Can Republicans romance Latinos?

By Alan Bean

Like many of you, I switched to a different network on election night whenever a commercial came along (I hate commercials as much as I hate political ads).  The talking heads on every station were sounding the same message: due to changing demographics, the Republican Party must reach out to minorities if it is serious about long-term survival.

Democrats won over 90% of the African American vote and close to three-quarters of the Hispanic vote (over 80% if non-Cuban Americans are excluded from the calculation).  And this after President Obama largely ignored the criminal justice system (a major problem for black voters) while presiding over the unprecedented mass deportation of undocumented residents.

Obama wins the minority vote (including 62% of the Asian electorate) by sitting back and letting Republicans be Republicans.

From the earliest primary debates, Republican candidates competed to out-nasty one another on the immigration issue.  Politicians like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich who showed the slightest flicker of compassion for undocumented residents were hooted down by tough-talking competitors.  Mitt Romney trumped them all by arguing that we should make things so hard for “the illegals” that they despair and “self-deport”.  That proved to be a winning formula.

It was also enough to send millions of first-time Latino voters streaming to the polls.   Obama’s campaign rallies, and the crowd at the Democratic Convention, looked a lot like America.  Mitt Romney’s crowds betrayed the obvious and increasingly embarrassing fact that the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of White.

But how hard would it be for Republicans to reverse this trend?  They wouldn’t have to abandon their small government, low-tax brand of politics; they’d just have to stop being overtly nasty to people of color.   Conservative politicians don’t need to win 50% of the minority vote any more than Democrats in swing states need to win the votes of 50% of white voters.  Nor would Republicans need to abandon their small government convictions.   A genuine appeal to Latinos coupled with a sincere commitment to comprehensive immigration reform ought to suffice.

George W. Bush and Karl Rove were willing to move in this direction because, hailing from Texas, they understood the importance of the Latino vote.  But the GOP, noticing how immigrant-bashing fired up the base, moved in the opposite direction.

Small government true believers like Grover Norquist realize that our current mania for mass deportation comes with a huge price tag.  It costs $28,000 to deport a single person, and we deported almost 400,000 people last year.  Norquist has done the math.  That’s why he says, ““Ten years from now, you want to be splitting the Hispanic vote by something close to 50-50.  That’s completely doable if the threat of deportation was removed. But it’s not doable as long as that’s hanging over, and some Republicans talk as if they’re for the deportation of your mother or your aunt.”

For true fiscal conservatives, mass deportation is a welfare system that creates largely futile jobs at the Mexico-U.S. border while propping up a corrupt private prison industry.  Undocumented immigrants work hard, pay taxes, and don’t qualify for most forms of public assistance.  Small businesses in border states are utterly dependent on undocumented workers.  So why pour billions of wasted dollars into a cruel and unproductive system?

Because politicians in both parties know that immigrant-bashing is a terrific way to get white people to vote for you, that’s why.

Being an ideological small-tax conservative, Grover Norquist doesn’t understand that small government conservatism appeals to white voters for a variety of reasons.  Some advocates of Chicago School economics simply believe that cutting taxes and government programs will unleash a flood of investment capital and usher in an era of economic prosperity that will benefit all.  They really believe that.

Folks in the financial sector, the ones who recently trashed our economy, like small government politics because they feel entitled to their ill-gotten gains and wouldn’t give a penny to the government if they could avoid it.

Small town folk in overwhelmingly white rural Western communities don’t want their tax dollars going to big-city welfare cheats who are too lazy to do an honest days work.  These white folks have little first-hand experience with urban poverty, feel no responsibility for it, and don’t see why their tax dollars should go for decent schools, head start programs and food stamps.  That’s why states like Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma vote red so predictably.

Finally, we have the white voters of the old Confederacy.  The oldest segment of this population were enthusiastic supporters of New Deal programs so long as they were administered through state officials who understood “the Southern way of life.”  Working class southern whites didn’t learn to love small government conservatism until Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty and started chatting up The Great Society.

