On Monday, the Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Project released its 100-page investigative report on the party’s recent electoral failures. The report bluntly highlights the GOP’s well-documented failure to persuade minority voters, the Democrats’ overwhelming advantage in data-driven voter targeting, the Republicans’ suboptimal presidential nominating process, and many other issues. The report is refreshingly frank about the party’s problems, and it contains hundreds of concrete and constructive recommendations for reform. So why is that so many conservatives — including the editors of National Review — are so displeased?
As the authors of the report note, the Republican party is performing catastrophically with ethnic and racial minorities. “In both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority voters, including not only African Americans but also Hispanics, Asians, and others.” Today, these voters represent 37 percent of the population; by 2050, if present trends continue, they will represent a majority.
It is a scandal that Republicans do so poorly with minorities. But conservatives have long thrown out a pat answer to those who have encouraged more and better efforts to engage minority groups: that such outreach involves pandering and tokenism. Democrats, we say, will always outbid us in their crude appeals to minority interests, and the media will always slander us as racists in order to aid their liberal allies.
The pat answer has some truth to it, which is why it has long survived as an excuse for conservatives’ complacency. But the conservative argument — that we should resign ourselves to failure with minority voters because we are too principled to engage in crass appeals — is itself telling. Is it the conservative view that white voters are inherently more enlightened than minority voters? That the white electorate, having memorized the Federalist Papers, votes purely on Madisonian principle?
In fact, there are plenty of minority voters who vote on principle and who seek the same things out of America that white voters do. Asian-Americans voted for Obama in greater proportions than Hispanics did, despite the fact that Asians earn higher incomes on average than whites and possess a stronger culture of work, family, education, and self-advancement. Republicans’ failure with Asians lays bare the excuse that ethnic minorities don’t vote conservative because they don’t share conservative values.
NR’s editors recoil from the RNC’s suggestion that it should “put minorities in charge of outreach” to minorities, calling it “tokenism.” Is it also tokenism when Republicans put evangelicals in charge of reaching out to evangelicals, or veterans in charge of reaching out to veterans?
It’s positively Burkean, in fact, to acknowledge that Republicans who have a shared historical and cultural experience with these groups are best suited to persuading them that conservatives share their principles and advance their interests. That doesn’t mean that the effort can be left to minorities alone; as RNC chairman Reince Priebus acknowledged in his remarks this week, minority outreach needs to be integrated into everything else the Republican party does. And it can be.
All we need to do is look to our neighbors to the north. In Canada, Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney has spearheaded a remarkably successful effort to court Canada’s growing minority population. He has done so the old-fashioned way: by attending ethnic community events all over the country, listening to the concerns expressed there, bringing interested community leaders into the Conservative fold, and recruiting minority candidates to run for Parliament. Republicans would do well to pay close attention to Kenney’s efforts.
Republicans who follow Kenney’s example will find that they don’t need to make policy concessions in order to win elections. Instead, they will find a growing appetite for the message and the principles they’ve had all along. Contrary to some initial reactions from conservatives, the RNC report did not endorse amnesty for illegal immigrants, but instead placed a priority upon comprehensive immigration reform, which need not include amnesty.
Steve Pearce, a Republican congressman from New Mexico, is as conservative as they come. He voted against John Boehner for speaker on the premise that Boehner isn’t conservative enough. He opposed the DREAM Act, a bill to offer legal status to the adult children of illegal immigrants. But he has won five elections in a district that is less than 40 percent white. How has he done it? The same way Jason Kenney has: by showing up. “You just have to show up, all the time, everywhere,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Most Republicans don’t bother. I do. I bother.”
So long as conservatives believe that visiting ethnic communities and listening to their concerns is “pandering,” whereas doing the same with traditional conservative constituencies is not, we will deserve to lose the minority vote. We must recognize that we have engaged in rationalization and laziness, where respect and hard work are most required. The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project is a refreshing effort to put money, personnel, and urgency toward this goal of expanding the conservative coalition.
But the RNC’s project is only a long-overdue first step in what will have to be a decades-long effort to reverse the Republican slide with minorities. The big risk now is that the RNC will rest on its laurels, or will be discouraged by conservative complaints, and fail to execute the sound strategy it has now laid out. To Reince Priebus, I say: Damn the starboard torpedoes. Full speed ahead.