When Rand Paul first ran for the Senate in 2010, it was far from obvious that he’d become the GOP’s chief ambassador to African-American voters. Shortly after besting an establishment-backed candidate in Kentucky’s GOP Senate primary in May of that year, Paul famously discussed his views on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show. Despite insisting that he opposed discrimination in any form and that he had no intention of revisiting civil-rights laws, Paul did allow that there was room for philosophical disagreement as to whether the owners of privately owned restaurants should be forced to desegregate, a comment that was interpreted by Paul’s detractors as an endorsement of segregation. Though these remarks didn’t prevent Paul from winning his Senate seat by a comfortable margin, the candidate was forced to spend much of the rest of his campaign scrambling to make up for his gaffe.
In the end, Paul managed to win 13 percent of the black vote, a respectable share for a Republican in the Obama era, when black support for GOP presidential candidates has fallen to new single-digit lows. Yet the whole imbroglio served as a reminder of why conservative candidates find it so difficult to make inroads among black and other minority voters.
Once influential media voices paint you as an unreconstructed neo-Confederate, it’s awfully difficult to change that perception.
But in the years since 2010, Paul has endeavored to do just that. He has emerged as an unlikely bridge-builder, having made common cause with liberals and civil libertarians on a wide range of issues, from reining in dragnet surveillance to criminal-justice reform. Paul has placed particularly heavy emphasis on criminal-justice reform when addressing black audiences. In a recent address to the National Urban League, a nonpartisan but broadly left-leaning civil-rights organization, Paul observed that “our prisons are bursting with young men of color . . . yet studies show that white kids use illegal drugs just as much as African Americans or Hispanics,” the implication being that America’s criminal-justice system is racially biased. In the Senate, Paul has worked to reduce the severity of criminal penalties for crack-cocaine offenses, and he has made the case for restoring voting rights to nonviolent offenders. He has introduced legislation to check abuses of federal civil asset-forfeiture laws, which have become cash cows for unscrupulous local police agencies. Perhaps with an eye to rising public support for cannabis legalization, a cause backed by 52 percent of Americans and 56 percent of African Americans, Paul has also proposed legislation to shield states that have liberalized their marijuana laws from federal interference. And in the wake of the crisis in Ferguson, Mo., where the shooting of a black teenager by a local police officer sparked massive protests, Paul wrote an article for Time decrying the militarization of local police forces.
Paul is not alone among Republicans in using criminal-justice reform as a way to reach new constituencies. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, first made his reputation as a hard-charging federal prosecutor. Yet in the run-up to his 2013 reelection, in which he managed to secure 21 percent of the African-American vote and 51 percent of the Latino vote, Christie often discussed the importance of offering nonviolent drug offenders treatment rather than sending them to prison. More recently, Christie signed a bill into law that offers low-level offenders alternatives to paying bail, which can be ruinously expensive for many poor families — while at the same time campaigning in favor of a state constitutional amendment that would allow judges to deny bail to particularly dangerous offenders. Taken together, Christie’s reforms present an appealing mix: tough on violent offenders, more humane toward nonviolent offenders.
Paul and Christie deserve credit for placing heavy emphasis on criminal-justice reform. As David Dagan and Steven Teles observed in a piece in Washington Monthly, an alliance of Evangelicals and libertarians has done much to convince conservatives that America’s decades-long incarceration boom — the U.S. prison population now stands at 2.4 million, over four times what it was in 1980 — has had grave consequences. Among other things, mass incarceration has damaged the earning potential of millions of young men, which in turn has made it harder for them and their families to become economically self-sufficient. There is no question that the shift toward more-punitive policies in the 1980s and 1990s was rooted in a reality of rising violent crime. Now, however, as crime rates continue to fall, many on the right have embraced a more targeted and discriminate approach. Conservative-led Texas has done a great deal to reduce its prison population, and conservative-led Utah has announced ambitious plans to do the same. One hopes that other conservative states will follow their lead.
#page#Will embracing criminal-justice reform be enough for conservatives to make significant inroads among African Americans? Black Americans are far more likely to be crime victims than non-blacks, which makes them particularly sensitive to the failures of law enforcement. They are also sensitive to bias. For example, a 2013 Pew survey found that 70 percent of blacks feel that they are treated less fairly than whites by the police. Criminal-justice reform can be understood as a way to shore up the legitimacy of the criminal-justice system. For this issue to yield political dividends, however, it has to have political salience. When Gallup asked Americans in May to identify the most important problem facing the country today, only 2 percent identified crime and violence. By way of comparison, in early 1994, 37 percent of Americans identified crime and violence as the most important problem facing the country, and that number remained high through the rest of the 1990s. The political salience of crime has declined significantly, which is a big part of why reform efforts haven’t met with more resistance.
Perhaps the issue has more importance for black voters than those numbers suggest. For one thing, it is entirely possible that the share of black voters who report that crime and violence are the most important problem facing the country is higher than that of the overall population and that these voters take criminal-justice reform very seriously. A more likely possibility is that crime is a “gateway” issue. That is, unless conservatives acknowledge the failures of the American criminal-justice system, they won’t get a hearing from black voters. This puts Rand Paul’s recent efforts in perspective. The Pew Research Center recently found that while only 33 percent of white respondents thought that the police response to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson “went too far,” 65 percent of black respondents thought it did. The fact that Paul has argued that the police response went too far puts him on the same side as a large majority of African Americans, which could engender trust. But will black voters who distrust law enforcement vote for Rand Paul once they’ve been reminded that he also favors dramatically reducing the size of the federal government and shrinking anti-poverty spending, among other things?
Note that while 65 percent of black respondents felt that the police response to the shooting went too far, another 20 percent felt that the response had “been about right.” Similarly, while 80 percent of African Americans maintain that the case of Michael Brown “raises important issues about race,” another 18 percent believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves,” a view shared by 61 percent of self-identified Republicans. What if these African-American contrarians, who are less inclined than other blacks to see incidents such as the Brown shooting through a racial lens, constitute the segment of the black electorate that is most disposed to back conservative candidates? It is striking that while 18 percent of blacks take this view of the hyperpolarized Ferguson case, Mitt Romney won only 6 percent of the black vote in the 2012 presidential election. Had Romney tripled his support among African Americans, he would have won the presidency by a comfortable margin.
To be sure, believing that the police response to the shooting has been about right and that race is getting more attention than it deserves is compatible with believing that the criminal-justice system is broken and in need of reform. The point is not that conservatives ought to abandon the cause of criminal-justice reform because the black people disposed to vote for Republicans might be the same ones who don’t think the police in Ferguson went too far. Criminal-justice reform is a cause worth pursuing on its own merits. Rather, conservatives need to think hard about why African Americans who hold recognizably conservative views about race and other social issues have so far been allergic to voting for right-of-center candidates.
I would argue that the best way for conservatives to appeal to African Americans is not to emphasize racially specific themes on criminal-justice reform or any other issue, but rather to offer a compelling message to middle- and lower-middle-income voters of all races. The conservative-reform agenda that has been articulated largely in the pages of this magazine aims to reduce the intrusiveness of government and its tendency toward excessive centralization, yet it also recognizes the importance of making the public sector work for Americans looking to climb the economic ladder. Talking up the virtues of lower incarceration rates is a good way to build a reputation for compassion and open-mindedness. But talking up bread-and-butter policies such as an expanded child tax credit or student-loan reform that addresses the problem of predatory colleges’ preying on students ill-prepared for college will have far more resonance with African-American parents and young adults. It won’t win over black voters who are staunch ideological liberals. It will, however, give black voters who embrace conservative values a reason to vote Republican.