Today, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor of Public Policy, Leah Wright Rigueur continues her PUP blog series on the role of race in the modern Republican party. Her last piece, cross-posted on the Monkey Cage Blog, was on the surge in Ben Carson’s popularity among Republican voters in a race often dominated by Donald Trump. Today she looks at whether—and how—the “party of Lincoln” can win back black voters. Leah’s recent book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, offers further insight into the seemingly incongruous intersection of civil rights and American conservatism. We’re delighted to feature her next installment. –PUP Blog Editor
The Republican Party has a Race Problem. Actually, that’s an understatement. The modern Republican Party has a race crisis – one of epic proportions. In the 2012 election, 80 percent of all non-white voters (Black, Hispanic, Asians and other minority groups), voted for President Barack Obama. Nowhere was this more apparent then with black voters – only 6 percent supported Republican nominee Mitt Romney. That’s the lowest amount of support a Republican presidential nominee has received since 1964.
The GOP’s 2013 autopsy report said it best noting that unless the party got serious about tackling the race issue, it would “lose future elections.” And in some respects, some within the party have tried to make racial inroads, particularly among black voters. Unfortunately the Republican presidential primaries have made those outreach efforts a distant memory, as candidates appear to be tripping over themselves to say the most racially offensive things possible. From police brutality jokes, to “media manipulation” comments, to “free stuff” gaffes, the hits keep coming.
The racial gaffes of the primary contenders are a reflection of a party that has a fundamental discomfort with discussing race. That the party has a torturous relationship to racial minorities in 2015 is unsurprising, given that GOP’s public attempts to wrestle with race have been near non-existent except in moments of antagonism.
So where did things go wrong? How did the “Party of Lincoln” fall by the wayside and move so far away from its “civil rights” roots?
The answer isn’t an easy one. Most would point to a long history of racial antagonisms, starting with Barry Goldwater receiving the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. But I’d argue that the disintegration of the relationship goes back even further – just look at Herbert Hoover’s “Lily White” movement or Operation Dixie from the 1950s.
The irony here is that as some within the GOP were hell-bent on alienating non-white voters during this period, others within the party went to great lengths to appeal to racial minorities. That those appeals were effective and coincided with strong (but piece-meal) civil rights decisions from the Republican Party, is a testimony to the support figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon received in 1956 and 1960, respectively.
Yet even as they pursued the non-white vote, Republicans continually weighed this pursuit against the possibility of alienating white southern voters. By 1963, for instance, the GOP had started to exclude African Americans from strategy meetings; a year later, the party had all but eliminated funding for minority outreach efforts and almost all of its black consultants. By the time the party nominated Barry Goldwater for president after a brutal convention battle, racial minorities, especially black voters, had already determined that the GOP offered no sanctuary for racial minorities. Goldwater, after all, was the same senator who had voted against the most comprehensive civil rights act the nation had ever seen. To position such a figure as the face of the Republican Party was a slap, erasing any goodwill the party’s previous efforts had generated.
Richard Nixon had predicted such a disaster, back in 1962, telling Ebony magazine that it would be a mistake for the Republican Party to “accept the beliefs” of Goldwater and “write off the Negro vote.” A Goldwater win, he argued, would mean that the GOP “would eventually become the first major all white political party. And that isn’t good. That would be a violation of GOP principles.”
That Richard Nixon – later of “Southern Strategy” infamy – would make that observation is telling. It speaks to a deep cynicism that invaded the Republican Party prior to Goldwater’s ascent, and took off after Goldwater’s presidential defeat. The next decade and a half would be defined by a party that veered wildly between centrism and right-wing conservatism and a party that fought an ugly, fierce fight over relationship between civil rights and conservatism. Are we an “inclusive or exclusive tent?” was common question among Republican thought leaders throughout the 1960s and 1970s; on the question of race, the party simply could not agree.
For every Edward Brooke in the party there was a Strom Thurmond; more important, was the fact that for every racially progressive initiative, there were at least half a dozen discriminatory actions. As Richard Nixon, for example, poured millions into minority enterprise, historically black colleges and universities, and introduced a progressive Family Assistance Plan, he also cut billions from antipoverty programs, opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act, and nominated two southerners to the Supreme Court with odious civil rights records. Gerald Ford appointed civil rights lawyer William Coleman as Secretary of Transportation and regularly met with black civic and religious organizations but refused to dedicate significant money and time to minority outreach or racial issues. The GOP’s forceful rejection of any attempt to diversify state and local organizations undercut the party’s rhetoric of a “Big Tent” philosophy. Likewise in 1976, the GOP’s black delegates to the national convention denounced the party’s final platform, alienated by Republicans’ unwillingness to attend to matters of race in a sensitive and thoughtful manner.
But it is Ronald Reagan who offers the most complicated example of the Republican Party’s fractious relationship with race. In 1975 he argued that broadening the GOP base through targeted outreach was a rejection of conservative principles; and in 1976, he ran for president using the now infamous “Welfare Queen” trope. But by 1980, he had changed his mind – somewhat. He and his team employed an approach called “Reagan Focused Impact” (RFI) which relayed conservative messages to target constituent groups while appearing race-neutral. According to campaign memos, those groups were “white, suburbanite ticket-splitters.” Here’s where things get complicated: part of this approach meant campaigning in black and Latino spaces – visiting the South Bronx and talking about economic inequality, for instance – all while simultaneously speaking differently to white southern audiences. The same week that Reagan delivered his infamous “States’ Rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi (the site where 3 civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier), he spoke to the National Urban League. As his strategists explicitly note, these outreach efforts were designed to neutralize black leaders’ outrage while generating positive press among white moderate voters.
In the 30 plus years since then, this approach has guided Republican politics, appearing alongside the more explicit racial gaffes. Sometimes, minority audiences endorse it (Ralph Abernathy did endorse Reagan in 1980), but most of the times, minorities reject the party’s approach, viewing it as insincere and hostile.
The million-dollar question of course, is can the Republican Party win back minority voters? Recent scholarship on the matter doesn’t look promising and the racial “foot-in-mouth” syndrome of the presidential candidates isn’t helping. Neither is the Republican Party’s unwillingness to listen to minority voters on issues of concern or eagerness to advance a revisionist history of the GOP’s relationship to civil rights. Returning to the “Party of Lincoln” isn’t impossible, but it means taking a thoughtful, sensitive approach to racial issues, listening to voter concerns, and endorsing policies and initiatives that reflect those concerns. A small step in the right direction has been the GOP’s interest in mass incarceration reform. At a moment in time when race is going to be central to the 2016 campaign, it remains to be seen if Republicans will address racial issues in a complex, nuanced way that rests on inclusion rather than alienation or exclusion.
Leah Wright Rigueur is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton University Press, 2015).