Earlier this month, a working group tasked by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus presented a sweeping, 98-page report for party reform after last November’s electoral rout. Among the many important items the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report recommends is a $10 million plan to broaden the party’s appeal to minorities.
As someone who frequently finds himself the outlier in a room full of old, white men at Republican functions, I can certainly appreciate the party’s demographic dilemma. I also applaud the RNC’s determination to match the Democrats’ minority support. At the same time, Republicans should not merely play catch-up with the Democrats’ antiquated brand of identity politics. Rather, the GOP has the historic opportunity to chart a more ambitious and enlightened approach — one that not only comports better with the demographic realities of the 21st century, but one that also befits the country’s and the party’s roots in a culture of individualism.
As they say at Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem, and the Growth and Opportunity Project does this admirably. The report acknowledges that a whopping 80 percent of minorities supported President Obama last November. While minorities already constitute 37 percent of the general population and 28 percent of voters, by 2050, America will become a minority-majority country.
While the Republican Party absolutely must proceed to address its demographic difficulties, it must do so carefully, given the sensitivity of race and ethnicity. For example, the task force recommends reviving the RNC’s “New Majority Council,” comprising minorities responsible for assessing current strategies and developing new initiatives for reaching minorities. The report also properly warns that these individuals “should not be pigeonholed into demographic outreach, but should be promoted to positions to develop political strategy and provide input on all budgeting decisions.”
Similar tact should be exercised with the report’s other recommendations. While it doesn’t hurt to have more minority “surrogates” to help sell the Republican message, the party should be careful not to become overly dependent on a “surrogacy” mentality. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a “surrogate” as a “substitute.” If the GOP really wants a more meaningful and seamless connection with all Americans, it must also establish direct connections between its candidates and officials on the one hand, and minority voters on the other. After all, Americans don’t vote in surrogate elections for surrogate candidates.
Republicans also need not — and should not — buy into the notion that individuals can be reached only through other individuals of their own race. One of the greatest examples of interracial messaging in American politics was Robert F. Kennedy’s address to a predominantly black crowd in Indianapolis upon the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Indianapolis was one of the few large cities where riots didn’t erupt that night.
The Growth and Opportunity Project also calls for the RNC’s minority council to train candidates on “the particular culture, aspirations, positions on issues, contributions to the country, etc., of the demographic group they are trying to reach.” If not done properly, these sorts of generalizations can often devolve into outright stereotyping.
Lastly, the plan envisions the council would work to “encourage governors to embrace diversity in hiring and appointments.” In doing so, the RNC must go beyond merely providing binders full of minorities.
Beyond these initial steps, many of which date to the Clinton era, the RNC should look to a bigger, bolder and newer approach — one that is focused on winning elections not only for the next four to eight years, but for the next generation. Democrats have been perfecting the Tammany Hall model of ethnic divide-and-conquer for more than 100 years. It is doubtful whether Republicans can ever beat them at this game. At the same time, the GOP was the party of emancipation in the 19th century, and that should continue to be our role in the 21st century. The GOP should set us free from what Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has called the “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race.”
As the 20th century showed, there is a strong correlation between integration and political affiliation. At the turn of the century, when Irish- and Italian-Americans were still widely regarded as separate from the “White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant” population, they were squarely in the pocket of the Democratic Party. As these ethnic groups became more integrated with the rest of America, however, their political affiliations also evened out. The GOP should be the party that hastens the racial and ethnic integration of more recent Americans. This is a result that most minorities desire — a result that Democrats, as the party of hyphenated Americans, are hindering.
America remains the only country in the world where anyone can come and call himself an “American.” As Republicans, we must not hesitate to present ourselves as the party of Americans, period.
Eric Wang is a political law attorney and has previously worked for the Republican Party.