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“The Least Woke City in America”

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“The Least Woke City in America”

Miami’s increasingly conservative political culture reflects the influence of immigrants fleeing socialist dystopias. Winter 2022
Politics and law
Cities
The Social Order

They’re still talking about the caravans: the miles-long lines of cars, their passengers waving American flags, Cuban flags, and Donald Trump banners, that painted streaks of red, white, and blue down Calle Ocho and around Little Havana, bringing much of Miami to a halt for hours at a time ahead of the 2020 election. On a recent trip to the city, those I spoke with—Republican operatives and supporters, as well as more impartial observers of Miami’s political scene—described these demonstrations vividly. The multinational, multilingual expressions of support for a Republican presidential candidate were unmistakably Miami. They displayed a flavor of GOP enthusiasm that couldn’t happen anywhere else, at least not on this scale. The demonstrators took cues from the city’s proud anti-Communist past. Some of the organizers of the events—officially known as the “Anti- Communist and Anti-Socialist Caravans for Freedom and Democracy”—included groups established to fight the Cuban dictatorship. The parades were a rejoinder to pollsters who warned not to read too much into enthusiastic displays of support for a given candidate. Miami was the site of major political change in 2020, and if you watched the car parades, you saw the indicators earlier than most.

Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, is two-thirds Hispanic and shifted dramatically toward the Republicans in the last election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won by 64 percent to Trump’s 35 percent in the county. Four years later, Joe Biden triumphed, but in a much closer contest: 53 percent to 46 percent. That huge swing in such a big county was key to Trump’s relatively straightforward Florida win. In raw numbers, Trump nearly doubled his vote count in Miami-Dade, from 333,000 in 2016 to 617,000 in 2020. His statewide margin of victory, under 120,000 in 2016, more than tripled, to 372,000 in 2020.

The changing habits of voters in Miami are perhaps the most important part of the story of why what was once the most coveted swing state in the Electoral College has taken on a reddish hue. What’s true on a presidential level is true on a gubernatorial level. Ron DeSantis sneaked into office by just 30,000 votes in 2018. Since then, his stock has soared; his 2022 reelection seems likely. The swing in 2020 was also enough to flip two South Florida House seats from blue to red.

It soon became clear that the Miami results were indicative of a national story of Hispanic voters shifting rightward in 2020. Latino-heavy precincts everywhere from the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, and Clark County, Nevada, to Paterson, New Jersey, and Milwaukee saw a marked move to the right. According to a Pew survey of validated election voters, the nationwide Democratic margin of victory among Hispanic voters dropped from 38 points to 21 points from 2016 to 2020, with 38 percent of Hispanics voting for a second Trump term.

Florida’s growing less white and more conservative offers Republicans nationwide a feel-good story. Florida senator Marco Rubio, himself a Cuban-American from Miami, has argued that the lesson from 2020 is that his party must be built on a “multi-ethnic, multi-racial, working-class coalition.” It’s not hard to see the appeal of this vision, undercutting, as it would, Democratic assumptions about the party’s rainbow coalition.

Adding to this demographic and electoral shift are the results that Republicans in power have delivered in recent years. DeSantis has overseen a practical approach to the pandemic that—at least according to the revealed preferences of exiles from Democratic states—is what many Americans wanted. According to the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Florida grew by an estimated 329,717 new residents in the 12 months to April 2021. Meantime, Miami’s Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, has hustled his city onto the tech hub map, doing all he can to lure talent and capital from Silicon Valley and New York. (See “America’s Tomorrow City.”) Thanks to policymaking at a city and state level, Miami has become perhaps the most prominent counterexample to instances of Democratic dysfunction.

The Miami lesson is also about how much Republicans stand to gain if they don’t neglect cities. The urban Republican has become something of an endangered species lately; at times, it can feel like the GOP has given up on serious attempts to win votes in the country’s major cities. But Miami underscores the prominent role that cities can play in Republican victories. The party doesn’t need to win majorities in densely populated areas for an improved urban performance to count: it just needs to pick some low-hanging electoral fruit, make inroads into large Democratic margins in metropolises, and then the path to statewide victory for Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential candidates suddenly looks clearer.

