February 14th, 2013
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.” Kevin Phillips, author of The Emerging Republican Majority, in 1968
Republicans are realizing that a willingness to be [mostly] polite to black people is insufficient to widen the party’s appeal. Becoming a real national party again will require us to address some painful challenges that will cross deeply felt boundaries of culture and habit. It’s not going to be easy, but we have little choice.
First, we must recognize the awkward relationship between the libertarianism the party has embraced since the ‘60’s and the legacy of segregation. The Civil Rights Movement taught Americans that government is not the only force that can infringe on personal liberty and economic freedom. We need a freedom agenda that absorbs those painful lessons and more reliably protects the vulnerable.
Second, a humbler, less hysterical tone would help a lot. There has been too little tolerance for straight talk on minority issues and too much tolerance for race-baiting rhetoric. A thicker skin and more sensitive ears would serve us well.
Only when we’ve made progress on those two issues can we hope to deal with our third and most critical challenge – to engage minority audiences in forums that allow us to listen as much as we speak. These are the interactions that will, over time, open doors and produce the policy changes that can dampen resentments among blacks and Hispanics and restore our relevance in minority communities.
The process begins with acknowledging our troubled record on race relations. Skip that step, and whatever else we do will be a waste of time. Republicans are quick to point out that the party was a driving force in the early Civil Rights Movement. We are less enthusiastic about describing why that changed and how that legacy continues to complicate our appeal to non-white constituencies.
The Republican Party’s relationship with minority communities changed with Barry Goldwater. His “principled” stance against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unwittingly re-aligned party with the defenders of racial discrimination. Goldwater was a liberal on racial issues who hated Jim Crow. He was also the favorite candidate of Southern segregationists in the 1964 election. That irony continues to frustrate the party of Lincoln today.
Jim Crow belied the fundamental weakness of libertarian thought. The southern states had demonstrated that the single-minded pursuit of small government could bring just as much oppression as statism. The party still fails to acknowledge that ideological conundrum, undermining our appeal to minorities and the broader relevance of our policies.
Never, in any settled portion of America, did a real-world government more closely resemble the libertarian ideal than did the post-Reconstruction South. Taxes were extremely low. Government provided almost nothing beyond police and courts. Infrastructure investment was miniscule. Unions were practically unheard of. Bureaucratic and regulatory constraints were almost non-existent. Business was able to operate with no meaningful government intervention.
By libertarian logic the South should have been a paragon of personal liberty and economic dynamism, but it turns out that government is not the only force that can destroy freedom. Jim Crow started with mob violence. It was transformed into legislation on waves of mob violence. It was held in place, even as its popularity steadily waned, not primarily by government, but by mob violence. Any aspiring Atticus Finch in the 50’s or ‘60’s had far more to fear from his neighbors than from the government.
Terrorist groups like the KKK coordinated with more socially acceptable organizations like the White Citizens Councils to form and enforce policy. Local militias and paramilitaries not only beat and murdered uncooperative African-Americans; they harassed anyone of any race who expressed dissent. Juries exonerated the perpetrators. Jim Crow was crowd-sourced, grassroots oppression. Small government was crucial to its survival.
Goldwater, in his “extreme” defense of liberty, accidentally aligned the Republican Party with the most repressive forces in American culture. Over the following generation the Deep South went from blue to battle red as the most prominent defenders of Jim Crow fled the Democratic Party en masse.
We have to confront our post-‘64 history because the legacy of that era still lingers in policy and rhetoric. Republicans rightly stand for a vision of government that leaves as many decisions as possible in private hands. However, when Senator Rand Paul suggests that “as many as possible” should include a right to exercise racial discrimination in the marketplace, he inspires some well-founded fears.
If we are going to promote an ownership society in a society that let our ancestors own human beings, we need as much distance from that dark legacy as we can possibly get. This is more than just a marketing problem. Our insensitivity to legitimate concerns expressed in minority communities leads us to develop policies that are often doomed from inception.
A stronger respect for states’ rights, for example, would give us more innovative health care, more effective schools, and more responsive social welfare programs. At the same time a sloppy retreat from Federal authority can provide openings for petty tyrants to push fringe agendas that frustrate those same goals. As a party, we cannot realize the benefits of one while ignoring the other. We can’t succeed in devolving health care policy to the states, where it belongs, so long as voters fear putting matters of genuine personal importance in the hands of characters like Rick Perry.
Core Republican values of market economics, strong families, and education offer a better path to prosperity for minority communities than anything the left has developed. Unfortunately, as long as we refuse to acknowledge our history, our ideas will remain suspect and their practical effectiveness will be limited. Worse, we will stumble through our most critical challenge – listening with honest interest and legitimate concern to the concerns of minority communities.
The small government bandwagon cannot afford to pick up random hitchhikers. Credibility is fundamental to the success of our agenda. Earning trust in minority communities will require us to examine ourselves more closely and be open to change. With enough wisdom and humility, the reward could be a rejuvenated, optimistic Republican Party, but we won’t see that gain without enduring some painful reflection.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)