Since their defeat at the polls last November, Republicans have been desperate to recruit more racial minorities to their side. Some, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have exhorted the Republican Party to become more moderate and more “inclusive.” Others, like Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, have suggested giving the party a “hip-hop” makeover. President Barack Obama’s recent nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court should remind Republicans that a better approach would be a wholesale rejection of the perverse but pervasive framework of identity politics championed by the left.
Democrats have long ago bought into the idea that minorities can only relate to people who look like them and must be coddled by people who do not. The Party of Lincoln, on the other hand, carries the unenviable burden of telling black, brown, and yellow people that it welcomes them, even as it insists that they have no special place, purely as a result of their race, in the party’s core beliefs about the free market and individual freedom.
So the black man in the White House came to power by incessantly invoking his biography and identity. Barack Obama reminded everyone every day on the campaign trail that he is the son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas. Michael Steele, the black man at the center of Republicans’ political comeback efforts, prefers to talk about “personal freedom, liberty, and the desire for self-governing.”
It is a stark contrast. Unfortunately, political realities skew in favor of the man of biography and the party of identity politics. Racial entitlement often creates a corrosive effect on minorities. Some brazenly demand jobs, college admissions, or business transactions based on race or gender, while others insist that identity trumps ideas or objective considerations. In that vein, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee believes that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
Minorities of the Republican camp tend to be less brazen but are nevertheless believers of the tenets of identity politics as well. For instance, a prominent Asian-American supporter of both President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush once admitted that it was paramount to have Asians in high political office, even if they advanced a leftwing agenda. Similarly, a former Republican congressional staffer who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 wrote in the Washington Post that she was frustrated with being a black Republican. Among other things, she complained that the Republican National Convention of 2008 “was embarrassingly devoid of people of color—among more than 2,000 delegates, only 36 were black.”
Before Republicans hurry to address these concerns, they should remember that they had already tried tokenism-lite during the George W. Bush years. In front of minority audiences, the Bush administration regularly touted all of its political appointees of color, however qualified, as if they were first and foremost minority tokens.
Some eight years later, Republicans’ standing among minority voters has seen little improvement. Gallup poll results released in May show that the party’s support from minority voters decreased slightly from 2001 and remains low at 10 percent among black voters and 22 percent support among non-white voters in general.
In contrast, blacks voted for Barack Obama at an overwhelming 95 percent in the last election. Latinos voted for him at 67 percent and Asians at 62 percent.
The numbers are depressing, but Republicans should not despair. Instead, they should draw inspiration from their core principles. As Michael Steele declared at a recent gathering of RNC state chairmen, “For me the Republican Party owes its moorings to Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan. Those are the people that I trace my roots to in the Republican cause.” In a world where few black men walk around invoking the names of towering figures in conservatism, Steele provided a powerful reminder that minorities can, and do, come to the Republican Party because of the power of its ideas.
It is worth remembering that in the world of Burke, Buckley and Reagan, no hard or soft quotas would be set for minority representation in a political party or its convention.
So as Democrats emphasize race and ethnicity, Republicans should do a better job of explaining how their ideas apply to all races and ethnicities. In the process, the Party of Lincoln must not let tokenism prevail, even if it is tempting. It must not pander to racial minorities, even if many of them like it.
Before Republicans can convince minorities of the power of the party’s ideas, they would do well to believe in them first.