Adam Nagourney has written a nice article about GOP outreach to African-Americans. His basic premise is right on – the GOP keeps doing things that make African-Americans question on sincerity on issues of race. You don’t need to look far for examples. There was the Katrina response (which was about broken bureaucracy more than it was about race). There is the debate over onerous legacy regulations from the civil rights era that some in the south are questioning (which is not about the Voting Rights Act as a whole, but about some portions that really are extraneous and which the Democrats would politicize if we made an attempt to change them). There is the ongoing perception (right or wrong) that the Republican Party uses African-Americans as boogie men to keep white voters nervous and pushing buttons.
All of these things come down to a larger issue. Just as the Democrats have trouble connecting with people of faith, Republicans will, until they actually spend time getting to know and understand minority issues, have trouble addressing them.
Last week, the Democrats offered advice to their volunteers on how to communicate with voters. It offered this little gem:
Religious items: Do they have any religious items in view? What can you tell by the nature of their religious display?‚Äù
Some bloggers put this down as the democrats spying on voters, but that was really shortsighted. What this really reflects is the same problem the GOP has with African-Americans. The Democrats have spent so long advocating a radical liberalism whose teachings (gay rights, abortion, etc) fly in the face of the religious voters. That’s why Howard Dean willingly misrepresented the Democrat platform in an effort to pander to a religious audience.
Similarly, the GOP spent a long time being insensitive to minority voters. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, that took the form of openly shunning black voters to make inroads with Caucasians. It was short-sighted and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman issued an apology for it last year. But the GOP’s larger crime is color-blindness – not in the good sense that they ignore color in the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested, but in the bad sense that they do not see, and maybe cannot see, the world the way the minority voters do.
For instance, look at the aftermath of Katrina. The GOP was sensitive to the fact that people were suffering, but completely insensitive to the fact the the people in question were almost universally minorities. They moved with what they felt to be appropriate speed, but failed to understand that to minority viewers, the nightly news looked like coverage of concentration camps must have looked to Jews.
On the Voting Rights Act, the GOP members had valid complaints about the onerous regulations that prevent them from managing their own states without federal approval. It flies against the constitutions philosophy that all powers not granted to the fed rest firmly with the states – and says nothing about the fed having the power to approve state laws. So it made sense that some in the south would want to lift the heavy hand of government from off their backs.
However, what the rest of the party realized, and acted upon, is the fact that many who were alive in the pre-Voting Rights Act era are still alive, and remember the practitioners of segregation and suppression used similar arguments to oppose the Voting Rights Act to begin with. They used regulatory arguments to keep the yoke of tyranny on the black community and deny their rights. So using those same arguments to oppose renewal of the guarantee of their liberties is really, really stupid.
That’s the point to Nagorney’s piece – context and sensitivity. The GOP needs to look beyond its rational arguments at the underlying issues and be sensitive to the perception that others will bring to the analysis/action. We’ll find that more often than not we can rally people to our side if we can understand where they’re coming from and make our case on their terms, rather than simply trying to convince them we’re right.