The GOP is in the wilderness, holding meetings to discuss how to respark the party. Naturally, one of the topics they’re focusing on is how to woo black and brown voters. In the 2012 election, the GOP was rejected by more than 70% of Latino voters and 90% of black voters, and these groups make up a rising share of America. Since 1980, the white portion of the electorate has been steadily declining, and by 2042 the U.S. Census predicts that whites will make up less than half of the U.S. population. Already more than 50% of the babies in the U.S. are non-white. Given these demographic trends it’s imperative for the GOP to find ways to lure black and brown voters. As a thought experiment, I wondered, what can they do?
I can already hear some of people yelling, “No! Don’t help them!” While I understand that impulse, I think it’d be great for black and brown people to have two parties competing to win their votes by offering valuable policies. I also suspect the GOP isn’t truly interested, so these suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears. Michael Steele, the former chair of the RNC, told me, “The grand strategy the RNC leadership is planning to launch clearly is not based on the substance of knowing first and foremost why voters of color are turned off by our message and our candidates. So how do we begin to fix the problem when we don’t understand what the problem is?”
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Besides, nothing can be done quickly. There’s no silver bullet or simple policy change that could reverse a decades-long problem. Even if they implemented my suggestions tomorrow, it would still take more than one election cycle before the impact would become clear. People’s attitudes toward a party are formed from a long-term accumulation of opinions about their policies and the people who inhabit the party. The GOP is part of the new push on immigration, but as Chris Hayes from MSNBC and The Nation tweeted, “CIR [Comprehensive Immigration Reform] is the right thing to do, but if the GOP thinks it will solve their problem with Latino voters they’re delusional.”
A large part of the problem the GOP has with voters of color is the brand identity that has emerged from the stars of the conservative media ecosystem: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and others. When those people are some of the loudest voices in your party, then most black and brown people are going to be repelled and feel unwelcome. The GOP needs louder voices — leadership voices — speaking back and saying, “No, that’s not who we are (anymore).” Donald Trump is a prominent Republican who pushed the birther cause years into Obama’s presidency. There must be prominent Republicans who loudly push back and say, “We disagree with the president, but are certain that he’s legitimately American.” Otherwise potential voters don’t know whether the party condones racist behavior.
The party also needs to change the rhetoric of their elected officials and surrogates to not be racially toxic, baiting and dog whistle-ish. This week the GOP was told by the Hispanic outreach arm of a GOP SuperPAC to avoid pejoratives like illegal, alien, anchor baby and electric fence. To that I’d add: food stamp president, lazy, un-American, handout, takers, democratic plantation and other obviously loaded terms that show a blatant lack of respect for black and brown people. It’s hard to consider the policies of a party whose members use inflammatory language about you. Also: avoid at all cost having panels about how to successfully communicate with black and brown people in rooms named “Burwell Plantation,” which is named for a slave-owning family. That actually happened at a recent House GOP retreat. How is it possible that no one thought that might leave a bad taste in the mouths of the people you’re talking about reaching?
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The GOP could also refresh some of its messaging for black and brown people. For example, their gun rights position could be tailored to black and brown people — many of whom live in neighborhoods where crime is not unexpected. Something like “you need to protect yourself, the cops can’t always be there for you, and we’re the party fighting to continue your right to protect yourself” could work. An ad saying, “What if Trayvon had a gun?” could be persuasive. I personally think more guns leads to more bloodshed, and if Trayvon had had a gun, he’d either be dead or on trial for murder. I believe guns provide the illusion of security, not true security, but the GOP disagrees and some black and brown Americans could be persuaded to see it their way.
But there will have to be some policy changes, too. Voter ID laws seem very much designed to functionally disenfranchise black and brown voters (as well as other traditional democratic voters). Harsh anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a.k.a. “Papers Please,” stigmatizes the Latino community, leaves them targeted as enemies and makes it hard for them to seriously consider the GOP. Stand Your Ground is also a problematic law that many black and brown people see as set in place to aid whites in protecting themselves from blacks. You can argue the specific merits of these laws if you like, but you’ll struggle to get black and brown people to not see them as an assault.
It also may be time to take a hard look at entitlement reform. It’s in vogue in D.C., but Medicare and Medicaid are popular with all Americans, including black and brown people who hear themselves demonized in the debate. They hear that the Democratic Party will be there in a time of need, while the Republicans will demand you pull yourself up by your bootstraps in a world marked by white privilege, where for many people race is a difficult hurdle to get over. They hear that if the world is divided into makers and takers then a dollar given in welfare is given to a lazy person of color and taken from a hard-working white person. This thinking is corrosive to the Republican Party.
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These ideas may not be easy to adopt because the policies I suggest they leave behind speak to white anxiety and give whites, especially in the working class, a sense that the Republican Party is there to protect them, while the Dems are going to protect the racial other. Stoking fear of that other is baked into their appeal to a key part of their constituency, and has become part of the soul of the party. They’re going to need to extract that before they can begin an honest conversation about wooing voters of color. All that’s at stake is getting back in the White House.