White Southerners were committed to Jim Crow segregation because it was what they were used to, but they also liked segregation because it forced black folks to work long hours for white people for slave wages.  Jim Crow died just as the wheels were coming off the traditional southern agricultural economy and the great migration to northern cities was in full swing.  The great fear was that if you couldn’t make “the Negro” work, he would just sit on the porch all day long.  If you paid the Negro to sit on the porch (welfare), he would never get off it.

This explains why white southerners embraced small government politics with such alacrity–it was a way of putting the Negro in his place without addressing the race issue.  White southerners didn’t care whether “supply side” economics worked in practice, they just knew it was a splendid way of punishing lazy black folks.

And white folks in the South were highly motivated to punish black people.  The civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 60s bathed the states of the Old Confederacy in a deep shame reminiscent of Reconstruction days.  Granting civil rights to black people because the federal government gave you no choice was like losing the Civil War all over again.  It’s considered tacky to mention this obvious piece of southern sociology on network television, but nothing is more obvious.

White racial resentment isn’t what it used to be, of course, but neither is it a spent force.  In fact, embracing the small government conservatism of Ronald Reagan was a wonderful way of getting back at LBJ and the rest of those Democrat turncoats without being accused of racism.  “Conservative” had always been code language for “segregationist”, just as “communist” or “liberal” was shofthand for “civil rights”.

In states like Mississippi and Alabama, the immigration debate gets tangled up in white racial resentment.  In the South, everything gets tangled up in white racial resentment.  Southern white evangelicals love Jesus and believe in traditional marriage and pro life politics, but these allegiances are all colored by racial resentment, a contamination that corrupts everything it touches, even the best of things.  This doesn’t mean that small government politics (or abortion, or love for Jesus) is just thinly disguised racism–it’s much more complicated than that.  But if you grow up white in the deep South, you receive a strong dose of racial resentment as a birth rite.  You are immersed in it, like a fish in water.

This explains why a state like Alabama adopted one of the nation’s harshest pieces of anti-immigrant legislation even though the Latino population of the state is inconsequential.  Making it hard for minorities to take advantage of the tax payer was just smart politics.

This also explains why, in the 2012 election, Alabama voters defeated Amendment 4, which called for the elimination of segregationist language from state law.  The way things played out, voters had good reason to reject Amendment 4.   Here’s a good simple explanation:

Alabama’s 1901 constitution originally required a “liberal system of public schools throughout the state,” but said “no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”

In the 1950s, in the face of desegregation and in defiance of it, Alabama passed an amendment – later struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court but kept on the books – that removed the right to public education.

“Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense,” it said. It added that parents could choose segregated schools.

And there’s the rub.

For what Alabama legislators did when they authorized this vote was not to simply go back to the 1901 constitution and remove the racist sentence. They went to the reactionary 1956 amendment. They took the segregation part out of that, but left the rest.

Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature could have gone back to the 1901 language, merely removing the racist bits without sending the matter to the electorate.  But by putting the issue up for a vote, they forced voters to choose between segregated schools, on the one hand, and the right to a public education, on the other.  Public schools are resented in the South (including my home state of Texas) because too many poor minority kids benefit–hence the current rage for charter schools.  Alabama legislators could have fixed this problem themselves, but not without admitting, publicly and unequivocally, that Jim Crow segregation in the public school system was wrong.

In Alabama, that would be politically risky.

Which explains why the Republican Party will have a hard time appealing to Latino voters with common sense, compassionate proposals.  You can’t do that if you’re still stoking the fires of white racial resentment.

Millions of good people vote Republican for non-racial reasons, but since the late 1960s, Republicans have won elections, state and national, by appealing to white racial resentment.  The formula doesn’t work without the racial appeal.

You can still win that way at the state level; the 2012 election shows it no longer works in a general election.

So why can’t small government Republicans denounce the elaborate anti-immigration machinery as an expensive hoax?

They could.

They might.

Nothing would make more sense from a conservative perspective.

But it would mean the GOP could no longer be the Party of White.

The fragile coalition on the right could crumble under the strain.

On the other hand, such a move might spark the rebirth of the Party of Lincoln, and that is a dispensation devoutly to be wished.