Physics Applies to Politics Too

As Republicans return with a gusto to the idea ‘outreach’ to minorities I wanted to reprint something I wrote (jeez, time flies) almost fifteen years ago on just this topic. Some of the details have changed. Some of the people have passed from the scene. But the underlying reality remains pretty much the same …

Many of the “wedge issues” that worked so well for the Republicans in the past now present them with problems similar to those discussed above. Nowhere is this more the case than in the Republican Party’s relationship with Hispanic voters.

Democrats would certainly be wrong to assume that Hispanic voters are natural Democratic voters. Republicans could devise a message that played to Hispanic traditionalism on moral and social issues. The only problem is that sustaining Hispanic support in states like Texas and California would require avoiding conspicuous attacks on immigration, affirmative action, and the Spanish language. It is true that not a few Hispanic voters support reasonable limits on immigration, oppose affirmative action, and even dissent from the multicultural orthodoxy on bilingual education. But the electoral punch of these GOP wedge issues is not really rooted in disagreements about the economic utility of open immigration or the relative efficacy of bilingual education. It’s driven by voters who resent the increasing prominence of Hispanics in American public life.

To think otherwise is simply to ignore the racial politics that undergirds GOP strength. The Republicans’ bind with Hispanics is not unlike their problem with blacks. Consider the example of Jack Kemp, who has spent much of his career since leaving Congress arguing for a more inclusive Republican Party that could build beyond its base of economic and social conservatives and reach out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Kemp is, of course, an extreme supply-side conservative on economic issues. But his repeated political failures and his increasing estrangement from powerful segments of the party have been rooted in his seeming inability to appreciate the deep gusts of racial animosity that fill the sails of so many Republican public policy crusades. Most Republicans know that enterprise zones and other nostrums presented as alternatives to “failed” liberal social policy are window dressing. Kemp’s problem is that he takes the window dressing seriously, but none of his GOP colleagues have the heart to tell him.

The Republican Party has not, as Kemp would have it, ignored blacks and other minorities. In the last 30 years the Republican Party has increasingly relied on the support of constituencies that feel embittered and resentful toward minorities and the poor. The party’s mounting strength in the 1970s and 1980s was based on making inroads among conservative southern whites and appealing to the resentments that Democratic northern, working-class ethnic voters felt against school busing and affirmative action. Thus, the GOP’s problem with minorities isn’t incidental; it’s fundamental. Any genuine effort to aid minorities or the poor would instantly alienate a substantial portion of the Republican base. It’s an electoral bind, inexorable and fixed. The Republicans can’t be the party of both black opportunity and anti-black resentment, no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn’t work.