Ironies will never get stranger than that a rock-ribbed conservative from South Carolina would bring Diversity with a capital D to the old, white, and male Republican party, but that is what Jim DeMint, now leaving the Senate for a think tank, has done. He and the Tea Party have supported some clunkers—Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, and Richard Mourdock most recently—but thanks in part to him and to it the GOP will have in 2013 two Hispanic senators from two big states, two Hispanic governors from blue states that went for Obama, two governors from two deep Southern states who are children of Indian immigrants, two rising-star women in the House and the Senate, and Tim Scott, who now fills DeMint’s seat as the only black serving in that body, and the fifth to serve there since Reconstruction.
Before this, Scott had won the House seat representing Charleston and in the primary defeated the son of one of the state’s white former governors as well as the son of Strom Thurmond. When a daughter of Indian immigrants appoints a black man from a background of poverty over the children of two white grandees in the home of Fort Sumter, something has changed in the South, in South Carolina, and certainly in the Republican party, which, when totting up its list of potential national candidates for 2016 and beyond, finds white males in the minority for the very first time.
The Republicans (and the conservative movement) now have an assortment of stars who are female and/or minority, but far fewer overall female and minority elected officials, and have a hard time winning votes from nonwhites and from unmarried women. Democrats, on the other hand, win big among nonwhites and (single) women, and have many more nonwhite and female elected officials, but—with the exception of the president—have few among them who are standouts by any description. In short, there is a quality/quantity split that should perplex both parties.
Among the Hispanics in Congress, for instance, Democrats have 25 against 8 for Republicans. But Republicans have 4 minority governors (2 of them female) to 1 for the Democrats, the sole black who is now in the Senate, and 3 minority senators to the Democrats’ 1. Republicans need to draw more votes from nonwhites and women; Democrats need to find more who can run on a national ticket. Why does the GOP, which gets few votes from these factions, produce and accept so many as leaders, while the Democrats, who have so many votes (and so many B-listers) struggle to find real stars?
The Democrats’ problem was first tagged in late 2010 by Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal, after the Tea Party wave in the midterm elections deposited Reps. Scott and Allen West, Sen. Marco Rubio, and governors Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval, and Nikki Haley (who appointed Scott to the Senate) on the GOP’s beach. It was true that the Republicans had only 13 blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans in state or national office compared with 75 for the Democrats; but the bulk of the latter were mayors of largely black cities, or congressmen from specially crafted minority districts, elected as representatives of that minority, by largely minority votes.
In passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, liberals not only struck down the rules that had kept blacks from voting, but added to them a new privilege in the process: the right to elect not merely someone who shared their opinions, but who shared their own background or race. To do this, they drained neighboring districts of their nonwhite voters, creating strange, convoluted electoral entities, guaranteed to elect blacks or Hispanics in perpetuity. (Republicans opposed this in principle, but backed it in practice, as carving out these safe seats for Democrats turned the surrounding districts into easier gets for themselves.) At first, this redistricting regime had the desired results, and caused a quick influx of nonwhites into Congress, but it also put a lid on their influence, and their potential to rise: Safe in their insular, one-party districts, they lacked the incentive to appeal to the diverse and more moderate voters who decide statewide and national races.
“The vast majority of black and Hispanic members hail from urban districts that don’t require crossover votes to win, or represent seats designed to elect minorities,” as Kraushaar wrote. “They are more liberal than the average Democrat, no less the average voter, making it more difficult to run statewide campaigns.” Nonwhite Republicans steer clear of these districts and choose to debut in more diverse venues, from which they emerge knowing how to talk to a much wider audience. Democrats find themselves locked in a ghetto, which offers the option of steady employment, but not too much opportunity to advance.
This situation didn’t occur by accident, but grew from the concepts of race, rights, and justice as seen through liberal, and through conservative, eyes. To conservatives, rights accrue to individuals—gender and race describe, but do not define, one—and “racial justice” occurs when people of every race are judged by race neutral standards, or as close to race neutral standards as one can attain in this world. To the left, rights accrue to the group—race and gender define you (and dictate your interests and outlook)—and justice is served when each race or gender is given a proportional allotment of representation or preference.