The question is whether Republicans in other cities can learn anything from South Florida. Is Miami a road map? Or do its idiosyncrasies—especially its Cuban population, a self-selecting group that fled Communism—make it a special case?

A 1930s guide to Florida, published as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, notes the miracle of Miami: “In less than a quarter century, miles of rainbow-hued dwellings, bizarre estates, ornate hotels, and office buildings have grown from a mangrove swamp, jungle, coral rock, and sand dunes.” Then a resort town, Miami, the guide reports, is, in the sporting season, “100 days of perpetual carnival.” Of busy racetracks, the author writes, “the playboy and the plowboy, the dowager in pearls and the sylph in shorts, the banker on vacation and the grifter on the prowl keep turnstiles clicking and feed staggering sums into the pari-mutuels.”

The city is 60 times more populous today—and no less miraculous. The same quality is still identifiable almost a century later: an ebullient cross-section of America chasing riches and the sun and having fun along the way.

For all this continuity, the biggest change in the last century has been demographic, which started with the influx that followed after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959. It transformed Miami, though what today is an essential feature initially seemed an aberration. “When a prince builds a palace, he does not intend a shelter for paupers. When men built Miami they did not see it as journey’s end for a tide of empty-handed refugees,” mused the New York Times in 1961. “There is perhaps no large city in the nation less suited by temperament and resources to take in the destitute.” The new arrivals would soon rewrite that economic story and outperform gloomy accounts of their predicament.

“The Miami lesson is also about how much Republicans stand to gain if they don’t neglect cities.”

After a decade or so, Cuban-Americans had figured out how to flex their political muscles. By the early 1970s, they were a voting bloc that politicians couldn’t ignore. Eventually, that political power took on national significance. When Ronald Reagan came to town in 1984 and promised that “someday, Cuba itself will be free,” he was the first president since JFK to visit Miami and directly appeal to Cubans.

The late Joan Didion started her 1987 book-length account of Miami in a graveyard. “Havana vanities come to dust in Miami,” she wrote. If you want to explain Miami’s weirdness, Woodlawn Park Cemetery is still a good place to start. Among those buried there: Cuban presidents and senators, Nicaraguan leaders, Latin American first ladies, and Bay of Pigs veterans. The graves are a reminder that city politics and geopolitics cannot be separated in Miami. It was Miami’s status as a stage on which Caribbean and Central American politics played out that made it, in Didion’s words:

A settlement of considerable interest, not exactly an American city as American cities have until recently been understood but a tropical capital: long on rumor, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid. Of American cities Miami has since 1959 connected only to Washington, which is the peculiarity of both places, and increasingly the warp.

Today, memory has displaced rumor. Once a site from which to launch invasions, coups, and counterrevolutions, Miami knows what other American cities have forgotten, or never properly understood. Anti-Communism is hard-wired into this town.

Florida Democrats have long bet on a new generation of Cuban-Americans letting bygones be bygones, and forgiving the party of Kennedy, a villain in Miami ever since he abandoned 1,500 Cuban exiles in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. But it hasn’t worked out that way. More than 60 years have passed since the exodus from Cuba to Miami, and Cuban-Americans remain a distinct—and conservative—electoral bloc.

It isn’t just Cubans who are frustrating Democratic assumptions about Latino voting habits, however. Today, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, informed by political failures in their own countries of origin, are crucial parts of a bloc of Hispanic Republicans. Add to that smaller cohorts of Latin American–origin voters who also swung rightward in the last election, and something broader is happening.

When I met Suarez, the mayor of the City of Miami (the municipality covers only the downtown of what today is a sprawling city) in his waterfront office, I asked him whether such a thing existed as Miami Republicanism, a brand of politics unique to the city.

