Published on January 10th, 20140
The Right and Wrong Kind of Working Class Appeal
Yes, it is possible for Republicans to craft an appeal that is friendly to blue collar, downscale whites that does not amount to warmed over race-baiting. From this blog to thoughtful conservatives like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, the point has been made repeatedly that a pro working class message actually ought to bolster Republicans with blacks and Latinos, and that a renewed emphasis on upward mobility should resonate with whites as well as minorities caught in the tow of economic anxiety.
But to be fair about it, there is also a version of a white working class pitch that does looks pretty much exactly like thinly disguised backlash politics. It plays out when the argument against immigration reform transitions to warnings about alien cultures convoluting our national identity; when the GOP’s most conspicuous discretionary spending cuts would be food stamps; when virtually every complaint of racial discrimination is dismissed as professional activism or “divisiveness”; and when the outrage over government assistance seems most strident when the recipients are perceived (often wrongly) to be black or brown.
Therein, another dilemma for Republicans during this period of reevaluation: any serious strategy requires Republicans to go well beyond drop-bys on black radio stations or college campuses, or ratcheting up the ad budget for black publications, to the heavier lift of separating conservatism from its excesses. Outreach that moves voting numbers must consist of a conservative vision more interested in closing gaps and inequality than in widening those divisions.
In practical terms, that does not mean that Republicans abandon skepticism over programs that maximize their enrollment without making any dent in poverty or need. Certainly, it does not mean that Republicans ought to accept a stacked deck in which opposition to liberal priorities is conceded as turning back the clock of progress. But it should not be implausible for the conservative movement to get more comfortable denouncing its outliers, like Georgia’s anti-immigration provocateur, DA King, who is doing a pitch perfect imitation of a Latino baiting xenophobe even if he somehow isn’t one (because of his wealth and propensity for lavishing money attacking opponents, a riskier, therefore, more meaningful move than the distancing that happens every so many months from a character like Iowa’s immigrant bashing Rep. Steve King).
Nor should it be so difficult for Republicans to start pairing controversial, but defensible stances with sensitivity toward certain minority fears. For example, enthusiasm for voter ID needs to be balanced with support for restoring rights for at least some released felons, namely non-violent ones who are reconnecting with their communities and showing a commitment to function as law abiding citizens. Rather than denigrating food stamps across the board, congressional Republicans ought to shift their aim toward entirely legitimate reform—like restructuring the earned income tax credit into a monthly draw that might, for low wage workers, replace food stamps—and the occasional misuse of nutrition assistance shouldn’t sound more morally offensive to conservatives than the payment of over a billion dollars in farm subsidies to landowners who have not planted a crop since the turn of the century.
And this is a point worth dwelling on for Republicans: it is not that the conservative agenda per se alienates minority voters, but that the impetus behind that agenda can seem so devoid of compassion and so distrustful of the vulnerable. And in the same vein, an electoral appeal intended to shore up Republicans with working class voters need not contribute to racial polarization, not unless it appears that the only low wage Americans who move the right are the ones who are white.
About the Author: Artur Davis is a former four-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama and a current fellow at Harvard’s prestigious Institute of Politics. Despite today’s hyper-partisan environment, Davis has made a career of advocating for the ever-narrowing political middle. He is a 1990 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard University and a 1993 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, is a licensed attorney in Washington D.C. He previously served as a federal prosecutor with a near 100 percent trial-conviction record and as a partner at the law firm SNR Denton LLP