Two simple and succinct comments made by Michael Steele and Newt Gingrich at the National Review Institute Conservative Summit last month provide guidance to the conservative movement and the Republican party on how to sell their ideas and widen their base. Were the advice to be followed, the entire country would benefit.
Gingrich observed that conservatives have a tendency to take self-defeating pride in not paying attention to language. By this he wasn’t saying that conservatives should employ politically-correct language, but rather, that conservatives need to improve their ability to communicate their ideas and message to the broader public.
For his part, Steele stated that despite his opponent’s furious efforts to dissuade black voters from supporting him, he received 30 percent of the black vote because he took his conservative message directly to such voters and declared, unapologetically, “This is who I am.” (Yes, being black didn’t hurt either.)
Support for the Republican party among blacks remains abysmal. Yet Republicans may have recently begun to do a slightly better job of following the advice of Gingrich and the example of Steele. Despite averaging about 12 percent of the black vote over the last two decades, Republicans have shown faint signs of progress. For example, in 2004 President Bush nearly doubled the number of black votes he received in 2000. Republicans have suffered a setback due to the racially charged rhetoric surrounding Katrina, but there’s no evidence that the effect will be long term.
On the other hand, the conservative movement’s appeal to blacks has remained fairly stagnant over the last ten years. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams joke that in the late Seventies, a national meeting of black conservatives occurred whenever the two got together for dinner. The number of conservatives grew in the Eighties and early Nineties, due in no small measure to the writings of Sowell and Williams. But the overall numbers were and remain tiny.
I’m pretty sure I was the only black guy in an audience of about 800 at the National Review Institute Conservative Summit in January 1993 (although Bob Woodson appeared briefly for Jack Kemp’s speech). Fourteen years later, there were perhaps half a dozen black faces in this year’s crowd of about eight hundred.
In making these observations, I don’t mean to count by race, be hyper race-conscious, or contend that some form of proportionality is in order. Nor is it to suggest that these figures are somehow representative of the number of black movement-conservatives. Rather, it’s to illustrate why the Gingrich/ Steele formulation deserves close consideration. The formulation is important not just to the conservative movement or to Republicans in general, but to the entire country.
Liberalism, Aggressive Multiculturalism, and National Unity
The dearth of blacks in both the Republican party and the conservative movement necessarily cabins the conservative policy agenda. In the decades since enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Democratic party and liberals in general have used blacks both as a reason to advance the liberal agenda and as a bulwark against proposed conservative reforms. Liberals’ totemic use of black victimhood has been just as instrumental as their use of class warfare rhetoric in passing and preserving all manner of liberal policies: public housing, welfare, racial preferences, government health care, government education without choice, minimum wage — each is defended to some degree by invoking the poor and underprivileged (read: blacks and a few whites and Hispanics; indeed, the inner-cities of America are the laboratories where all the consequences of the foregoing liberal policies have come to life). John Edwards’ “two Americas” is merely a version of this model reduced to sound bite to more effectively convey the supposed need for ever more government.
The appeal of the model isn’t confined just to blacks. It appeals to the media in search of a narrative that validates their preconceptions, to baby boomers seeking to recapture the heady days of the civil rights movement, to egalitarians aspiring to a utopian society, and to soccer moms and the like who, in good faith, want to do the “right” thing. That’s a lot of voters and a lot of political clout.
In addition, the model has the effect of causing Republican politicians to be in perpetual apology mode on any matter even remotely related to race. Not wanting to appear hard-hearted or racist, Republicans and even movement conservatives trim their policy positions to convey compassion and racial sensitivity. The results are an inability to articulate reasoned opposition to governmental encroachment and bad policies. This ultimately produces positions that are seldom anything more than “Democrat Lite”–bad for the country as a whole and bad for blacks in particular.
Even more important than contributing to bad domestic policies, the absence of blacks from the Republican Party and the conservative movement has adverse consequences for the nation’s culture and cohesion. Liberals, using a Saul Alinsky approach to cobbling together disparate ethnic and interest groups, have unleashed an aggressive multiculturalism–what Christopher Hitchens calls one-way multiculturalism–that erodes our national resolve and enervates our cultural confidence. This aggressive multiculturalism, applauded by academics and the media, elevates race and ethnicity over American citizenship. It promotes allegiance to the tribe rather than to the nation as a whole. The eventual consequence is the kind of post-nationalism endemic to Western Europe. Needless to say, atomization of national unity isn’t a good defense against a foreign enemy. And, per Mark Steyn, the more aggressive a society’s multiculturalism, the more readily that society retreats in the face of a culturally confident foe.
