My response to those concerned about the number of Blacks voting for Republicans has tended along the lines of, “Eeh!” Frankly, I haven’t cared. Long ago, I decided that the GOP in general and Conservatives specifically, should simply preach our message to anyone who is interested, preach it passionately, and then let the chips fall where they may. If 90% of one group of people wants to vote for one party exclusively, so be it. That is, as they say, life in the big city.
As the 2016 presidential race gets off to a start, I have had a change of heart. I no longer think it is enough to simply preach our ideas. It is not enough to simply pontificate about the Constitution, limited Government, and Free market principles, we must see those principles put into practice in our public policy. In order for that to happen, Conservatives must hold office. In order for Conservatives to hold office, Conservatives must win elections. In order to win elections, Conservatives must get votes and the only way to get votes is to engage with the voters, to meet them where they live.
Why do I suddenly care about the Black vote?
In 2004, George W. Bush won re-election, in part, because he was able to increase his percentage of the black vote in the key states of Ohio and Florida. In Ohio, Bush increased his percentage to 16% from 9% in 2000. Similarly, in Florida, the Black vote for Bush rose to 13%. Additionally, Bush won 16% of the black vote in Pennsylvania. Nationally, Bush was able to win about 12% of the black vote, again an increase from the 2000 election. In a very real way, Black voters re-elected George W. Bush.
The statistics are important because since the Nixon landslide of 1972, no Republican presidential candidate has managed to win more than 12 percent of the Black vote. John McCain managed a paltry three percent of the Black vote. (In fairness to McCain, he was running against a god.) Mitt Romney did slightly better against god with six percent. Perhaps the most important statistic of all is that in the 2012 election, Black voters outnumbered white voters for the first time in history. How important is the Black vote?
I’m no statistician, but it seems clear to me that the Republican Party doesn’t need 90% of the black vote to win elections, the Democrats do. If Republicans can capture 16% of the Black vote, Democrats begin to get nervous, 20% and Democrats are in a panic. If Republicans can capture 25% of the Black vote, Democrats will not win the White House or the Senate for a generation! THAT is how important the Black vote is!
Unfortunately, following the re-election of George Bush, Republicans decided that the road leading to the Black vote was paved with social issues: abortion, homosexual marriage, school choice, etc. Conventional wisdom holds that Black people are naturally conservative and so an appeal to these issues will naturally bear electoral fruit. Strange then, that in 2008, Black people lined up around the block to vote for a man, who upon election, immediately released more funding for abortions of brown babies, dismantled a voucher program in D.C. that benefited Black children, and made homosexual marriage the law of the land.
The truth is that while Blacks may have conservative opinions on these issues, they do not vote on these issues. By and large, Black voters cast their ballots on one issue: race.
Shocking, until one begins to ask: “Why does the Left spend so much time talking about race to Black audiences? Why do they frequently warn of a return to the days of Jim Crow and Slavery? Why are they so invested in painting the Right as racist?” The answer is that the Left has learned what moves Black voters to the polls.
In terms of public relations, the message from the Left is, “We are invested in your survival!” It is not that Black voters are unconcerned about economic issues and the like, it is that Black voters are more concerned with Black survival; All else is negotiable. Race matters! And the more the Right turns its nose up at the idea, the more they cede the issue to the Left, who is more than happy to define the issue and set the parameters. The Left will proceed unimpeded to present this study or that poll, proving that America is a hot bed of racism and that the ONLY protection Black voters have against the evils of the Right is to elect Leftists.
The right must respond by learning to speak the language of race. The language of race is not racism, but is a language that recognizes that race exists, is sensitive to the impact race may have on public policy, and respects that the concerns certain groups of people have in regards to issues of race are not irrational. The language of race is essentially the recognition that race matters.
Of course, all this is much easier said than done. The issue of race being what it is, how do Conservatives navigate the mine-field of race? I don’t have the answers, but I do have a few suggestions: Show up, change the tone, and institute a zero tolerance for nonsense.
Current Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus has recognized the need to show up and has instituted the Growth and Opportunity Project, which is designed to, among other things, engage with Black voters in their communities. Unlike other similar initiatives, this time the RNC has actually put money behind the project – ten million dollars to be exact. The RNC has staffed offices in battle ground states in order to engage and interact with minority communities year round.
