Dear Shawn,

I hope you’re right that Herman Cain will make another presidential run!  Reporters everywhere will rejoice, especially since they will no longer have real recognize realMichele Bachmann around to entertain them.  But I think we both agree that Republicans will continue to have immense difficulty attracting minority votes whether their presidential nominee is Cain or almost any other of the likely candidates.

I’m going to dodge your question about how to define a moderate, at least for the moment.  I’d like to go back to the Republican National Committee post-2012 “autopsy” I mentioned in my previous post.  The RNC view is that the Republican Party isn’t winning the votes of minority groups because it hasn’t done a good job of reaching out to them.  That’s true, even by the standards of the party’s past performance.  The GOP’s outreach efforts to Asian-Americans, for example, were much more extensive and successful during Ronald Reagan’s presidency than in Mitt Romney’s campaign.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the RNC made significant investments in focus groups with minorities and even set up storefront headquarters in the inner city to try to help solve local residents’ problems.

Timothy Thurber, in his terrific new history Republicans and Race, concludes that those efforts were more the exception than the rule, and that in general the party has never put much effort into reaching out to African-Americans.  But in the past there were also Republicans like New York mayor John Lindsay and New York Rep. Jack Kemp who were deeply interested in minorities and actively sought their votes.  Lindsay was an uber-WASP but spent much less time on the Upper East Side than he did walking around Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, often with only a few aides and no reporters, just shaking hands and listening to people’s concerns.  Kemp was famous for saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Kemp showed that he cared by making the case for supply-side economics with predominantly black and Hispanic audiences and explaining how Republican policies would benefit them.  Maybe they didn’t buy his ideas, but most came to believe that he was acting in good faith. 

I can’t think of a lot Republicans nowadays who actively seek out minority voters, or who seem at ease when addressing the NAACP or similar groups, or who seem to have any sort of imaginative sympathy for people who are in any way unlike themselves.  Conservatives claim that there’s no point in making outreach efforts to minorities since they won’t vote for the party anyway — but at some point this becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.  It also becomes an image problem, since there are plenty of white voters who feel uncomfortable supporting a party that seems indifferent (at best) toward minorities.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Republicans will follow the RNC outreach recommendations and do a better job of presenting themselves to minority groups in 2016.  Even in that case, however, it’s unlikely that the party will fare any better with minority voters, because the conservatism that now defines the Republican Party is unappealing to most minorities.

A bit of history here…  From the eighteenth century through the 1960s, American political parties were coalitions of interest rather than ideological vessels.  Liberal Northeasterners and conservative Southerners coexisted in the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party brought together conservative Midwesterners and progressive New Englanders.  But increasingly since the Goldwater takeover in 1964, the Republican Party has become a party for conservatives only.  The current struggles within the party are between different kinds of conservatives, including libertarians, social conservatives, and more business-oriented conservatives. 

And as the Republican Party has become more conservative, it has become increasingly unattractive to minority voters.  A majority of Asian-Americans voted Republican as recently as the 1990s, but in the last election 73 percent voted for Barack Obama — a higher percentage even than Hispanic voters.

Different minority groups (or segments of those groups) object to different aspects of conservatism.  Asian-Americans, for example, seem to have become alienated by social conservatives’ perceived hostility toward science and modernity.  But all minority groups reject the Republicans’ anti-immigrant rhetoric, with its undercurrent of white America under threat. 

Minorities of all colors also reject the conservative antipathy toward government.  Black Americans, in particular, remember that equality for all could not have been achieved without the active support of the federal government.  African-Americans can hardly be expected to cheer when Rand Paul says that he would have voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or when the conservative Supreme Court guts the 1965 Voting Rights Act, or when Congressional Republicans oppose just about every government program that disproportionately benefits minorities.

Conservatives argue that there’s nothing inherently racist in opposing policies such as food stamps or affirmative action.  Maybe.  But what are conservatives doing to overcome what we might call the Kanye West Thesis that Republicans don’t care about minorities?  In 2010, Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele (who is black) admitted that African-Americans “really don’t have a reason” to vote Republican.  The black entrepreneurs and veterans and ministers that you mentioned won’t vote Republican as long as they think the party is racist, or at the very least is the enemy of the least fortunate members of their community.  I suspect that conservatives underestimate the extent of social solidarity that prevails even among the most affluent and successful members of minority groups in America.

The critical error of the RNC autopsy report, in my view, is that it assumes that the Republicans’ conservative principles are fundamentally sound and that there’s no need to challenge the party’s relationship with the forces that have dragged it to the right.  But the GOP won’t attract significant numbers of minority votes until it’s safe for moderate Republicans to put forward alternative approaches and policies to the conservatism that alienates minority voters.  Or to put it another way, there won’t be any racial diversity in the Republican Party until there is ideological diversity as well.

