It’s well-known to political observers that African-American voters have long been the most loyal Democratic constituency. While President Obama garnered more of the black vote than any presidential candidate on record, it wasn’t substantially greater than what Democrats have earned in the past forty years. During the 2008 and 2012 elections, black voters broke for Obama at 95% and 93% respectively. In presidential years from 1976 through 2004, African-Americans supported the Democrat at rates between 83%-91%.
Much ink has been spilled on the topic of how Republicans, the ostensible party of Lincoln, lost the trust and support of the black community. The first popularly elected African-American Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) who served from 1967-1979 said this of the GOP: “The Republican Party was the party that gave hope and inspiration to minorities. … My father was a Republican. My mother was a Republican. They wouldn’t dare be a Democrat. The Democrats were a party opposed to civil rights.”
There are several elements that led to the change reflected in contemporary politics, and the Civil Rights era certainly laid the groundwork. Barry Goldwater, the firebrand Republican Senator from Arizona who ran unsuccessfully against Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson for President in 1964 said of the Civil Rights Act which was passed the same year:
“I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort and I believe that though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help–but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution and which require for their effective execution the creation of a police state. And so, because I am unalterably opposed to any threats to our great system of government and the loss of our God-given liberties, I shall vote ‘No’ on this bill
This vote will be reluctantly cast, because I had hoped to be able to vote “Yea” on this measure as I have on the civil right bills which have preceded it; but I cannot in good conscience to the oath that I took when assuming office, cast my vote in the affirmative. With the exception of Titles II and VII, I could wholeheartedly support this bill; but with their inclusion, not measurably improved by the compromise version we have been working on, my vote must be ‘No’.
If my vote is misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer its consequences. Just let me be judged in this by the real concern I have voiced here and not by words that others may speak or by what others may say about what I think.”
Goldwater no doubt made what some would consider a principled limited government argument. Indeed, there’s much about Goldwater for both libertarians and conservatives to admire. Unfortunately, this isn’t one such example practically speaking, and he did later admit that his vote against the Civil Rights Act was “one of his greatest regrets.” Despite Goldwater’s recantation and the fact that the legislation received bipartisan support, perceived opposition to civil rights in an ascendent wing of the party laid the groundwork for the GOP’s mass black exodus. The next step was the fact that Nixon and many of the advisers around him, perhaps more intentionally than a well-meaning but incorrect Goldwater, solidified the trend.
Many historians and political scientists credit the “Southern strategy,” commonly defined as a mid-twentieth-century GOP attempt to stoke racially driven fear in traditionally Democratic whites to gain votes, as being the beginning of the end for black identification with the party. Some scholars and Republican advisors involved in the Nixon era however, dispute an overt appeal to racism as central to the plan.
Nevertheless, black voters largely found the Republican Party to be less welcoming as southerners who, at the time were satisfied with the segregationist status quo, began to populate its ranks. Unfortunately, the GOP hasn’t made up the ground that was ceded half a century ago. But many in the party argue that the time is ripe for bringing a message of opportunity conservatism to communities of color, especially those in economically distressed areas long run by Democrats.
In that vein, the vast majority of contemporary Republicans are attuned to the need for this style of outreach. In 2005, George W. Bush’s former campaign manager and then chairman of the Republican Party Ken Mehlman told members at a NAACP convention:
“By the ’70s and into the ’80s and ’90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
According to reports, those statements marked the first time a major Republican leader publicly renounced the so-called “Southern strategy.” This was done on the heels of Bush increasing the GOP’s still dismal share of the black vote from 9% in 2000 to 11% in 2004. Where does this leave Republicans who are now competing to succeed the nation’s first black President?
In recent years, Senator and current presidential candidate Rand Paul has taken substantive action, building relationships with black community leaders and speaking out on issues such as racially biased policing, voting rights, school choice, drug laws, and criminal justice reform. His efforts have brought him to places like Baltimore, Ferguson, and Detroit, communities long ignored by Republicans and treated like an already-checked box on the ballot by Democrats.
Just last week, in a powerful speech to the National Press Club, presidential candidate and former Texas Governor Rick Perry made a strong pitch, explaining how conservative reforms have helped African-Americans in Texas. He provided a stark example of a racially motivated murder that occurred in his home state 100 years ago, then focused on the social and economic progress that has helped the very same marginalized communities rise up in the time since. Perry also offered very blunt criticisms of Democrats for allowing African-American communities to crumble under their leadership. As he said:
“Let me be clear. We haven’t eliminated black poverty in Texas. But we have made meaningful progress.
In New York, the supplemental poverty rate for blacks is 26 percent. In California, it’s 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., it’s 33 percent.
In Texas, it’s just 20 percent. Here’s how it happened.
Because we curtailed frivolous lawsuits and unreasonable regulations in Texas, it’s far cheaper to do business in Dallas or Houston than in Baltimore or Detroit. And those lower costs get passed down to consumers – especially low-income consumers – in the form of lower prices.
There’s a lot of talk in Washington about income inequality. But there’s a lot less talk about the inequality that arises from the high cost of everyday life.
In blue-state coastal cities, strict zoning laws and environmental regulations have prevented builders from expanding the housing supply. That’s great for the venture capitalist who wants a nice view of San Francisco Bay, but it’s not so great for the single mother working two jobs in order to pay rent and still put food on the table for her kids.”
In addition to Paul and Perry, both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have also concentrated on opportunity conservatism as an alternative to the top-down approach favored by Democrats. Bush’s announcement speech focused heavily on this very theme. Rubio’s signature discussion point is his immigrant background and the humble beginnings of his parents, which he couples with a strong push for education reform and tax proposals targeted to help the working class.
Will black voters, who have seen poverty in their communities increase during Obama’s tenure, give Republicans a listen? The outcome is likely to depend on the manner and frequency of outreach. Rick Perry and Rand Paul are right to fight very specifically for the black vote, offering substantive alternatives to the stagnation and dependency liberal economic policies have wrought.
Democrats have had over half-a-century of solid support from the black community, yet sweeping liberal policies such as Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” have had no measurable effect of decreasing black poverty. Tragically, the standard of living for African-Americans has actually decreased under President Obama.
As Elbert Guillory, an African-American Republican State Senator from Louisiana who was originally elected as a Democrat is fond of saying, a lack of competition for the black vote has led to a stagnation wherein Democrats take advantage of the community. He posits that until African-Americans stand up and make both major parties fight for their support, Democrats will allow marginalized communities they claim to be advocates for languish since they know there’s no chance the voters there will remove them from office.
Earning the support of the black community will be no easy feat for Republicans. If it is to be realistically achieved, it will take several voting cycles, a lot of hard work, and genuine outreach. But it’s encouraging to see that at least some Republicans are pushing a positive message of opportunity into black communities, and calling upon liberals to defend their failed policies. Like all voters, African-Americans deserve to have both sides presented to them, and for too long Republicans have failed to even make our case. To the extent that’s changing, even slowly but surely, progress can be made.
Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas
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