On Republican outreach to black voters and the utter lack thereof

On Republican outreach to black voters and the utter lack thereof July 16, 2019

For this exercise, we’ll start with two hypothetical premises and one actual fact from the actual, real world. Our task is to figure out what we can and should do about the fact given the ground rules set by our two hypothetical premises. OK? Let’s start.

Here are the two hypothetical premises:

1. You and I are sincere, fully committed and loyal members of the Republican Party. We wholly believe that the principles, ideas, ideology, policies, and agenda of our party are the best course for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country. We believe that they are the best course for everyone, across the board, and that everyone will benefit if our party is elected with a majority sufficient to enact this agenda.

2. You and I are not racist or white supremacist. We do not, as the odd current saying goes, have “a racist bone” in our bodies. We are not motivated by racial or ethnic animus, nor by a misplaced sense of us-against-them “white” solidarity, and we cannot accept appeals to such unseemly, divisive impulses as a political tactic. The “our” in premise No. 1 above — “our communities,” “our country,” etc. — is a word we intend in the most comprehensive and inclusive meaning.

And now, given those starting points, here is the real-world fact that you and I must contend with:

3. In recent elections, African Americans have voted overwhelmingly against our party and its agenda, with 90% of black voters preferring the Democratic candidates in the 2018 congressional midterm elections and 89% of black voters supporting the Democratic candidate for president in 2016.

If we accept the reality and the constraints of both of those hypothetical premises — which is the whole point of this exercise, maintaining both of those, at once, no matter how difficult that may prove to be — then this would seem to be a failure of communication or of voter outreach. We know that our policies and our agenda is what’s best for everyone and, therefore, what is best for this particular sub-set of everyone. Yet somehow we have not managed to convince this particular group of voters to be persuaded of this.

And so the first thing we ought to attempt should be a large-scale communications effort aimed at better informing and educating these voters about our policies and all the ways they personally would benefit from them. This communications blitz is a necessary product of the two hypothetical premises above — it is not just an obvious first step, but a measure that those premises will compel us to attempt and to persevere at, for as long as proves necessary.

If both of the premises are true, this is what we will do — first and foremost — and we’ll keep at it in the expectation that it will soon succeed because those premises don’t allow for any reason it wouldn’t.

Any failure in this communications effort would have to be regarded as a result of poor communications tactics on our part. Any initial lack of a dramatic swing toward support from black voters would have to be interpreted — if both premises are true — as our own failure to properly articulate our message.

But the longer such a lack of results continued, the more the strain of potential conflict between those premises would begin to show. See, the first premise prevents us from considering that the problem may lie with us — that there may by something inherently unattractive about the substance of our agenda for these voters. But the second premise, if it is really true, should prevent us from considering that the problem lies with them — that there is something distinctively off about those voters in particular that prevents them from accepting the self-evident attractiveness of our agenda.

Continued failure would eventually force us to question or to qualify one or the other of those premises. Either we would begin to suspect that the problem results from the substance of our agenda — that it might not actually be what is best for everyone in our communities, and that some people understand that better than we do and therefore resist it. Or else we might begin to suspect that there is some unique defect in this particular voting bloc — i.e., that black people are somehow uniquely different from “us,” not as perceptive, not as smart, or perhaps morally perverse in some way.

We might arrive at that conclusion reluctantly, due to our frustration to persuade these uniquely obstinate voters rather than out of a prior animus toward them. But that would still constitute an abandonment of our second premise — that we are not racists or white supremacists treating black Americans as somehow inferior and not legitimate members of “our” community or “our” country.

And if that premise — we are not racists — can’t hold true in the end, then it could only be because it didn’t hold true from the start. Because if it really were true, then we’d be forced to listen and to engage the substance of these voters’ resistance to our ideology. We could only conclude that the problem lies with them if we refused to do that and refused to regard their responses as worthy of consideration.

Granted, this refusal might take on a subtler form. We’d probably reassure ourselves that we were listening by elevating only the voices of the 10 or 11 percent of black voters who already agreed with us instead, thereby undermining the whole point of the communications effort. But regardless of what path we take to get there, the destination is the same.

