Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jason Riley argued this week that Republicans need to seize the moment and develop an agenda to court black voters. Riley’s plan is ambitious, and he knows it: he hopes to get 20 to 25 percent of the black vote for the next Republican nominee. Is that expectation ludicrous? Maybe not.
Hillary Clinton is struggling. Bernie Sanders is rising, but he hasn’t yet been successful in solidifying the black portion of the party’s base. After eight years with a black family in the White House, it seems reasonable to suppose black voters have seen the best the Democratic Party has to offer them. Pretty crummy party, eh?
Black voters have not prospered under the Obama administration. They are more broke and unemployed than ever. Is it really futile to make the case that we can do better?
Courting the black vote could pay great political dividends. It’s also the right thing to do, and the pitch will be most successful coming from a candidate who understands why. There are three excellent reasons to court black voters more aggressively. First, we might pick up some votes! Second, even modest gains on this front will throw Democrats into a panic. Third, a positive message about race would likely appeal to many whites, especially coming on the heels of the angry and polarizing rhetoric of Donald Trump.
We Can Win Black Voters
Republicans are used to assuming black voters will overwhelmingly favor the Democrats. They don’t expect support from that quarter. It stands to reason, then, that anything they can get will be a gain.
But, truthfully, it really isn’t hard to argue that conservatives are better equipped to help minorities thrive. Black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, and Jason Riley have been making the case for a long time, and their argument is powerful. While rhetorical dandies like Ta-Nehisi Coates delight elite progressives with their soulful despair, black conservatives can explain how the grim conditions in predominantly black regions are mostly the evil fruit of failed paternalistic policies. Progressive liberals have a bad habit of appeasing their own need for racial righteousness at the expense of actual, living minorities who get trapped in a dependent underclass.
Coates’ most recent book makes the contrast of perspectives particularly stark. As he sees it, the problems with our society are basically cosmic and there’s not much we can do about them except weep. Soulfully. (We may also be able to give a half-hearted endorsement of some pie-in-the-sky symbolic gestures such as “reparations.”) You can see why this would appeal to liberals. It’s more comfortable to agree that the problem is cosmic than to survey our 50-year-old Great Society and say, “Guys, we seriously screwed this up.”
To figures like Riley and Sowell, the problem is neither cosmic nor insoluble. Bad policy has spurred a hideous wave of social breakdown. Better policy might help reverse those trends, and we can articulate what those policies should be. Reform the welfare system, and do away with racial quotas in education and employment. Improve policing in high-crime areas and make sensible, prudent reforms to our penal system (as conservative states are already doing). Most importantly, pursue the kind of economic agenda that would open jobs and opportunities for everyone.
Who do you want to support, black voters? A party that has so despaired of improvement that they’re singing dirges about America’s Racist Soul? Or a party with real ideas about what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it? Given recent trends, we can’t expect a majority, but it’s a powerful argument. Surely the pitch is worth making.
Yes, Democrats, the Sky Can Fall
It shames me as an American to see how the Democrats take black voters for granted. It shames me further when Republicans can’t be bothered to protest. Wouldn’t it be fun to puncture that balloon of Democratic entitlement, and make our rivals feel they should at least have to work for those votes?
This would be a beautiful time to take the offensive, because Democrats are already shaken up. Hillary is on the ropes, and the stable is frighteningly empty. Black Lives Matter is making things hard on the racial front by trumpeting a more radical message than most mainstream voters want to hear. Why not intensify the nightmare with another challenge to the mainstream Democratic narrative in the form of a hopeful and reasonable-sounding appeal from the Right?
The great thing about this game is that a very partial victory would really be a win. Democrats can’t settle for just being fairly popular among black voters. They need the overwhelming majority. Their electoral calculus depends on that, which is an Achilles heel we should exploit. On top of that, claiming the mantle of the not-racist party is hugely significant to the Democrats’ moral narrative. If we challenge them for that mantle, it might spark a crisis of confidence, of the sort that could really put their party into disarray. Riley’s “20 percent” would be a landslide defeat, from the perspective of Democratic strategists who are used to counting on a solid 90 percent of the black vote.
Too often, conservatives just seem defensive and flat-footed when racial questions arise. That makes it easy for Democrats to claim the high ground, misapplying historical injustices as an excuse for continuing strategies that have long since proven ineffectual. Why do we let them get away with this? It’s time to stop reacting, and pay black Americans the compliment of courting their votes.
Most Whites Crave Inclusivism
Ironically, the biggest pay-off of this strategy might be with white voters, many of whom are less enthusiastic than A.O. Scott about the ever-receding horizon of white guilt. By targeting their economic and cultural message to the people believed to be most hostile to it, conservatives can prove their integrity to voters from all backgrounds.
Democrats will try to present a Republican racial message as desperate, defensive, and, of course, bigoted. That’s why it’s essential to make this appeal with confidence, ignoring the screeching that will inevitably come from Salon and Mother Jones. Don’t bother about the NAACP. Disregard the ranting of Jamilah Lemieux and Marc Lamont Hill. Speak to black voters directly by targeting speeches and ads that specifically address them and their concerns.
Ironically, Trump may have set the stage perfectly for this appeal, by drawing out concerns about racism in the party. Voters who were embarrassed by the Trump episode (and alarmed by the specter of a new, more aggressive white identity politics) will warm to a candidate with a deliberately positive racial message. Watching Trump get buried in a wave of conservative inclusivism would also drive home for voters that no, murderous Mexicans and ugly women really aren’t favorite conservative themes.
Often, conservatives make racial rhetoric more difficult than it needs to be. It’s possible to believe in personal responsibility and to agree that some people’s circumstances are much harder than others’. It’s possible to support a society that values character over skin color, but also to recognize that bad political choices have effectively scratched open the wounds of racial injustice, which might otherwise have been nearly healed by now.
In short, it is possible to be prudent and sensitive about racial issues without further attacking minorities’ dignity by infantilizing them. Conservatives can walk this line. In today’s political climate, we are in fact the only ones who can.
For far too long, Democrats have sown racial angst and reaped electoral victories. To our shame, we haven’t fought very hard. Fellow conservatives, it is time. Let’s build a party so aggressively inclusive that racists won’t want to be seen with us.