For some Republicans, Senator Rubio of Florida is the great brown hope: a Hispanic who articulates "traditional" American values, i.e. the Republican party ideology of the 1960s to the present day. For some Hispanics, Rubio is a sellout: a powerful Hispanic politician who sides with the Republican party ideology of the 1960s to the present day. Paul Ortiz, a professor from Rubio's own state, recently wrote a rebuttal to Rubio's rebuttal of President Obama's annual message to Congress. Ortiz caricatures Rubio's position somewhat, noting that the Senator "acknowledged that his own family had benefited from government programs" while "attacking the premise that government can help individuals and families address problems of economic inequality." In fact, Rubio said that government "plays a crucial part in keeping us safe, enforcing rules, and providing some security against the risks of modern life." What he attacked was the ideological straw man Republicans use as an effigy for liberalism: the notion that liberals, or Democrats, believe that government has the solution of first and best support for every problem. Thus he caricatured the President's position as a belief that "our problems were caused by a government that was too small." Caricature is the art of partisanship, so it shouldn't surprise us even if it still offends us. But is Ortiz guilty of caricature when he writes that "Rubio avoided even a mention of community in his address" and accuses the Senator of not actually believing in community? This is a crucial question for Ortiz, since he asserts that Hispanics prefer Obama because the President invokes "the idea of community or communities" so often.
What does community mean to Ortiz? He writes: "In Hispanic cultures, the idea of community and mutual aid is held in high regard." You'll find no explicit rejection of the idea of mutual aid in Rubio's speech. Instead, addressing the President, Rubio noted that he lived "in the same working-class neighborhood I grew up in," and said, "I don’t oppose your plans because I want to protect the rich. I oppose
your plans because I want to protect my neighbors, hard-working
middle-class Americans who don’t need us to come up with a plan to grow
the government. They need a plan to grow the middle class. [emphasis added]." We may not want to make too much of this, since it would be blatantly impolitic had Rubio said that "I want to protect myself" and left it at that. There's clearly some space between the implicit community that includes Rubio and his neighbors and the community Ortiz writes about. The most obvious difference is an implicit one. For Ortiz, we can infer, government is part of the community, while Rubio sees some essential distance between the two entities. The Senator might well praise the idea of "mutual aid," but he'd probably see dependence upon government programs as a contradiction of the principle. Haunted by the specter of the Cuba his parents fled, he most likely idealizes a form of "civil society" that must retain some independence from the state if society is to be civil. As a Republican, Rubio may see a threat to "community" or civil society from the state where Ortiz doesn't. We shouldn't belittle anyone's concern for civil society just because they're Republicans; civil society is the embodiment of a freedom of association that tyrants despise and the rest of us ought to take for granted. The problem with Republicans is their reluctance to acknowledge that politics is the same freedom of association in another form and just as essential to community. They live in a utopia -- a nowhere, that is -- where we're all free to associate yet can't be trusted to make rules of association beyond a bare minimum, because that'd ruin it somehow. It might be fair to ask someone like Ortiz if he envisions a point where government ceases to be synonymous with community and becomes a threat or hindrance to it, but it's just as fair to ask whether Rubio has picked a point and drawn a line far too early. The fairest question is whether there really is a "Hispanic idea" of community. We should ask that one before we judge whether Ortiz or Rubio comes closer to it.