And so what this exercise shows, I think, is that both of our hypothetical premises cannot be equally true. One of those commitments, if push comes to shove, will turn out to be paramount. Either we will prove to be more deeply and genuinely committed to our own certainty of knowing what’s best for others, or we will prove to be more deeply and genuinely committed to viewing those others as equals worth listening to when they disagree.

I say if push comes to shove, because I’m not sure that it ever has, here in the real world, where our Republican friends and neighbors insist that they are fully committed to both of our hypothetical premises in a totally sincere, real, and not-at-all-hypothetical way. If that insistence were true, then we’d see them trying — aggressively, extensively, and expensively trying — just the sort of massive communications blitz and voter-persuasion effort I describe above.

And that hasn’t happened. Ever.

It’s not that the massive Republican outreach effort to persuade African American voters has failed, it’s that they’ve never even bothered to attempt it. And not bothering to attempt it seems to cast a whole lot of doubt on the credibility of their genuine commitment to premise No. 2.

Here’s where some of my Republican friends will object that their party has, in fact, attempted such outreach, such as, for example … . And every one of those examples is, at best, half-hearted, if not decidedly gross. It will involve someone like Alan Keyes or “Sheriff” Clarke or, God have mercy, Diamond and Silk. It will involve Jack Kemp 30 years ago or it will involve a handful of convention speakers plucked from the 10% of black Republican voters — which again denotes a refusal to listen to the 90 percent rather than an attempt to reach them.

None of those examples will demonstrate what we would need to see to believe in their party’s wholehearted commitment to both or to either of the two hypothetical premises above. Because if you really believe that your policies and your agenda would be best for black voters, and if you’re really not precommitted to some belief that they are uniquely obstinate or imperceptive to the attractiveness of that agenda (which is to say, the belief that they are somehow inferior, i.e., white superiority) then those beliefs would force you to try and try and try to win those voters over in the sincere expectation that such persuasion must ultimately prove successful.

And we’ve just never seen that kind of determined effort marked by an expectation of success from the Republican Party. Not in my lifetime. That strongly suggests that the GOP, for the past generation, has not been wholly convinced that its policies and agenda really are in the best interest of black voters. Perhaps they understand that and, therefore, have reluctantly chosen to write off black voters as unreachable, and then — again reluctantly — decided to try to disenfranchise those voters, acquiring and maintaining power with an almost whites-only majority. Or perhaps they were never wholly committed to the “not being racist” premise to begin with. Either way, they’ve arrived at where they are now — overwhelming opposition from black voters and underwhelming efforts to overcome that by democratic persuasion of the sort that equal citizens deserve from anyone who believes in their equality.

My point here is not that Republicans are a bunch of racists. I don’t have to make that case when the leader of their party spends every day just tweeting it out.

My point is that the behavior of the Republican Party demonstrates its own belief that its agenda, ideas, and policies are not the best course for all people, for all families and all communities and the entire country. Its behavior demonstrates that the party recognizes that agenda would be bad for many people, for many or even perhaps most families and communities.

They’re no longer trying to convince us that we’ll get trickled down on, or that a rising tide will lift anything other than the plushest private yachts. They are instead — on multiple fronts, from partisan gerrymandering to ethnic intimidation to a return to 1924-style immigration policies — to restrict the franchise to the minority of voters who might turn out to be “winners” under their agenda.

This is why it’s almost impossible to articulate any kind of current Republican agenda of the sort referred to in premise No. 1 that doesn’t also automatically invalidate premise No. 2. Trump wants immigration policy to be a defining hallmark of the Republican agenda in 2020, but his immigration policy is an emphatic rejection of non-racist politics. He’s made just about every aspect of Republican policy an expression of white solidarity against all others — with the few exceptions to that being either anti-feminist or plutocratic. Today, in 2019, with Donald Trump’s Republican Party, it is impossible for both of those hypotheticals to be true at the same time.

And because No. 2 is patently false, I don’t think No. 1 can be true either.




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