Why the GOP can’t attract more people of color



For those Republicans sparkling with new hope after the whole “Rubio drinks awkwardly from tiny bottle” debacle, I have bad news: Ben Carson won’t do it, either.

Republicans these days seem to be sprinting from minority savior to minority savior, seeking a brown or black face who can make conservative ideas cool and attract more of their own to the party. Sort of a Pied Piper of raising the retirement age and slashing school lunches.

First it was Rubio, now it’s Carson, the famed African-American surgeon who kicked off his star turn at the National Prayer Breakfast — and ramped up sales of his recently released book — by doing the thing that most delights the right: “taking it to Obama!” And right to his face!

But here’s the thing: just dangling black and brown (or female) people in front of the voters who rejected you in 2012 isn’t going to help you win in 2016, or 2020.


Because hidden behind the encomiums showered on any black or brown person who “breaks from the identity politics” to speak up for conservative ideas, is the hint of an ugly assumption: that black and brown people act more out of tribalism than reasoned self-interest. In such a scenario, the mere offer of a similar face and background is enough to break down partisan resistance, because, sold by one of their own, ideas minorities routinely recoil from suddenly become strangely attractive.

The belief in the existence of a “minority reflex” explains why the right seems so perplexed and frustrated that more black people don’t revere Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. After all, he is black! What more do you people want?

The reality, of course, is much more elegant: People vote their perceived interests. For a long time, that meant most African-Americans voted Republican. For a long time, Republicans were, in effect, the liberal party. They were the party of the North, of anti-slavery, of Lincoln. The Democratic Party was the party of the Jim Crow South, of racial prohibition.

Once the parties switched, in the long, slow churn of the civil rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act, and as the GOP’s Southern strategy kicked in, African-Americans saw their self-interest differently. Democrats became the party of the North, of (relatively) greater racial tolerance, and anti-poverty programs. Republicans became the party of John Calhoun-style rejectionism, “states rights,” and the rich.

The broad outlines of the parties — the way they speak, and sound, as institutions, to people of color — have become fixed, in part because the right’s “entertainment media complex” has found profit in amplifying racial resentment among certain groups of white Americans, fueling their sense of grievance at a society depicted by the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world as turning on them in favor of black “welfare cheats” and brown “border jumpers.”

Republicans can’t change their fortunes with minority voters until they begin to see black and brown differently, and talk to and about them in a way that doesn’t sound like sneering.

In a way, Republicans have pursued an aggressive form of affirmative action in order to fix their demographic problems — recruiting black and brown candidates for high profile and statewide office.

Conversely, Democrats at the national and statewide level rarely offer explicitly racial candidates. (In 2008, the Democratic establishment didn’t offer black voters Barack Obama, it offered Hillary Clinton.) That’s partly why, despite the huge loyalty advantage among rank and file minority voters, there is exactly one black or brown Democratic governor: Deval Patrick, and few national stars on deck — Cory Booker and Julian Castro excepted — once Barack Obama leaves the stage.

Democrats make the ethnic offer at the congressional district and mayoral level, where the voters in the pool are themselves mostly black and brown. Ironically, that has meant relatively more nationally viable Republican minority candidates, since they have experience appealing to mostly white constituencies.

But in the short term, issues — like immigration, education, taxation, healthcare, abortion, and the role of government — and tone are driving the demography in Democrats’ direction.

The reality is that in the near term, more Marco Rubios and Ted Cruzes and Ben Carsons might make conservatives feel good about themselves, but it won’t do much to attract more people of color to the GOP.

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