Thus, the cure for the low number of nonwhites in the House is specially carved-out minority districts, and the cure for low numbers in elite schools and/or professions is affirmative action (which conservatives backed when it amounted to outreach but opposed when it came to quotas). Liberals agree with New York’s former mayor David Dinkins that the United States is a “gorgeous mosaic,” with each distinct ethnic group as its separate gemstone; while conservatives have clung to the metaphor of the melting pot, aka assimilation, the process by which the Irish, Jews, Poles, Greeks, et al., became over time generic Americans, while generic America became at the same time more Irish, more Jewish, more Polish, more Greek.
The minority district institutionalizes the theory of the mosaic (for instance, that blacks are best represented by other blacks), while Republicans cherish the theory that anyone from any background whatever can speak for himself, for the country, and for all it contains. Ironically, President Obama, the Democrats’ breakthrough minority star, seems a better fit in many ways with the conservative model: The son of a Kenyan who was brought up by his mother’s white family, he presented himself not as an American ethnic but as a man of the world, whose affect and appeal were both post- and trans-racial, and who, with his mixed Anglo and African background, was a melting pot unto himself.
In the end, however they started, the Democrats’ race-based solutions have turned out rather less well than was planned. They did get more nonwhites into elite schools on a preference system, but many dropped out before graduation, victims of “mismatch,” having been pushed up just one notch or so over the level at which they might have excelled. Democrats did reap a quick fix of minority congressmen, but at the expense of raising a cadre of national leaders, making them spokesmen for one race and not for the others, and leaving them unprepared to appeal across group boundaries.
Democrats would have done better, as arguably would minority groups themselves, had the voters now concentrated in race-based districts been spread through several districts, in which they would be swing votes, if not the majority, thus making surrounding districts a lot less Republican. As Kraushaar noted after the 2010 midterms, “of the 75 black, Hispanic, and Asian-American Democrats in Congress and governorships,” only 9 won in venues that were majority white. Unfortunately, for the Democrats, almost all 50 states are majority-white, not to mention the country as a whole, and if and when this stops being true of the country, no one other race will prevail. Thus, this design has been a dead end for the Democrats: There are few new Obamas in the national pipeline, while Republicans have about six blacks, Hispanics, and Asian Americans who would make plausible national candidates.
That said, the Republicans have a problem, since, as the New Yorker has cogently noted, “getting Republicans to vote for a black candidate and blacks to vote for a Republican candidate” are two different things. As it turned out, the first part was easy: The GOP in 1996 tried to draft Colin Powell for president, welcomed his appointment as secretary of state, cheered the appointment of Condoleezza Rice to succeed him, gave her a standing ovation at the Republican convention in 2012 when she described her rise from her childhood in the segregated city of Birmingham, and would have been delighted had she been on the ticket as vice president. The Tea Party, routinely caricatured in the media as the KKK redux, has brought the GOP an influx of nonwhites and women, backing Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott against more establishment figures.
It is the second part of this question—will minorities one day vote for conservatives, if conservatives run more minorities?—that may not be answered too soon. Republicans have tried, and not done well earlier, but never before have they had so many vibrant and young multihued standard-bearers, eager to talk up the charms of free markets, with examples from their (and their parents’) own lives.
They are living examples of upward mobility: Rubio’s immigrant parents educated four children; Haley’s immigrant parents started a successful business; Scott was a boy from a one-parent home ready to drop out of high school when a restaurant owner took him under his wing and taught him how to think like a businessman, which launched his successful career. His swearing-in was live-streamed into his old high school, and he is returning there soon to talk to the students about the free market system, and how they can rise in it. This was enough to make NAACP president Benjamin Jealous rush to declare he would give Scott an “F” on his “civil rights issues report card,” which defines “civil rights” as the Democratic agenda, and grades on such things as abortion and green jobs. Tim Scott, of course, is the Democrats’ nightmare, which is why Republicans should hope he visits not just his own old high school, but schools across the country, the living example of what can be done, not on the NAACP’s model, but the conservatives’ way.
Can Tim Scott and the like swing the black vote in his party’s direction? Probably not. But then, they don’t have to: They just have to reach the entrepreneurial subset and detach a part of it, get a hearing from the young and ambitious, present an authentic alternative vision, and turn a few people around. They don’t have to get most of the black vote. Any erosion of the lop-sided margins by which Republicans now lose minority voters would be a gain.
If you were a student in high school, who would inspire you more—Tim Scott or Ben Jealous? This is a new chapter that’s only begun.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.