“I think there is,” explained the trim 44-year-old over cafecito. “And I think it stems from the fact that a lot of us are exiles. We’ve seen firsthand the destructive power of Communism. And we know how it promises the world and delivers misery. So I think that is the base of how this Miami movement and formula is created. It is a rejection of an ideology that is probably one of the largest frauds perpetrated on humankind.”

From that hard-earned anti-Communism flows much else. “We are a city that believes in capitalism,” says Suarez. “That believes in innovation as a means of democratizing opportunities.”

Last March, Suarez was maybe the first public official with any real national profile to catch the coronavirus. Nearly two years on, he has emerged as one of the big political winners from the pandemic. The son of Xavier Suarez, Miami’s first Cuban-American mayor, Francis’s first foray into city politics was at two years old, when he appeared in one of his father’s campaign commercials. “Vote por Papi, por favor,” was the toddler’s polite request.

Suarez, a registered Republican, was elected to the nonpartisan mayoralty himself in 2017. Since 2020, he has been unapologetic about the opportunities that emerged for his city because of the coronavirus. At times, Suarez’s techno-optimist hustle feels gimmicky—to demonstrate his determination to make Miami the crypto capital of America, he is planning to pay city employees in bitcoin. But as mayor, he doesn’t enjoy as many executive powers as his counterparts in other U.S. cities, so boosterism is one of the few ways he can move the dial.

And the hype, Suarez argues, can be backed up by results. “All of these ingredients have now created a quantifiable narrative,” he says. “Before we were talking about all the migration that was happening. Now we have a lot of statistics to back it up.” He cites more than $1 trillion in total value in assets under management of companies that recently moved to the city. Many new businesses have launched, and a study of LinkedIn data found that Miami experienced the largest percentage increase in software and IT services workers of any American city.

Suarez was reelected in November with 79 percent of the vote. Away from the flashy tech hub sales pitch, he pushes an agenda that focuses on low taxes, combating homelessness, and encouraging school choice and a well-funded police department. In January, Suarez takes over as chairman of the Conference of Mayors, an organization of city leaders. From that position, he hopes to push his center-right brand of urban policy on a national stage.

Some of this, he concedes, is not replicable—palm trees wave outside his office, as if a reminder of the city’s natural advantages were needed—but part of it is. “Miami has changed in the last ten years,” says Suarez. “It’s become the prototypical city, the city that you want to be like.”

Miami Republicanism comes in many varieties. Suarez is at one end of the spectrum: a centrist, business-friendly fixer who has frequent tussles with the more populist governor. Though not from Miami, DeSantis embodies a more raucous, brash Republicanism, as does the former president, who now lives 70 miles up the coast. But there seems to be an accommodation between the city’s GOP factions often lacking in the rest of the country.

The Republicans I spoke with along this spectrum, whether red-hat wearers or metropolitan Suarez supporters, identified two binding agents that keep Miami Republicans pulling together: patriotism and a firmly held belief in freedom and opportunity.

“In the end, everyone wants the same thing, which is a home, opportunities for prosperity and growth, and freedom,” says Ileana Garcia, the founder of Latinas for Trump and a state senator who flipped a central Miami district in the November 2020 election. “People are keen to stigmatize support for Trump and the Republican Party, including from Latinos, as a cult,” says Garcia. “But we’re not cultish at all. What motivates us is freedom: freedom to live your life according to your values, freedom to do what you want with your money and freedom to live in a country where you don’t have to have government hovering over you and telling you what to do all the time.”

Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, shifted dramatically toward the Republicans and Donald Trump in the last election. (MARK PETERSON/REDUX)

Armando Ibarra, chairman of Miami Young Republicans, says that the lesson from Miami is a focus on enterprise, patriotism, and the American dream. “A lot of Latinos and Hispanics are very optimistic and we love this country,” he says. “We believe in its ideals. When the Left and the Democratic Party attacks our country or attacks our ideals or presents this very pessimistic view of America as inherently racist and a place where you can’t get ahead, we know all of these things not to be true.”

