The GOP is burdened with a base too steeped in racial denialism and resentment to allow Republicans to reach out to minority voters. Republicans have painted themselves into a corner through decades of appealing to racial fears and stoking the racial resentments of their base.
Staying in that corner is a one-way ticket to political irrelevance. Getting out of it is going to be messy.
Racism in 140 Characters (Or Less)
How messy? Last weekend, Nina Davuluri became the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America. No sooner was the tiara on Davuluri’s head, then racist attacks against her popped up on Twitter. Some accused her of being an Arab, a Muslim, a terrorist, and even a member of Al Qaeda. Others claimed Davuluri -- who was born and raised in New York state, and whose parents who came to the U.S. 30 years ago -- wasn’t even an American.
It’s becoming a trend.
- Twitter was flooded with racist tweets in June, when 10-year-old Mexican-American Sebastian de la Cruz sang the national anthem before game 3 of the NBA finals. Some claimed de la Cruz was an undocumented immigrant who “snuck in the country like 4 hours ago,” and was tapped to sing the national anthem. Cruz -- San Antonio native, son of a Navy vet, and “America’s Got Talent” semi-finalist -- wasn’t even on the program. He was tapped to sing the anthem when Darius Rucker cancelled at the last minute.
- Former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker made headlines when he responded to a Twitter poster who suggested that Rucker “leave country to the white folks.” Rucker, who has built a successful country music career since parting with the Blowfish, called the racist tweeter an “idiot,” and responded, “I’ll take my grand ole Opry membership and leave your racism. Wow.”
- Twitter was again flooded with racist tweets in July, after native New Yorker and Grammy winner Marc Antony sang “God Bless America” at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. One tweeter asked, “Shouldn’t an American be singing God Bless America?” Several complained that a “Mexican” was tapped to sing the patriotic favorite. (Anthony is of Puerto Rican descent.)
These tweets echo the waves of despair and anger that broke over social and conventional media after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.
- Former Saturday Night Live cast member Victoria Jackson tweeted America’s demise, “I can’t stop crying,” and ”America died.” Jackson later posted an image of a tombstone reading “R.I.P America” on her Facebook page.
- Former GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump ranted, “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington. Our nation is totally divided.” Trump followed up with, “Lets fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice! The world is laughing at us.” Trump went on to declare the election “a sham and a tragedy,” and the electoral college “a disaster for democracy,” before deleting most of his tweets
- The hashtag #tcot (for “Top Conservatives on Twitter”) featured declarations like, “I just want to knock half the country upside the head,” and “Our country may not survive four more years of this man.”
When White Is No Longer the Norm
The over-the-top anger unleashed against Davuluri, President Obama and others on Twitter is fueled by a profound sense of loss felt by some white Americans. After the election, I described it as a loss of primacy -- the feeling of being “primary, preeminent, or more important” than other groups.
Anti-racist author and activist Tim Wise said during a 2011 CNN interview that cultural and economic changes have hit many white Americans particularly hard, financially and psychologically. White Americans who were taught that they would be rewarded if they worked hard, are now working harder than ever for less than ever. An increasing whites are also sharing space in the unemployment line with “those people” -- black and brown people.
“For the first time since the Great Depression,” Wise said, “white Americans have been confronted with a level of economic insecurity that we’re not use to. It’s not so new for black and brown folks, but for white folks, this is something we haven’t seen since the Depression”
That economic insecurity is compounded by demographic and cultural changes. As the country becomes more diverse, and more of our icons -- political leaders, celebrities, sports heroes, beauty queens, etc. -- are people of color, many white Americans feel as excluded from popular culture as they do from any economic recovery.
The face of America, and for white Americans it is no longer a reflection of their own. The definition of what it means to be an American is changing, and white is no longer norm.
“We can no longer take it for granted that we (whites) are the dictionary definition of an American,” Wise said. For older white Americans who grew up in a time when America’s icons were virtually all white, this loss of primacy is an alarming development. Their alarm fuels at least some of the fury of tea partiers waving signs blaring “I want my country back.”
The election of Mitt Romney would have been a restoration of primacy. The re-election of Barack Obama, instead, confirmed the worst fears of white conservatives about where the country was headed and their inability to stop it.
Is White the New Black?
The white-hot anger against Davuluri, de la Cruz, Anthony, and Obama is sparked by the collision of demographic trends with economic reality. It is fed by an unreality that Republicans have preached to their base for decades.
Denialism -- the refusal to accept reality, established theory, facts, or evidence in order to avoid dealing with and uncomfortable or inconvenient truth -- comes in many varieties. Climate denialists, for example, deny the role of human activity in climate change. David Sirota, in 2011, wrote that perhaps the largest group of denialists are those who deny that Blacks and other minorities usually face bigger obstacles to economic and political success than whites. Instead, they believe that whites are now the most oppressed.
- A 2011 survey showed that while both blacks and whites believed significant progress has been made against anti-black racism, some white Americans believe that progress has come at their expense.
- A Public Religion Institute poll found that 44 percent of whites identified discrimination against white as being just as big as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. The poll found that 61 percent of those identifying with the tea party, and 56 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of white evangelicals felt the same way.
It’s no coincidence that significant numbers of white conservatives believe white is the new black. From Richard Nixon’s “Law and Order” rhetoric to the demonization welfare programs in the 1980s and affirmative action in the 1990s as persecuting whites, the GOP spent decades stirring the pot of racial fear and resentment.
For a long time, it worked. Republicans could rely almost entirely on white voters to win elections. It may have worked too well.
Demographics, District Lines, And Destiny
In power, Republicans seized the opportunity to revamp congressional districts, and create more “solid Republican” districts. The result is that 80 percent of House Republicans represent districts more heavily white than the national average. By contrast, 64 percent of House Democrats now represent districts where the minority vote-share exceeds the national average.
What was an advantage is now a disadvantage. Running in all-white or nearly all white districts worked for Republicans, when white vote-share exceeded minority vote-share, and the party had a lock on the white working class vote. But, as Robert Brownstein pointed out in a recent National Journal piece, demographic trends have increased the minority vote share, while vote-shares of white groups the GOP has long relied upon have declined.
Part of the reason the GOP’s minority outreach has failed is that Republicans aren’t used to talking to -- or listening to -- minority voters. They haven’t had to do so in order to win. Now, they hire hold retreats to learn how to talk to minorities, or just hire consultants to do it for them.
As Paul Waldman wrote, is that nobody had to teach Democrats how to talk to white people, because “you learn that no matter where you live.” Plus Democrats have had much longer to learn how to reach out to diverse groups of voters, because they’ve had to in order win elections.
After 2012, Republicans tried to convince themselves that merely changing their “tone” would be enough to help attract minority voters, without changing their policies, even though their positions are precisely the reason the GOP doesn’t attract more minority voters. As I’ve said before, Republicans are asking themselves the wrong question.
Instead of asking “Why don’t more blacks, Latinos, women, etc., join us?”, Republicans should ask “How are we failing to address the concerns of blacks, Latinos, women, etc., so that more of them will want to join us?” That’s a question that Republicans can’t ask, because answering would mean changing their tone and their policies. Republicans can’t do that without having the very same rage they encouraged in their base turned against them.
But if Republicans are to remain politically viable, that’s the question they have to ask and answer for themselves, however painful.