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How Much Worse Can It Get?

Republicans can’t afford to write off African-American voters.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By JAY COST
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Republicans may no longer have the luxury of remaining silent. Besides, there are opportunities for them among African Americans. The Democratic coalition is a motley assortment of interests, and there are latent conflicts that potentially divide black voters from other Democrats. This might explain why the left is so quick to bark “racism!” anytime a Republican starts talking about the inner cities. Democrats need to win upwards of 70 percent of the urban vote these days, and they cannot suffer Republicans to poach their supporters. 

Yet why is it written in stone that black voters in Harlem should back the same national politicians as the gentry liberals of the Upper East Side? Not so long ago the two neighborhoods’ voting patterns differed as much as their class and social interests. And there remains a divide between them in local politics. Is there really no way for Republicans to take advantage of that, perhaps by promoting economic, cultural, and educational initiatives that the upscale left cannot abide?

Similarly, do not low-income African Americans lose out under the Democrats’ preferred version of immigration reform, which would flood the labor market with low-skilled workers and put strains on already thin public welfare resources? How about the potential conflicts of interest between organized labor and African Americans? The Democratic party is not a monolith, and black interests often come second (or third) when the party is deciding who gets what. Those are viable areas for Republican counteroffensives.

But strategic considerations can only set the stage. There has to be more. African Americans overwhelmingly mistrust the Republican party, and the media reinforce their negative view. Republicans seeking to overcome these challenges once again might look to history. 

There have been three substantial shifts in black public opinion. First, African Americans chose the Republican party, then remained loyal to it, primarily because of Abraham Lincoln’s fight against slavery; next, they started to shift to the Democratic party because Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal began providing them with social welfare benefits; third, they shifted further to the Democratic party because Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964 (and Barry Goldwater opposed it).

In each case, we see a politician stick his neck out for African Americans by putting political capital behind a bold initiative that helped the black community. Importantly, none of them was a perfect advocate for black rights. Lincoln had previously supported the return of African Americans to Africa; FDR had worked in the racist Woodrow Wilson administration, refused during his presidency to push for anti-lynching legislation, and was slow to respond to complaints about discrimination in the military during World War II; and LBJ was instrumental in watering down civil rights legislation under Dwight Eisenhower. In the long run, none of these blemishes mattered politically. Each man took a risk to help African Americans in a big way and succeeded, and his party reaped the political benefit for generations.

It is notable that each of these politicians took black political preferences at face value. It is not simply that the three promoted initiatives that were good for African Americans; the initiatives were also what African Americans wanted. The contrast between this approach and Ryan’s comment is illustrative. The warmhearted Ryan meant no harm; he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Jack Kemp, who similarly shined a light on urban problems. And Ryan’s vicious liberal critics were disingenuous in the extreme. That said, the GOP is not going to win black voters without a conscientious attempt to appeal to them on their own terms. Talking about idleness in the inner cities will not win urban voters to the conservative cause. 

Even in the most optimistic case, the GOP will continue to lose African Americans by large margins. Black voters are much more likely to support liberal initiatives than whites, and Republicans cannot and should not dilute their core governing philosophy to pander to any group. Rather, the goal should be more modest. Republicans should try to win self-identified conservative black voters by roughly the same margins that they win self-identified conservative whites. And they should make their case to moderate African Americans, who today overwhelmingly back Democrats. A diligent focus on the problems that African Americans confront can help Republicans at least rebuild the support they won from blacks before the emergence of Obama.  

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