Michael Brendan Dougherty:
The GOP must try to win over African-Americans
It’s time to ditch the color-blind idealism and find the black interests conservatives can serve
For the good of their party and for the good of the republic, Republicans must genuinely reach out to and successfully attract black voters.
But none of those will matter if the GOP and its conservative wing don’t make another more crucial revision to their rhetoric and ideology. Conservatives in the GOP like to assail identity politics and tout their own ideology as one of color blindness. Sometimes this is stupidly marketed to black voters as a selling point for Republicans. “We don’t categorize you by race,” brags a Republican. The black audience hears: “We don’t take the most salient part of your American political identity seriously.”
Color blindness as an ideology may be well-intentioned, a gesture toward fairness and egalitarianism. But it is the kind of feel-goodery that only people privileged and racially unconscious enough to feel like a “default American” can manage to believe.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the experience of enslavement stripped African-Americans of their religions, their ethnicities, their languages, and their nationality. Therefore, African-Americans more than any other group have had their identity shaped by the history and politics of the United States: Slavery, emancipation, apartheid in the form of Jim Crow, industrialization, and the civil rights movement.
Anyone who would claim to represent black interests in our politics must be acutely conscious of history, not just anxious about some pure American ideal. In American history, “black freedom” has always been a separate project from the capital-F “Freedom” in which conservatives believe our republic was conceived. In a country that has historically made the color of a black man’s skin the most important fact that determines the expanse of his political rights and his social place, it is insulting to say, “From now on, our social compact depends on pretending your skin color doesn’t matter.” In fact, it does matter to him, hour to hour, street by street, every night out, in nearly every social encounter. It matters in the voting booth, too.
Lectures about anti-slavery Republicanism in the 1860s are fine, but the way to win black voters now is to actually be solicitous of their interests today. Where do they align with a center-right coalition? Conservatives are wise to rethink the tough-on-crime policies that imprison so many nonviolent offenders, depriving communities of their young men and black families of their fathers. They should take things like Mike Lee’s middle-class-family-friendly tax code revision and push them further so that they help poorer Americans form families too. Republicans might consider the reform of social programs that promise resources to African-Americans only so long as they do acrobatics through administrative hoops. Find a libertarian angle against that racially tinged paternalism. Most important, go out and consult black voters, constantly and respectfully.
Why do this? First because it’s just the right thing to do; black Americans deserve more competition for their vote than they are getting. Secondly, in the America that is being shaped by a new great wave of immigration, black Americans stand to lose even their precarious place in the American polity, to be kicked down to the bottom of an even more racially stratified society. Conservatism provides a natural vocabulary and political direction for communities that feel like they are losing their place. Thirdly, the GOP desperately needs to win votes in cities where the party is practically absent. And improving its margin among blacks in the South will do a lot to keep those states solidly red. Reaching out to the nation’s most-churched group, and one that is desperate for more political representation, just makes sense for the center-right party in America. Fourth, because politics in mass democracies can turn toward tribalism, a GOP that is increasingly white, elderly, and losing will just become an uglier, more resentful, and unpleasant coalition.
Shorter version: The Republicans should be more like the Democrats.
Here’s the problem: The GOP can’t win a bidding war for black votes.
The Democrats have spent decades building their brand loyalty with blacks and other minorities. They have done it with government programs and government spending. Now we are $17 TRILLION in debt and the black community is worse off than ever. What is the GOP gonna offer them? More stuff?
The GOP isn’t mostly white because they exclude blacks and other minorities. The Democrats have convinced non-whites that the GOP is horribly racist. That situation won’t change anytime soon.
Sometimes you get to be in the catbird’s seat. Other times you have to wander in the wilderness. The Republicans need to focus on basic principles.
The current Democratic party is an example of what happens when you sacrifice principles to win elections.