I continue to hear — from politicians and their constituents — that Republicans must start connecting with voters on a cultural level or they are screwed. It was reiterated again this morning by Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican Party Chairman running for Chairman of the Republican National Committee.
He had a story for us: On a bus ride, he struck up a conversation with two African-American women who’d just come from a church event in the city. He said they spoke of traditional values and many conservative principles they all shared. When Anuzis asked them what it was like to be black Republicans, they were taken aback. They weren’t Republicans, they said. It was clear to Anuzis that the women possessed principles of the Republican Party but that Party had not reached out to them on a level they related to.
“You can’t ignore groups of people and expect them to vote for you,” he said. Republicans have not done a good job with African-American voters, as we’ve seen. Culture has been put to the side in favor of political agenda but now there is an opportunity to change that.
Frankly, this is (or should be) obvious to anyone who has actually taken the time to analyze African-American political views. The plain fact is that there is – always has been – a natural constituency in the African-American community for conservative ideologies. And I’m not only referencing gay marriage or abortion here. Despite high rates of single motherhood within the African-American community, plenty of black people – I’d say most – are really committed to the idea of two parents and a stable marriage. Indeed, our history almost dictates that we should be; one of the great injustices of slavery was the refusal on part of slave owners to recognize slave marriage vows. What’s more, slave owners purposefully tore slaves apart, sending husbands, wives and children to separate plantations. As such, when the opportunity to marry freely came, blacks cherished it and still do as a community.
It is also worth adding that there is a strain within African-American thought which can be accurately called “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” conservatism, where “yourself” refers to the black community as a whole. Until the 1930s, blacks (at least those that could vote) were a fairly reliable Republican constituency and in the early 20th century, men like Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey had wide followings. Even the “Black Power” movement was focused – mainly – on black empowerment and black self-sufficiency. Hell, the famous Malcolm X image “By Any Means Necessary” could stand as an advertisement for the NRA if you simply replaced Malcolm’s image with a slightly heavy-set white guy.
Ericka says that if the GOP wants to attract African-Americans in significant numbers, it needs to adopt a new tone. And on some level, I agree. Republicans lost African-Americans for good in the 1960s, when Nixon responded to black support for the Democratic Party by embracing Southern (and for that matter, Northern) whites embittered by the Civil Rights movement. As we all know, Nixon ran against blacks using coded language couched in issues like busing and “law & order.” Ronald Reagan continued this proud tradition, by again running against blacks, this time decrying “welfare queens” and the like.
An improved tone would help; African-Americans would feel more comfortable voting for Republicans if they didn’t believe that Republicans were either A) vicious racists or B) pretending not to be vicious racists (this is only a slight exaggeration). But an improved tone is a little superficial. If the Republican Party is serious about contesting the black vote, it needs to offer policies which address the problems in the African-American community. A good deal of political science literature (”linked-fate” theory, to be precise) suggests that African-Americans don’t vote for individual interest as much as they vote for group interest, and since Reconstruction, have support the party which they believe will benefit African-American interests as a whole. Blacks were Republicans for so long because Republicans – at least until the beginning of the 20th century – were actually interested in improving the conditions of blacks. Republicans proposed civil rights and anti-lynching legislation, and directed the federal government to assist black efforts to establish economically successful communities.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of an improved tone; simply repudiating the racist element of the Republican Party (and this election reminded us that it is there) would help a good deal. This – however – is really an effort which local Republican organizations will have to pursue. For national Republicans, pursuing good policy – and framing it in a way that shows its benefits for African-Americans – is vital if they want to contest the Democratic hold on the black vote.