GOP Attracting Minorities?

The RNC is meeting this week to talk about how to attract minorities, but Michael Tomasky says that in truth, the party's implacable white base will never let it happen.

01.24.13 9:45 AM ET

What with everything going on these days, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Reince Priebus hasn’t been foremost in your mind lately. Well, this is your opportunity to correct that error, because I deliver tidings that the Republican National Committee is holding its winter meeting right now, starting yesterday, in Charlotte. A-No.1 on Chairman Priebus’s list, say advance reports, is figuring ways the GOP can attract more support among minorities. Well, they could. But they’d have to do things that would make them not the Republican Party anymore, and their base would never permit it.

Let’s start with African-Americans. Republicans, whatever they might say publicly, won’t actually try to win more black votes. Why? Because the positions the party would have to embrace to win black votes are abhorrent to the GOP base. Which, you may have noticed, is kind of racist. Now, people like me—pundits of the respectable class—aren’t supposed to talk that way. We’re supposed to cooperate in the fiction that the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln and underneath it all yearns to reawaken the great Jack Kemp tradition.

All that is a bunch of rot, I’m afraid, and the rank and file’s racism is just a plain fact. Ever read some of those Fox News website comment threads on race stories, like this rather fascinating thread when Whitney Houston died, or certain Obama articles? It’s like reading Bull Connor’s diary. No, this doesn’t mean every conservative is a racist. But it does mean that if you find yourself at a table with five conservatives and try to break the ice with a watermelon joke, you’re very likely to get somewhere between two and three laughs.

A party with that kind of base is not going to be changing positions on affirmative action anytime in the next, oh, millennium. No—I really can’t predict a meeting of the minds here in any remotely foreseeable future. Remember, the conservative, Republican-appointed Supreme Court is (presumably) about to undo affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act. It’ll be another decade fighting to win those back at least.

The GOP base doesn’t appear to boil with the same depth of contempt for Latinos. To Republicans, Latinos are the people who at least, you know, mow people’s lawns and such. But I think conservatives misunderstand Latinos. It’s true that they are a quite heterogeneous admixture of people from a broad range of cultures and historical traditions. But to the extent that they can be lumped together, as we do for electoral-demographic purposes, we find that they are alas a pretty liberal outfit.

Conservatives always say, “Latinos are conservative; they are our natural allies!” It’s not really true. Exit polls last year found Latinos supporting abortion rights in quite large numbers, and ditto same-sex marriage (to a lesser degree, but still a healthy majority). The conservative misunderstanding, of course, is in assuming that personal conservatism equates with political conservatism. Sometimes it does, but a lot of the time it does not.

And here’s another thing about Latinos, especially working-class and working-poor Latinos. Because of language and cultural barriers, they have tended to take advantage of fewer state benefits than others. They don’t use the earned-income tax credit as much, for example. There seems to me reason to think that over time, as language barriers lessen, that will change. And of course we have health care coming down the pike, and all its subsidies to families up to 188 percent of the poverty line. In other words, conservatives, millions more Latinos are poised to become card-carrying members of the good old moocher class! You think the party that wanted to repeal health-care expansion is going to get the bulk of those votes?

The main mistake Republicans make is that they actually think symbolic moves will accomplish the job here. More black speakers at the convention, three Latinos in office instead of one. Most people are actually smart enough to figure out that symbolism with no substance behind it is kind of insulting.

The bottom line is about the base. The GOP base consists of white people who are terrified of losing their skin privilege in Barack Obama’s America. Even if Priebus and a few other Republicans are sincere in their efforts, the minute they start to take steps that are anything but symbolic and that are aimed specifically at trying to win over blacks or Latinos, the base will howl to the moon. I suppose it’s possible that two or three generations from now, which means 30 to 50 years, white Republicans who grew up in our multicultural era will have different attitudes. But even that is a fairly big question mark—there are always going to be vast sections of the country where the population will be 90 or more percent white.

Changing all this can’t be done with some buzzwords and slogans. It is going to be a deeply painful and contentious process for the GOP. I’d say it will be amusing for the rest of us, but it will inject enough poison into the body politic to make it not much fun for anyone.