“Moderation” is a slippery term, but for our purposes it has two key aspects.  The first is attitudinal.  A moderate is a pragmatist, someone interested in solving problems, someone who approaches issues based on evidence and objective consideration more than pre-cast ideology, and someone who is willing to compromise with opponents to achieve results.  The GOP’s reputation with minorities might improve if it didn’t seem dominated by angry, uncompromising ideological zealots.

In policy terms, moderate Republicans during the 1960s and ‘70s were defined above all by their support for civil rights and civil liberties.  This is a strand of Republican belief that traces back all the way to the antislavery founders of the party in the 1850s, and the GOP should do everything in its power to revive it.  Moderates also were fiscally conservative but socially tolerant, a position that could find favor with those minorities who currently see austerity as a plot to punish the conservatives’ enemies while rewarding their friends.

Colin Powell was in many ways a classic moderate Republican, and it’s a great game of what-if to think what might have happened if he had run for president in 1996, when there was a groundswell of support for his nomination.  The difference between a Colin Powell and a Herman Cain candidacy, I think, is that Powell wouldn’t have tried to present himself as the most conservative candidate regardless of color; he would have tried to think through the ways in which Republicanism could be made meaningful and attractive to African-Americans and other minorities.  That’s the debate the Republican Party still needs to have.


Hey Geoff,

Your description of the RNC autopsy report reminds me of the opening paragraph of Goldwater’s ‘The Conscience of a Conservative’. Like Goldwater, the lbj-goldwater1RNC refuses to acknowledge that conservative principles may not be ‘fundamentally sound’ to use your words; or in the words of Goldwater “relied upon as a comprehensive political philosophy”. It’s hard to prove or disprove anything on purely philosophical or theoretical grounds, but the political viability of Goldwater’s brand of anti government conservatism was put to the test in 1964, so it might be good to take a look at that election and its aftermath.

In our interview back in May you recounted a hilarious story that is vintage Goldwater. While on the campaign trail, a staffer hands him a can of a new soda that they’re using to promote his presidential bid: a soda called “Gold Water”. With the cameras on him, Goldwater takes one swig and spits it out saying “This tastes like piss!” That moment foreshadowed the election itself and the electorate’s reaction to Goldwater’s platform.

The story of the Goldwater campaign is of course that he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in addition to taking other hardline stances and was dealt one of the worst defeats in American history, but the lesson of the Goldwater candidacy is even more significant and is at odds with the conservative movement’s internal myth.

Goldwater offended and alienated, not just liberals and blacks and peaceniks. He offended people who are today the backbone of the conservative base: the elderly, rural voters, and working class whites. In the same way that Goldwater’s ‘nuanced’ view of The Civil Rights Act didn’t sway black voters, his views on social security and farm subsidies didn’t sway the elderly or rural voters.  While federal overreach was a concern the reality of having electricity thanks to the Tennessee Valley authority or highways thanks to Eisenhower’s initiatives outweighed the rhetoric. Losing these voters made his defeat an authentic landslide and led to several other ‘autopsy’ reports which you discuss in your book.

We can of course imagine an alternate history where in the aftermath of the 1964 defeat, the GOP of that era decided to double down on Goldwater’s rhetoric. We can imagine Nixon railing against farm subsidies in 1968 or 1972. We can imagine Reagan in 1980 wooing the elderly with claims that Medicare was a communist plot. We can imagine these things, but we’d be imagining a string of defeats sort of like the last few rather than a series of Republican presidents. The GOP learned then that at the national level the only viable conservatism was the caveat or contingent kind that infuriated Goldwater. Conservatism that allows the elderly to keep their liberty and their Medicaid; that allows farmers to maintain their yeoman individuality and their subsidies; and that allows working class whites to rail against handouts while protecting the government spending they like (i.e. defense jobs).

We can imagine a message to minorities that was as nuanced as these. It might look something like Nixon’s black capitalism, which was undermined by his… Nixoness. It might look something like Jack Kemp’s appeals, or George Romney’s. If these efforts were consistent and more importantly dominant, then we might be looking at something more than 4% for Romney and 10% for Bush, but instead the dominant themes are either indifference or hostility to blacks.

Conservatives of course reject this claim. Like Goldwater they believe that they appeal to people in a holistic kind of way (to the ‘whole man’), and those that take offense are doing so out of sensitivity or ignorance or interests or reverse racism or maybe brainwashing. Conservatives could have easily made the similar arguments to the elderly or rural voters too, but for obvious reasons they didn’t. George W. Bush’s flirtation with social security privatization was a disaster and Republicans don’t go near farm subsidies or defense jobs.   

So, it seems to me that to the masses conservatism has always been a bit like “Gold Water” the soda: it doesn’t necessarily taste like piss, but it is definitely an acquired taste. What do you think? How is my reading of the 1964 and its aftermath? Is it as significant as I think?


I am a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Production Portal, Inc. an accounting and consulting firm specializing in film, tv and event management. I blog here about history, politics, and culture. I live in NJ and work in NY.

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