All of that is certainly necessary and terrific, but it is not nearly enough. Consider that in the beginning of March, there was a huge celebration of the historic civil right march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Aside from former president George Bush, there was not one major Republican figure in attendance. NOT ONE! The message to Black voters was, “Republicans don’t care about us.” Democrats, (the party wielding the billy clubs 50 years ago) got to say, “See? We told you so.”
If the Right is going to speak to Black voters, there must also be a change in tone. By tone I am not suggesting that Conservatives adopt the (rather annoying) habit of the Left, of chicken necking and getting all folksy when speaking to Black audiences. Rather, I am talking about the way in which we address issues of public policy, particularly those policies that impact Black voters.
No one likes a critic and Conservatives are largely seen as critics. One can always count on a Conservative to tell the people what is wrong with a particular policy. Republicans, as well, seem to oppose rather than champion. To be certain, this is in some measure due to the fact that Conservatives (in theory) oppose the expansion of government. However, there is a way to address issues that empowers rather than disenfranchises. Often it is simply a matter of what one chooses to emphasize. For instance, Conservatives often talk about the government agencies that they will dismantle – they are critical. What about offering voters an alternative to what we currently have – tell people what you are replacing it with – champion an idea.
There is also a change of tone to be effected in which battles we choose to fight.
The war on drugs has been an expensive struggle, arguably a failure. Most importantly, for this discussion, the drug war has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of young Black men for non-violent offenses and remains the primary cause of police interaction with young Black men. There are some Conservatives, who are already beginning to make the argument that a rethinking of the war on drugs is in order. Rather than view the drug war through the lens of law enforcement, perhaps we need to approach the matter as a health care issue. I am suggesting that this conversation is an opportunity for Conservatives to champion a policy – a change in policy – that will resonate with Black voters. The tone of the conversation and the emphasis on healing rather than punishment sends a positive message to Black voters that the Right is concerned with Black survival.
Finally, the Right needs to adopt a no nonsense policy when it comes to tasteless or insensitive comments and humor. The Left has been so successful at painting the Right as ruthless racists that the Right can’t afford even the appearance of impropriety. I do not suggest that the Right become as humorless as the Left, but certainly there can be no question that cartoons that play into Black stereotypes should be off limits.
The Reason the Left’s critique of the Right so often lapses into the personal- Conservatives are stupid, closed minded, EVIL!- is that the Conservative story is better than theirs. They don’t want to talk about their story! The Right has no need to lapse into cheap comedy. We do ourselves no great favor. In fact, because race still matters, we play into their hands. The left can now make the discussion about race rather than policy, color rather than philosophy, ethnicity rather than character.
Conservatives need to weed from their ranks all of those who use conservatism as cover for their ridiculous and often racist ideas. Those flying the confederate battle flag at Conservative events are a perfect example. Whatever one may claim of that flag, it has nothing to do with natural rights, first principles, or free markets. Proponents of the confederacy can rehash the cause of the civil war or claim to fly the flag in honor of ancestors until Hell Freezes over. When Blacks (and Latino’s) see that flag they think of ONE thing: Jim Crow, Poll Tax, police dogs, water hoses, Ku Klux, Klan. That is not going to change! Conservatives will be hard pressed to win over many Blacks while harboring in their ranks those who fly the Confederate flag. (Quiet as it’s kept, they will also lose the little Black support they have.)
All of this is, no doubt, difficult for those on the Right to hear. Conservatives are used to patting themselves on the back for being color blind. Aside from it being untrue, the idea of color blindness is a trap. Race exists! Insisting that it doesn’t, means being outflanked on issues of race; playing catch up when race rears its ugly head; and always struggling to communicate with people for whom race is fundamental.
Conservatives must ask themselves if they are truly interested in governing, or if they are content to simply be a voice of opposition. The numbers bear repeating. Republicans do not need 90% of the Black vote to win a national election, Democrats do. George W. Bush was re-elected with almost 12% of the Black vote. If Republicans can double that 12 %, Democrats will not win the White House or the Senate for a generation. Convincing 12 % of Black voters to return to the GOP will take more than a few meetings, it will take a concerted and focused effort to speak to Black voters in the language they most understand.