With this post, I am going to begin a four part series on how the Republican Party can improve its messaging and make adjustments to its policy positions and emphases in order to win over more voters. While I am philosophically uncomfortable with political analysis lumping together millions of different people due to their race and not their personal opinions and priorities, I also recognize that most of the post-election analysis regarding Republican Party “reform” has focused on solving GOP “problems” with various racial groups. My series will therefore have a posts dealing with how the GOP can do better among Asians and Hispanics as well as measures it can take to expand its appeal to all voters. I will add a couple caveats; the first being that I am not dealing in sophisticated polling analysis, but rather on my best hunches regarding these topics, so take me with plenty of salt. The second is that much of the advice I give in these posts may contradict each other. This is because there are no Solomonic decisions in politics; any action that satisfies one group of people will enrage another. All that said, this first post will deal with a particular obsession of both the Republican establishment and the grassroots – how they can win a greater proportion of the near-monolithic African-American vote.
If I may be permitted to employ my rigorous research standards, a quick Google search [how can republicans win blacks] reveals five editorials on this subject. Theodore Johnson at the Huffington Post believes that Republicans do not effectively message to black people and that blacks are unaware of the Republican party’s history of supporting civil rights law. Ishmael Reed at the New York Times suggests that the GOP support prison job training programs, and to rather confusedly denounce mortgage lenders both for discriminating against blacks by lending to them too much and also by not lending to them enough. Former Congressman J.C. Watts is starting an organization to groom young black conservatives for higher office. Jonah Goldberg believes that they should not be intimidated by Democratic claims of racism. Thomas Sowell thinks the Republican Party can leverage its positions on school choice and eminent domain reform as wedge issues.
Traditional Republican rhetoric with regards to winning more black votes tends to follow several tracks. One is that old standard, “Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, doncha know!” along with its corollaries, “segregationists were Democrats, doncha know!” and the downright asinine “Martin Luther King was a Republican, doncha know!” What’s the problem with this line of reasoning is that it treats whomever it is directed at as an idiot. Chances are they already know Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and they also know that party platforms can change in (1)50 years. Even if they are unaware of one of those facts, they still don’t like to be treated like an idiot. Nobody likes to be treated like an idiot (Thomas Jefferson was a Democrat, doncha know! Ronald Reagan was an ex-Democrat who signed legal abortion into law in California, doncha know!). The second is the truly myopic “Democrats are the real racists, and blacks should just get off the liberal plantation!” This is first of all untrue, because whatever their faults nearly all Democrats truly believe their policies are beneficial to blacks, and second of all downright offensive towards those it supposedly is attempting to convert. If you wouldn’t accuse a Jewish Democrat of being a kapo, don’t accuse a black Democrat of being on the “liberal plantation.” And no, it is not any less offensive if it comes out of the mouth of a black Republican. The third is the “blacks would surely vote for us, if only they knew how great our policies on X are!” with X usually being school choice, or sometimes “urban enterprise zones” or social conservatism, etc.
It is the third suggestion that I will address. What Republicans need to realize, first of all, is that blacks are not just by-and-large Democrats, but liberal Democrats at that. Blacks are much more likely to endorse an expansive view of government than are whites. Part of the reason for this, is that blacks, particularly middle-class blacks, are not just more likely to receive government assistance but also more likely to hold government jobs than are whites. Blacks have been voting for Democrats since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who threatened to veto Republican-backed federal bans on lynching, and refused to desegregate the armed forces even in the face of worldwide conflagration. Why? Because make-work programs like the WPA and the general expansion of the federal bureaucracy during that period were the among the first viable options for middle-class advancement available to blacks. And this is where Republicans run into trouble with blacks. When there is a conflict between politicians and public employee unions, Republicans, and to a lesser extent whites, generally see it as a good government issue or necessary economization. Blacks often see it as an assault on black attempts at prosperity and stable employment. This is why Republican ideas about school choice and education reform tend to fall flat among the black community. Yes, many black children have been failed by substandard teaching in the public schools. But in the individual, anecdotal sense, this is difficult to see. What is easy to see is when people get fired. And when a Korean-American woman fires hundreds of teachers in the District of Columbia, predominantly black, the response was utterly predictable, except perhaps to Thomas Sowell, 8 months after he wrote the earlier linked editorial.
Unfortunately for Republicans, while there are some blacks who are open to GOP ideas on education reform, those blacks are likely the same ones who are open to GOP ideas generally. Eminent domain reform might potentially have appeal, but the issue was already the source of an dispute between factions within the Democratic Party between the late 1950s and early 1970s, a dispute ultimately won by minority-backed anti-eminent domain activists. Gone are the days when entire minority neighborhoods would be flattened to build elevated highways or bridges; now eminent domain tends to affect only a few households at most; not enough to provoke large-scale outrage. Federal job-training and entrepreneurship programs have lots of overhead compared to dubious real-world results. Opposition to gay marriage among some blacks has not resulted in any discernible shifts in voting patterns. To win a majority of blacks, the only even theoretically possible “solution” I can see for the Republican Party is to completely abandon the Republican positions on crime and economic policy (except possibly on taxes), and, in the short term, to refrain from any personal criticism of President Obama whatsoever. Even this would hardly be a sure bet, because the Democrats could always outdo the Republicans; for instance by proposing slavery reparations or employment quotas.
So what should the Republicans do? First of all, performing a form of candidate affirmative action by latching on to black Republican politicians who clearly aren’t ready for prime time, like Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, or Allen West, is at best counterproductive. Recently, Dr. Benjamin Carson, a black neurosurgeon, advocated for conservative positions on health care reform and the flat tax at the National Prayer Breakfast. Certainly, Dr. Carson is a very smart and well-spoken man, but the way he instantly went from being a person nobody had ever heard of to being considered a potential presidential candidate in 2016 borders on the absurd. Republicans can make themselves feel better by giving blacks a fast-track to prominence in their party, but it is unlikely to convert many non-Republican voters. (Indeed, Dr. Carson’s assertion that his positions are self-evident because of their supposed Biblical foundation is unlikely to convert many who do not already agree with him). And most importantly, stop the “doncha know” rhetoric, never refer to any “liberal plantations,” occasionally appear before hostile black audiences such as the NAACP when (and not just when) they invite GOP candidates, and learn how to appear before such an audience without any “Who Let the Dogs Out” moments. 50% of the black vote probably isn’t doable, but 20, maybe even 25% might very well be within reach.