Race and the Conservative Movement

I’m back with the third article of my ongoing series about the conservative movement and Republican Party development.  Check out the first and secondones here.  Before I jump in, I briefly want to address some of the feedback from my second article on how to reach Millennial voters.  While there were many who expressed appreciation or support in regards to the article, there were a few nay-sayers whose criticism amounted to “We won’t change who we are, they should change who they are!”-  I would like to reiterate that these are my opinions and suggestions on how to reach the diverse electorate that the Republican party often has trouble reaching.

Keep in mind that if Millennial voters had voted with the same partisan voting habits as the rest of the population, we would likely have President Romney now instead of President Obama.  It’s your right to ignore a set of voters because you don’t like doing what it would take to reach out to them, but please be aware that also means the likely electoral failure of our party for a long time to come.  2013 Gallup polling finds that 38 percent of Americans identify as conservative and 23 percent of Americans identify as liberal.  If we were to split the moderates down the middle you would probably guess that Republicans would win regularly with about 57-58 percent of the vote, right?  Then why is it that we don’t have the Senate, don’t have the Presidency, and lost the popular vote for the House last time around?  That’s because there is a large swath of voters who identify as moderate and conservative that we could possibly win, but who are voting Democratic.  Ignoring voter blocs or refusing to change tactics is done at the peril of the future of our political party.

One of those key and growing voting blocs are persons of color, who by and large vote Democratic.  While some notable exceptions such as the Cubans or Vietnamese vote Republican; most black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans vote Democratic. Each group has unique reasons why their communities have historically come to vote the way they have, as well as unique paths forward for Republicans to gain their votes and support.

Many in the Republican Party are not eager to tackle the topic of racial outreach for a variety of reasons.  In some cases they are opposed to policy changes that would likely have to occur to attract a significant portion of any sub-population, such as some kind of immigration reform.  In other cases, conservatives have objections to policies in place that were created with the intent of ending racial discrimination and violence towards minorities.  Those policies might include –  but aren’t limited to – affirmative action laws or hate crimes laws.  There is an element of frustration at the thought of again entering a battle that conservatives have been losing at an accelerating pace.  The failure to make inroads with these voting blocs lies in Republicans’ reluctance to address the issues important to these communities.  More often than not, we have failed to address the issues that are important to them, using rhetoric that is seen as disrespectful to those populations.  If the GOP can replace some of the heated and unhelpful rhetoric which it uses to promote its values, and sell its policies in language that is palatable to these communities, then it stands a chance to break into these increasingly solid Democratic voters.

Black Community

With approximately 93 percent of black voters supporting President Obama’s reelection, what hope do Republicans have of breaking into the hardest of Democratic demographics?  While there are few out there who seriously believe the black vote can turn a majority Republican in the near future, siphoning off a greater percentage of the black vote is a reasonable and obtainable goal.  It begs the question, then: How is that to be done?

First, let’s look at what hasn’t worked, or been counterproductive.

Championing Religious Social Issues- Often in conservative circles this suggestion is one of the first that pops up in casual conversation, and since black Americans are more religious than the nation as a whole,it’s easy to assume it’d work.  The Republican Party has consistently championed socially conservative issues for decades, so it would seem a natural fit, right?  However, that hypothesis is beat down by reality, which has shown that despite the strong and growing support among the Democratic Party for issues like same-sex marriage and abortion rights, black supporters have increased their vote share for that same party.  While there may be a significant portion of the black population which is socially conservative, those issues are clearly taking second place to other issues which are driving them to vote Democratic.

Crying Reverse Racism- The concept is an oxymoron at best, and offensive to black voters at worst.  There is only racism whether it is a white person against a black person or a black person against a white person.  Furthermore, unless you have actually experienced a case where you have been denied a job, had violence done unto you, or have been improperly imprisoned due to being white, there is no comparison to the continued racial discrimination the black community faces.