Cuban-American writer Alex Perez, a Miami native who has written for City Journal, explained to me that the city is “old-school American,” more so than much of the rest of the country these days. Another Miami native made a similar point. “This is the least woke city in America,” she told me, referring to the city’s boisterous, politically incorrect spirit. Miami scrambles the progressive Left’s preferred racial classifications. Instead of a hierarchy of intersectional identities that pits “people of color” against whites, the city is a patchwork of national identities and often competing loyalties: Cubans, Haitians, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Dominicans, Colombians, Jamaicans, and others. The notion that American politics can be reduced to a coalition of people of color taking on white supremacy looks silly when viewed from Miami.

“Our heritage is always front and center,” says Garcia. “But if you ask any non-English-speaking Hispanic in Miami what they are, they will tell you ‘soy Americano.’ I’m American.” The frequent progressive use of the term “Latinx”—a gender-ideology-compliant neologism that only 4 percent of Hispanics say they prefer—encapsulates how the Democrats’ increasing adoption of identity politics turns off many nonwhite voters, especially among the working class.

It is a cliché in Washington to claim that Hispanic voters (or, for that matter, any demographic bloc) are “not a monolith”—but it rings particularly true in Miami GOP circles, where Republicans have actually acted on this insight. “A lot of people don’t want to be a generic Latino,” says Ibarra. “What we [Miami Young Republicans] did is embrace the customs, the parts of the culture that they enjoy, that they love. Because they are proud. If you’re Cuban or any other national background, you’re proud of your family’s customs and heritage. I think our ability to connect with them on that basis was really key.” In that sense, Miami’s voting blocs resemble the white-ethnic voting groups that once dominated U.S. urban politics. And the party that treats them as such could gain the most at the ballot box.

Miami Republicanism is at ease with the populist style but more optimistic and forward-looking than recent populist currents. (The “American carnage” theme of Donald Trump’s inaugural speech, for example, would have little resonance in a city full of strivers like Miami.) It is infused with a patriotism that only a few years ago was uncontroversial in public life—and resolutely anti-woke. It has the instinctive libertarianism of the small-business owner and a confidence that can find expression in two kinds of Miami newcomer: the venture capitalist backing a fresh idea or the recent arrival to the U.S. betting his future on the American dream. It is not an angry cry from those on the “wrong side of history,” nor is it shy about fighting the culture wars. It takes aim at a liberal political and cultural elite that describes a country that Miami denizens don’t recognize.

Miami is a reminder that the rising support in 2020 for the GOP among nonwhite voters, and Hispanics in particular, cannot be disentangled from the party’s performance in major cities. According to surveys, a Latino voter is roughly as likely as a white voter to describe himself as conservative. But for decades, traditional solidarities have trumped ideology, with conservative Hispanics reliably voting Democrat. That may be changing, with nonwhites starting to sort themselves more according to ideology. If that proves a real trend, it would create new opportunities for the GOP. A recent Manhattan Institute report sketched the outlines of a “metropolitan majority”: a cohort of voters in America’s large and growing cities that is ethnically diverse (survey respondents were nearly one-quarter Hispanic or Latino) and politically moderate. Their biggest worries, the polling found, are the cost of housing, homelessness, the coronavirus, traffic, public safety and crime, and high taxes. And the survey finds a very limited appetite for some of the most prominent progressive policies being pushed at a state and city level.

All this suggests that Miami may not be an aberration but a sign of a more competitive urban politics. Miami’s various Latino blocs, drawing on a fervent anti-Communist tradition, swung rightward earlier and further than nonwhite voters in other cities, and the city’s unique history meant that it had an active, engaged local Republican Party ready to capitalize on the opportunity. But brave is the Democrat who waves away Miami as a stand-alone case. And foolish is the Republican who believes that something similar couldn’t happen elsewhere.

Top Photo: The city remains a cross-section of America, chasing riches and good weather and having fun along the way. (LUIS GOMEZ / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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