Aggressive multiculturalism wouldn’t have such a hospitable environment if more blacks were in the conservative movement. Liberals couldn’t as easily play on white guilt to pile on the multicultural slop that pervades the academy. Politicians would have a tougher time using racial appeals to divide and dispirit. Pernicious legislation passed ostensibly to help the poor and minorities, but that actually harms its intended beneficiaries, would have a harder time even getting out of committee.
Therefore, having more blacks in the conservative movement isn’t simply a matter of “diversity,” “inclusiveness,” or some other vapid concept. As a matter of political calculation it will give Republicans more backbone to resist liberal policies while promoting conservative ones. Accordingly, having more blacks in the conservative movement is good for blacks, the movement, and the nation as a whole.
Conveying the Conservative Message
Getting the conservative message to blacks is a form of affirmative action, i.e., affirmative action as originally conceived, before it metastasized into preferences, quotas, and set-asides. Of course, blacks shouldn’t be given preferential treatment or accorded privileged status within the party or the movement–and not just because racial discrimination is antithetical to conservatism; tokenism has its own toxicity. Conservatives would do well simply to make sure black audiences are as aware of the conservative message as anyone else. Just as conservative organizations make sure college students hear the other side of the arguments made by liberal professors, conservatives should make sure blacks hear the other side of the arguments made by the Democratic party, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the rest of the vast civil rights establishment.
Some conservatives contend that nothing more need be done to hone and spread the conservative message to discrete groups, particularly racial and ethnic groups. For some it seems this is almost a Luddite form of resistance; for others it’s an extension of a laissez faire mentality.
This is where the Gingrich/Steele formulation comes into play. Conservatives who think that the sheer gravitational pull of their superior message should be sufficient to bring open-minded blacks into the movement grossly miscalculate the Left’s utter monopoly on black attention. Again, as Steele says, conservatives must make sure to go to blacks, explain conservative positions without equivocation, and say, unapologetically, “This is who I am.”
Sure, it’s easier for a black guy to make that pitch. But let’s face it: Conservatives don’t have a lot of bench strength in that regard. So everyone’s got to play.
There’s a receptive audience out there. But the messenger should keep in mind Gingrich’s advice concerning message. For example, most black conservatives can relate an experience similar to the following.
In the early Nineties, I attended a dinner party populated by about a dozen black guests very loyal to the Democratic party — some of whom had even run for office as Democrats. They didn’t know that I was, and am, a conservative.
During the course of the evening the conversation swerved into politics. I spouted unadulterated “conservative” positions on subjects such as school choice, welfare reform, affirmative action, and the Clinton health care plan. Every single guest agreed, unreservedly and sometimes adamantly, with my arguments. That is, until I made the mistake of prefacing one of my points by stating (ironically), “As Newt Gingrich pointed out….” The temperature in the room dropped forty degrees at the mention of the name (it could’ve been any other well-known conservative’s name just as well). Pure hostility.
I don’t recall the specific point I was making at the time, but it doesn’t matter. Not only was that particular point rejected, but so was every subsequent one I tried to make. Several guests even recanted their support for the arguments I’d made earlier in the evening. Such was the brand name of conservatism.
The point isn’t that Gingrich’s or any other conservative’s name shouldn’t be mentioned if you hope to convert black audiences. Rather, it’s that Gingrich’s advice at the NRI Conservative Summit was smart and forward-looking. The above anecdote illustrates that conservatives have a message that resonates with all audiences, provided we take both Steele’s and Gingrich’s advice: Serve up 100 proof conservatism, say forthrightly “This is who I am,” and be mindful throughout of communicating effectively. Had Goldwater the benefit of Gingrich’s advice, the GOP today might be averaging 25 percent of the black vote instead of 12 percent–and that 25 percent is all it would take to render the continued relevance of the Democratic Party questionable, unless it reforms dramatically.
Following the Gingrich/Steele formulation doesn’t mean that waves of black folks are going to join the conservative movement. That hope has foundered so often that even the prospect of a partial realignment seems like a cruel joke. But the good news is that, aside from the efforts of Ken Mehlman when he was at the RNC, conservatives/Republicans have never employed the Gingrich/Steele approach in a sustained fashion. So there’s plenty of room for success.
Black college students in particular are a promising market for the conservative message. This cohort is barraged by liberalism not just from academics, but from the black establishment as well. Almost without fail, the conservative message is received with enthusiastic applause when I speak to black students. After one presentation at a historically black college, a student summed up many of the students’ comments: “I’ve never heard that (conservative arguments) before. That really made sense. All we get from (here he mentioned the names of some well-known black leaders) is a bunch of the same old crap.”
That’s why the conservative message can sell. It’s sensible. And quite often the other side of the argument is just a bunch of crap.
But the conservative message won’t sell unless the prospective buyer hears it.
– Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is also a member of the National Labor Relations Board. These comments do not necessarily represent the positions of either organization.