Disrespect for President Obama- This is a difficult one for many conservatives.  President Obama is the current arch-enemy of American conservative policy.  To some, he is the incarnation of all that is bad and evil, perhaps the anti-Christ himself.  Criticizing the President is a safe, fun, and even expected sport in conservative circles.  So why am I raining on that parade?  Venting your frustration at the man is expected; this is politics, not church camp.  However, the problem is that the criticism often goes to not only attacking his policies and governing style, but to degrading the character of the man himself.  While some conservatives might argue that his character is not up to par for the office of President (an argument I have no intent on entering into in this article) there is a price to be paid for this among black voters.  Many black voters see attacks on the President, especially character attacks, as disrespect directed not only to the President but to all black Americans.  There is no way that the largely white conservative movement can attack the President without this effect.  Is this unfair?  Perhaps so, but the reality is that this view prevails among the black community.  As one black friend and co-worker of mine put it, “There has never been a President who has been as disrespected as President Obama is, and you know why.”

In contrast, we could be doing several things that would increase our ability to create a larger vote share.

Acknowledging that Racism Still Exists- Many white voters eager to move on from race-related issues will declare that racism is over, and while the segregationist policies and overt racism of the 1960’s and before have largely dried up; that does not mean that other forms of racism do not exist.  The facts are thus: people of color are more likely to face discrimination in the workforcemore likely to live in poverty, and more likely to be charged with a crime, go to jail, and receive a longer sentence than their white counterparts.  “But I’m not a racist!” some might be thinking.  I’m not saying you are, and unless you have actively contributed to this situation, you shouldn’t fall into the trap of white guilt. However, admitting that the black population (and people of color in general) continue to experience serious problems disproportionate to the white population opens the possibility of those communities taking our solutions to their problems seriously.  More important is talking about how conservative policies can help alleviate these problems.  Creation of new, high paying jobs and quality education can provide far more relief to these issues than even the civil rights policies of the 1960s.

Carefully Framing Issues that Involve Race- Conservative opposition to certain parts of the civil rights agenda is undoubtedly a barrier to minority outreach, especially to the black population.  As someone who also has serious doubts about the effectiveness, practically, and impartial application of hate crime laws and affirmative-action policies; I will also freely admit that conservative opposition to such policies presents an insurmountable barrier to reach a significant portion of the black community.  That said, framing opposition to those policies in a way that speaks in the interest of the black community and other communities of color is equally (if not more) significant in electoral politics.  The reality is the small percentage of white students denied entry to their college of choice in order to save spots for equally-qualified or less-qualified students of color is a form of racial discrimination.  That, however, is far less persuasive to your average black voter than pointing out the failure of affirmative action policies to provide quality education.  Despite the college admission gap between black and white college students shrinking, the gap by which black students graduate college has remained steady.  Pointing out the failure of these policies to address the issues they were created to remedy is a real issue which can and should be the frame of the argument.

Don’t Attack Welfare Recipients-  You are unlikely to find many conservatives who champion long-term welfare policies for the physically and mentally able.  In fact, you are unlikely to find many conservatives who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to attack such policies.  That is where conservatives must caution themselves: in attacking the policies and not the recipients of such policies.  The higher rate of poverty in communities of color has left those communities with many who are, or have been, dependent on welfare or government assistance.  Beneficiaries of those policies are more often than not insulted when opponents characterize them as lazy, abusive of public resources, or drains on society.  As one friend put it “My mother is dependent on disability and SNAP, she worked hard all her life and is now retired and unable to work.  Of course I’m going to support welfare policies.”  Those in the conservative movement would be wise to shy away from attacking those dependent on government resources, and instead craft a positive message about the benefits that a conservative education policy and a good business environment can provide.  Most of those on welfare benefits realize that a good paying job and a good education are preferable (for their children and themselves) to government programs.  By showing a clear road-map of how our pro-education accountability and pro-business policies can lead to a better life for them and their families, we open the door for substantial conversation.

Empowering Communities of Color- Most importantly, we must stress that the way to push through the problems facing these communities lies with freeing them to empower themselves.  We too must be part of that empowerment.  We can do that by leading the cause on criminal justice reform and urban education reform.  We can do that by standing up to racial discrimination, whether in society or in our party, and calling it out for what it is.  We can do that by being involved in the black community on a personal basis, and by working within those communities to promote the social welfare.  We can do that by unequivocally saying that we are for expanding the electorate and participation of communities of color in the political process.  We can do that by recruiting and promoting qualified black conservatives to run for office and party leadership.  We can do that without creating new government programs or legislation to correct inequities in society.  This, however, requires us to promote the message that we are invested in and respectful of the black community as a whole.

