08 March 2012

The Republicans' race problem

It's been argued that the Republican party is doomed in the long run because of demographics -- groups which strongly tend to vote Democratic are inexorably growing as a percentage of the US population. This argument is most commonly made about racial minorities, especially Hispanics.

The standard Republican response, of which this essay is a good example, is that minority voting patterns aren't set in stone -- that over time more minorities will come to vote Republican as they move up the economic ladder and their perceived self-interest changes.

Let's leave aside for a moment the question of real self-interest -- people do, after all, vote on the basis of perceived self-interest -- and assume for the sake of argument that this claim is valid as far as it goes. Large numbers of poor and middle-class white people, especially the less-educated, do hold conservative economic views for whatever reason -- so let's assume for the sake of argument that large numbers of poor and middle-class blacks and Hispanics, especially the less-educated, could eventually be persuaded to do the same. Does that make them likely Republican voters?

I don't think so. Not unless the Republican party changes profoundly.

In a sense, we already have a test of the hypothesis in the social-issues area. There's some evidence that a higher percentage of blacks and Hispanics than of whites have at least somewhat "socially conservative" views (more religious, more anti-gay, etc.), and these issues are a strong motivator for the existing Republican base. Indeed, some Republicans argue that their party will eventually attract more minority voters on this basis. So far, though, it doesn't seem to be happening.

The reason is obvious enough: racism. Most minorities won't vote for a party they perceive as racist, or even as harboring racists, even if they agree with that party on other questions. The less obvious issue is that the right wing misunderstands the nature of the problem it has here.

The usual Republican response to accusations of racism is that most Republicans aren't racist. This is true, but it misses the point. I've never believed, for example, that teabaggerdom, or the virulent hatred of Obama, or the fervor about curbing illegal immigration, are primarily motivated by racism -- there are other reasons for those things which are more important to most of the people pushing them. But that misses the point.

The point is that there's clearly a racist element at work which the party and the mainstream conservative movement seems unwilling to repudiate as forcefully as it needs to. Oh, yes, savvy politicians will condemn a forwarded e-mail about Obama's father being a dog or the While House lawn planted with watermelons, but that isn't enough. There are too many "dog whistles" designed to appeal to the racist vote while maintaining plausible deniability -- and plausible deniability isn't good enough. Not with racism. You can't have it both ways.

For example, a hard line on illegal immigration isn't inherently racist. Most Hispanics in the US aren't illegal aliens, and many illegal aliens aren't Hispanic. Every country in the world has rules controlling immigration, most far stricter than ours. But when state governments write such laws in a way that makes them obviously likely to be enforced in a racially-discriminatory fashion, or when the people supporting them have ties (however tenuous) to white-supremacist figures -- well, a reasonable suspicion has been created. And it's not enough to split hairs and maintain plausible deniability. You have to bend over backwards to make it clear that the minority citizen will be treated no differently than the white citizen, and that the law will be applied as forcefully to an illegal alien from Norway as to one from Guatemala. You must, in other words, explicitly wipe out the dog-whistle effect. And they never do that. Because they can't.

Similarly, everybody with a good grasp of US history -- not just the good ol' boys at whom the dog whistle is aimed -- knows the real meaning of "states' rights" or circumlocutions designed to evoke same. If you're not using states' rights as a racial dog whistle -- if it's just that you genuinely believe a law which is onerous at the federal level suddenly becomes less onerous when it's an individual state enforcing it (an odd position, to be sure), then plausible deniability, again, isn't good enough. You need to explicitly acknowledge the historic meaning and repudiate it -- explicitly wipe out the dog-whistle value. And they can't. Because the racists, while a shrinking minority of the base, are still a significant part of it.

And as long as that's the case, the right wing won't win over minority voters in significant numbers. In fact, even if the party does someday decide to explicitly purge itself of all racist pandering, there will be a long probationary period before it's deemed trustworthy.


Blogger Tommykey said...

Back in the early 90's, I was in a conservative phase and subscribed to National Review.

I remember one issue cover very clearly. It featured a group of thuggish looking minority teens on a stoop, and the caption below it read "The Emerging Republican Majority." I might even still have it lying around somewhere in my house.

Anyway, it looks like they haven't quite emerged yet!

08 March, 2012 09:55  
Anonymous majii said...

As a POC who lived under segregation and has never been able to escape the tentacles of being black in the southern U.S., yes, the GOP has a race problem. What has offended myself and many of my friends and associates have been the race-based attacks that the GOP and their supporters at Fox and on RW blogs and radio programs have launched at PBO and POC. They have no respect not only for blacks, but none for poor whites, women, Hispanics, Muslims, gay persons, atheists, Wiccans, etc., and their attempts to deny it are very insulting. What would somewhat ameliorate the problem would be if one of the high level GOPers were willing to confront the members of the Republican Party about this, but they all appear to be cowards, as seen by their unwillingness to condemn Limbaugh about Ms. Fluke. Not all republicans are bigots, but when not one of them is willing to confront members of his/her party who show bigotry, it implies that the party and its leaders give silent consent to the behavior.

08 March, 2012 10:59  

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