Yesterday, Michael Steele's Washington Times interview caused even yours truly -- a staunch progressive -- to take notice. Steele's plan to market conservative ideology to black and Latino urbanites intrigued me, but it also left me doubting that he could accomplish this mission. Although many blacks embrace some socially conservative agendas (e.g., soft on gay rights), the vast majority of blacks have preferred Democratic candidates over Republicans since FDR.
Black Voters' Candidate Preference
I have always believed that if Steele (or anyone else with a magic wand) could make the GOP more moderate and take the party closer to its "Rockefeller Republican" days, then he could perhaps modestly broaden the party's base. The Republican Party was not always synonymous with social conservatism, and the Democratic Party did not begin to monopolize black votes until the 1930s. The Republican Party sided with slaves over slaveowners, fought to establish racial equality after the end of the Civil War, and embraced civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
The Democratic Party, by contrast, supported slavery and excluded blacks from participating in politics through a host of legislative schemes (not to mention violence and intimidation). And historically, the Democrats, not the Republicans, have led the country into expensive and deadly wars.
Large numbers of blacks moved away from the Republican Party to support FDR, who attracted over 70 percent of the black vote in 1936. Most Democratic presidential candidates have earned the same or a greater percentage of black votes since that time. There was one exception: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower received nearly 40 percent of the black vote in his first election. Adlai Stevenson, his Democratic opponent, decided to run with a segregationist in order to win white votes in the South. The plan worked - but it cost him black support.
Despite the Roosevelt revolution, around 30 percent of black voters continued to support Republican candidates until 1964, the year Johnson sponsored important civil rights legislation. Since that time, no Republican presidential candidate has earned over 15 percent of black votes. McCain only received 4 percent. He also received only small percentages of Latino and Asian-American votes.
White Voting Patterns, the Southern Strategy and Social Conservatism
After Southern whites fled the Democratic Party in the 1960s, the GOP became increasingly more dependent upon socially conservative voters to win elections. By the time Ronald Reagan defeated Gerald Ford, the moderate wing of the Republican Party had lost much of its influence in defining the party's national political agenda. The party decided to supplant the moderates in order to capture the South's abundant electoral votes.
The "Southern strategy" produced amazing results for the GOP. Bill Clinton is the only two-term Democratic president since Truman. And until Obama's victory, Clinton and Carter were the only two Democrats to win the presidency since 1964. Furthermore, after 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of white votes. Obama did not reverse this trend -- despite the dreamy rhetoric among many pundits which suggests that his election demolished race-based political cleavages.
Advice for Steele: Be Consistent About Governmental Intervention and About "Equality"
Obama's election, party loyalty, and deep distrust of the GOP make Steele's effort to lure persons of color a difficult, if not impossible, task. It would take a great deal of courage, innovation, and reformulation of ideology in order to accomplish modestly this goal.
In order to do this, Steele will likely need to convince Republicans to challenge their rhetoric that seeks to reduce deep social problems to individual pathology. This is a favorite trump card. Every group has "bad" apples - but unless conservatives believe that the majority of blacks and Latinos are bad apples (which is a conversation stopper), then they must remain open to other explanations for and solutions to prolonged inequity across social groups. Conservatives often blame the government for incentivizing people to choose poverty (and this still passes the laugh test), but this is just the extreme opposite of the notion that only governmental solutions can work. Room exists for both approaches.
While many conservatives passionately reject any role for government in reducing class and other types of inequity, they readily invite the government into areas of other people's lives in order to regulate personal choices that seem patently inappropriate for governmental intrusion (and certainly inappropriate for a governmental veto). Many social conservatives, for example, vehemently insist that the government alone should decide the conditions under which a woman terminates a pregnancy. They also want the government to dictate whether or not terminally ill patients continue to receive life-sustaining medical treatment against their family members' or their own wishes. Conservatives have supported making criminals out of people who consent to intimate relationships (sexual or otherwise) with people of the same sex. And they believe that government-waged "wars" can reduce or rid society of drugs, kidnappings, sexual predators, violence, and terrorism.
If the government can accomplish all of these things better than "the people," then just maybe the government can do a few things to create conditions in which all people can have economic autonomy and opportunity. Favoring governmental intervention in order to police people, rather than to foster individual autonomy seems far removed from conservatism.
If Republicans want to broaden their base, they could fill the hole left by Democrats, who have not proposed solutions for substantive inequality -- by which I mean, actually doing something about the conditions of inequality such as poverty, homelessness, unequal schools, etc., rather than simply cheering the party's "diversity."
Conservative discourse already espouses the virtues of equality. When conservatives oppose affirmative action, for example, they do so by invoking the language of "equality." Conservatives presumably value racial equality so greatly that they view university admissions policies that dole out a few "points" to students of color in their applications as being the moral equivalent of the brutal regime of Jim Crow. If this is true, then this principle should lead them to at least the same degree of outrage concerning the detrimental effects of sending black, Latino and many poor white kids to vastly underfunded or racially isolated "poverty schools" (where a majority of the students qualify for "free lunch").
Blaming the children and their families for being locked into these suboptimal conditions contradicts conservative opposition to affirmative action. Instead of telling whites who challenge affirmative action to "suck it up" or accusing them of promoting socialism, conservatives criticize the government for treating people differently (even if only to a small degree).
Unless conservatives begin to demand equality of opportunity in all settings and consistently remain open to the possibility of governmental and private solutions, then they will fail to expand their base to include people of color. Of course, I cannot demand that Republicans do these things when the "liberal" party has failed to do so or has done so inconsistently. But it's fun to dream. Also, unless the GOP can top the Democrats, then many people of color will just stay with the familiar.
So, Steele: if you can fit my long rant into a neat conservative package, put a ribbon on it, and sell it to Republicans, then you will have in fact done something "off the hook." Apparently, a "new school" of Republicans catapulted Steele to leadership. Maybe this will give him a chance to shake things up. Good luck!