detentions and deportations. “He’s the one that built cages for migrants,” Edward says. “He’s the one that gave the police military-style equipment.”

A real turning point for Edward was Obama’s 2016 visit to Flint, Michigan, where the president assured residents that their water was safe to drink. “He literally wets his lips with the Flint water and then puts it down and says the water’s fine,” Edward recalls. “You’re doing that to your own people. You’re looking them in the eye and telling them that everything’s okay, when you could have declared a disaster and fixed it.”

Flint reminded Edward of the Rio Grande Valley. Both places are beset by poverty, out of step with both urban America and the heartland, overlooked by both politics and industry, abandoned to fend for themselves.

In Flint, thousands of poor black people were left without drinkable water for years. In the Rio Grande Valley, thousands of poor Latinos live in colonias, or unincorporated settlements that lack basic water, sanitation, and electrical infrastructure. “We’re not important,” Edward says. “These low-income families, these minorities, we’ve never been something that they need.”

While he understands their rationale, Edward thinks the Latino Trump converts in South Texas are mistaken. “If people are down here in the Valley and they voted for Trump, at the end of the day, he’s not going to help them,” he says. But he thinks Biden voters are suckers, too. Biden, after all, has been a powerful presence in politics for a long time. “If he wanted to change anything, he would have done something already,” says Edward.

Edward is not reluctant to disclose that he didn’t vote, and he resents the idea that he ought to feel ashamed. “I would rather voice my opinion and let everyone know that I didn’t vote and why I didn’t vote. It’s not because I’m uneducated. Not because I didn’t go to college. Not because I didn’t do enough research. None of that.”

On the contrary, he says, “If you voted, you’re uninformed, because neither side is looking out for your best interests.”

Indifference and Defiance

Demographically, Edward is a typical nonvoter. They’re more likely to be young than old. They’re more likely to be nonwhite than white. And the strongest correlation of all: they’re more likely to be low-income than not. In the 2018 midterms, 73 percent of nonvoters came from households with a total income of less than $75,000, with nearly half coming from households with a total income of less than $30,000.

Edward’s relative interest in politics and strong negative feelings toward the candidates and parties make him a less typical nonvoter, which isn’t to say unusual.

Political scientists Nicholas Clark and Rolfe Peterson recently published a study of nonvoters that separated them into four categories. The smallest group, at 5 percent of nonvoters, were labeled “obstructed,” meaning they actively wanted to vote but were denied the opportunity through various forms of voter suppression.

The next 15 percent were labeled “apathetic,” meaning they didn’t follow or care about politics at all. And 26 percent were labeled “conditional,” meaning they paid attention to politics and were dissatisfied with their options. Edward is a conditional nonvoter.

The largest group of nonvoters, at 40 percent, were labeled “incapable.” These nonvoters are not outright obstructed by impossibly long lines or restrictive identification laws, but they find voting difficult for other reasons, such as not being registered, having to work on Election Day, or lacking transportation to the polls.

Many of the obstacles incapable nonvoters face can hypothetically be overcome on an individual level. It’s not always possible in practice, but in theory, a person can register to vote, take a sick day, and plan transportation beforehand. The reason people don’t do these things is often that they share a foundational trait with apathetic and conditional non-voters: they don’t believe enough in the transformational potential of politics to go out of their way to participate in elections.

Above the individual level, incapable nonvoters’ logistical problems can be solved with reforms like automatic voter enrollment, making Election Day a federal holiday, and increasing polling locations, coupled with timely and free transportation. These reforms are necessary, but they don’t guarantee any outcome beyond turning incapable nonvoters into capable ones. As the already high numbers of conditional and apathetic nonvoters indicate, plenty of people who can vote still abstain from elections, whether indifferently or indignantly.

Just as conditional nonvoters share traits with incapable nonvoters, so, too, do they resemble another group of political actors: partisan defectors belonging to a community understood to be synonymous with a particular party affiliation. Call them “defiant” voters.

The defiant voter category doesn’t include moderate swing voters whose political identity is presumed to be up for grabs. Rather, it refers to apostates, like working-class white Rust Belt voters who broke with tradition to vote for Trump in 2016, and working-class Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley who did the same in 2020. Like conditional nonvoters, these defiant voters take action to register their discontent, only instead of staying home, they march across the aisle — and scramble the partisan topography in the process.

But more often than not, people who feel abandoned by their politicians are too demoralized to engage in any kind of protest voting or nonvoting. Any political movement that aims to use elections to advance its agenda will have to contend with this pervasive demoralization. As we saw in 2020, turnout can be juiced with competitive elections and media sensationalism, but there’s no long-term substitute for a widespread belief that people can alter their own circumstances through participating in politics.

That belief can’t be spontaneously ignited. It requires the painstaking construction of a new political culture, made up of parties and politicians who are broadly understood to be responsive to working people, not just corporate leviathans and a handful of towering elites.

Your Money or Your Life

As fall turned to winter, coronavirus cases continued to climb in the Rio Grande Valley. Out of 254 counties in Texas, Cameron and Hidalgo counties made the list of the top ten with the most fatalities. The Winter Texan situation was a lose-lose: those who migrated south as usual increased the circulation of the virus, while those who stayed north decreased the circulation of money.

For most people in the Rio Grande Valley, financial desperation outweighed the individual and collective health risks. Without any sign from either the outgoing or incoming administration that people would be adequately compensated by the government to stay home until the spread of the virus abated, they clamored to get back to work.

Edward was among them, though he wasn’t in good spirits about it. “I hate sounding so depressed and bleak, but I really have no hope for the new year,” he says. He suspects that, even with vaccine distribution already underway, the country’s outlook remains grim for the foreseeable future. Edward finds cynicism the safest emotional posture. He’s young, but he’s been dealt enough blows to conclude that optimism is an invitation to disappointment.

While Edward is open about the political pessimism that justifies his abstention from elections, he’s more discreet with his predictions about the nation’s health and economic forecast. He tries to be buoyant and cheerful when he interacts with clients at the barber shop.

“Every day, I hope to make someone feel positive,” he says. “Me, myself, I don’t feel like that. But I really would love for everyone else to have hope that we’re going to be alright.”