The Hispanic and Asian Communities

While there is a great amount of overlap from the strategies to reach the black community, the Asian and Hispanic communities have some additional issues which do not generally arise as often in the black community.  Some other unique qualities to note are the fact that there is a larger Republican base in these communities, that they are growing, and that they have significant immigrant populations and language barriers.  Respectively, the Hispanic and Asian communities voted for Obama by a 71 and 73 percent margin in 2012, with a notable decline in support for Republicans since the years of the Bush presidency.  The following additional points are ways in which the conservative movement will have to adjust in order to best reach these populations.

Immigration- This is the big, not-so-subtle elephant in the room when talking about both Hispanic and Asian outreach.  Why is this?  Many Hispanics are either immigrants themselves, have family that are immigrants, or have friends that are immigrants.  Generally, Hispanics have favorable attitudes towards immigrants, evenillegal immigrants.  Many Hispanics take a negative view towards the Republican stance on illegal immigration and rank a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, especially children, as a high priority.  Similarly, the Asian community favors comprehensive immigration reform.  So with a substantial portion of the Republican base solidly against any form of immigration reform, and the potential of Hispanic and Asian voters tied to exactly that reform, where is there room for flexibility on the issue?  There are a few points that might alleviate the tension.  Border security needs to be framed as exactly that, border security.  The majority of people coming across the border and through other illegal channels (such as overextended visas) are by and large hard-working people.  For the most part, they are good people seeking a better life for themselves and their families.   Border security must not be about stopping these people as much as it is about stopping the flood of human trafficking, illegal substances, and violence which threatens to spill over into our country.  These are humanitarian crises which especially threaten those coming over illegally, and failing to secure our border hurts them more than anyone else.  Furthermore, we must recognize that a border security and deportation-only approach will likely never pass Congress, especially not a Congress with divided governance.  Any Democratic President and several Republican Presidents would veto such an approach.  That leaves only the possibility of not acting on immigration reform (which hurts politically) having a Republican President who is pro-border security and pro-deportation act through executive order (which would be greatly damaging politically) or passing a comprehensive reform which includes some pathway to legal status.  Many conservatives will balk at this last option and declare their die-hard and unyielding opposition.  That is your right.  However, if that is to be the policy of the Republican Party, we will likely continue to shrink our percentage of the Hispanic vote and to a lesser degree the Asian vote.

Frame Speaking English as Functional not Moral- Too often we see people say “If you come to America you should speak English,” but too often we fail to say why.  When we fail to say why or give the wrong reason, it is damaging politically.  Speaking English is crucial because we need a solidifying national language to bring us together as a people.  It is both functionally important and culturally cohesive.  Unfortunately, this too often gets framed in such a way that it sounds like we are accusing those who don’t speak English and are in our country of maliciously undermining our culture.  I know many of those people, and as a Spanish-speaker, know the difficulty they face as non-English-speakers. They do not need convincing that speaking English is useful and important.  However, English is one of the hardest languages to learn and one of the largest in scope.  Attacking the expression of their native language, be it Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, or any other foreign language, only sends a message of cultural disrespect in those communities.  That is interpreted as tantamount to racism to some.

Most Asians Aren’t Christian- Being a self-declared Judeo-Christian Party does not appeal to a non-Christian voter.  Asians have a wide-variety of different faiths.  There is not much more to be said on this topic aside from the fact that a Buddhist, Atheist, Hindu, or Muslim voter is naturally not going to feel as comfortable voting for any candidate who specifically labels their party with a differing faith.  Those who might suggest that those voters simply need to convert faith are overlooking reality.  Those who demand the Republican Party stick to  Judeo-Christian values, but think that those of other religions should simply overlook those overtones and vote Republican anyway, are asking those voters to do what they themselves are unwilling to do: disengage from their own religious convictions.

Some might be angered when reading this, and shift away from the need to have these various minority communities come to the Republican Party and accept conservative values.  Such thinking though is wishful at best and has no practical basis, considering the trend away from Republican voting for all electorates of racial minority communities.  Reaching out to communities of color is imperative for our party as our country becomes increasingly non-white and more diverse.  For a time, we can continue to win without support from these communities if we maintain or increase our support in the Anglo community; however, this short term solution will not hold up in the long run.  Perhaps others will come up with better ways to reach out.  Perhaps these communities will come around to support the Republican Party on their own.  Until then I hope this continues to be another useful piece in the conversation.