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Why Conservatives Don’t Get Hispanics

There is a lot of talk out there right now about the Republican failure to attract Latino voters, who voted for President Obama by a whopping 71-27 ratio in the 2012 presidential election. Although whites made up 56% of Obama’s coalition only 39% of them voted for the president, the smallest percentage in the history of any major American political party.

In a column on Slate yesterday Matthew Yglesias pointed out that the main problem is not the issue of immigration:

Pundits are quickly turning to immigration to explain the Republicans’ Latino problem and to offer a possible cure, but the reality is that the rot cuts much deeper. The GOP doesn’t have a problem with Latino voters per se. Rather, it has a problem with a broad spectrum of voters who simply don’t feel that it’s speaking to their economic concerns. The GOP has an economic agenda tilted strongly to the benefit of elites, and it has preserved support for that agenda—even though it disserves the majority of GOP voters—with implicit racial politics.

Now you can disagree with Yglesias’s judgment in that last sentence but there is no question that what he says certainly reflects the way in which many Hispanics, and others, perceive the Republican Party. I have had enough conversations with hard-core conservatives and Republican Party activists to know that there is an element of truth to what Yglesias is saying. There is a subculture within Republican circles that is nativist, uncompassionate, and arrogant. Many conservatives do live in their own bubble, living and worshiping with people who are just like them in so many ways and have trouble connecting politically with those who don’t. The culture of the Democratic Party is quite different.

Yglesias goes on,

Polling suggests that the Latino problem for the GOP is deeper than immigration. John McCain got a scant 31 percent of the Latino vote despite a long record of pro-immigration policies. The best evidence available on Hispanic public opinion, a big election even poll from Latino Decisions and ImpreMedia, makes it clear that this is just a fairly liberal voting block. Just 12 percent of Latinos support a cuts-only approach to deficit reduction, and only 25 percent want to repeal Obamacare. Only 31 percent of Hispanics say they’d be more likely to vote for a Republican who supports the DREAM Act. This isn’t to say Latinos aren’t eager to see immigration reform, it’s just that the lion’s share have bigger reasons for rejecting the GOP.

This is important to take seriously. It’s not just Latinos and blacks that voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Other racial minorities, such as Asian Americans, did as well. The fact is, while Americans are evenly divided when it comes to Obamacare, most Americans recognized coming into Obama’s presidency that there was a desperate need for health care reform. In addition, most Americans believe it would be acceptable to raise taxes on the wealthy to a certain extent, along with cuts in discretionary spending and even a degree of entitlement reform. But conservatives sometimes simply deride such perspectives. There is a solid block of people who support the Tea Party affiliated Members of Congress who will brook absolutely no compromise with the Democrats on any of these matters.

All that said, I don’t think we can separate the issue of immigration from these other issues. For part of the reason why so many conservatives – those most influential in shaping the Republican primary process that drives Republicans to the right on immigration – oppose immigration reform is their inflexible attitude about these other issues. Conservatives expect people to work hard, act responsibly, and obey the law. They worry a lot about the growing demographic of Americans who don’t seem to share their understanding of what it means to be an American, and the idea that someone would enter this country illegally and then expect the same public benefits as anyone else flies in the face of that fear. It’s not that they are opposed to immigration, as they will tell you. They just think it should be done legally. You can’t give amnesty to someone who has broken the law or you will simply encourage him or her to do it again.

And yet it is all a little bit odd. How many of our ancestors (political ancestors if not literal ones) broke the law when they came to this country, or when they pushed irrepressibly westward? I’m not just talking about the occupation of lands occupied by natives who had little understanding of property ownership. I’m talking about the refusal of Americans over and over to obey the treaties their own country signed with various tribes, the insistence that even if these non-white people had been pushed off their lands multiple times already, they should be pushed off yet again. And what of the mass American migration into Mexican territory that resulted in the Texan secession from Mexico and ultimately in the huge land-grab resulting from the most unjust war in American history? (By my count the territories we seized from Mexico add up to about 130 votes in the electoral college.)

Hispanics in the United States according to the 2010 Census.

Territories seized by the United States from Mexico in 1845-1848.

My point is not to engage in pointless America trashing, nor is it to question the wisdom, virtue, and hard work on which American prosperity is built. Conservatives rightly point out that we can’t turn back the clock and make these wrongs right. As with the case of reparations to former slaves, it is far better to move on and move forward than to continually haggle over the sins of the past. Clemency is just as important a political virtue as is justice.

But then why do so many view illegal immigration so differently? To be sure, there are approximately 15 million people who are currently living in this country illegally. They have broken the law. And yet they now play a vital role in the American economy, performing hard work that many other Americans are not willing to do, contributing far more to this country than they take from it. Many of them have had children here who are now by law American citizens. All of them believe in the American dream, the same American dream that motivated our own ancestors.

Note, virtually no one is proposing amnesty any more than they are suggesting that Americans should abandon any land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), the largest organization of Hispanic Christians in the country, makes quite clear that it believes illegal immigration is wrong and that justice requires that America strengthen its control over its border to prevent the continued violation of the law. The NHCLC calls not for amnesty but for reform that will allow people who broke the law in the past nevertheless to become legal residents and eventually citizens of this country, much like our ancestors regularly asked that the government recognize their own rights despite having repeatedly violated the law. As the president of the NHCLC, Samuel Rodriguez, puts it, any solution must include:

first, border protection that puts an end to all illegal immigration including the utilization of infrared, satellite and other technologies in addition to increased border patrols. Second, the creation of a market driven guest worker program and facilitative avenues by which millions of families already in America that lack the legal status can earn such status in a manner that reflects the Judeo Christian Value system this nation was founded upon. Third, an earned citizenship element that will enable current undocumented residents without a criminal record to earn citizenship status by going to the back of the line as it pertains to citizenship applicants, admonition of guilt with corresponding financial penalty, acquiring civic and language proficiency all while serving the local community.

This is not such an outlandish proposal, and given our nation’s history, conservatives have no right to consider it un-American. As Yglesias points out, immigration reform would not automatically bring Latinos into the Republican camp. But as I suggested yesterday, this isn’t ultimately about electoral politics but about virtuous political engagement. It’s about attitude, a spirit of cooperation, and the willingness to help people solve the problems that concern them most. If you don’t have this, you shouldn’t wonder why, despite your glorious political and economic principles, they wander to the other side.

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What conservative surprise about Obama’s re-election says about conservatives

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2

How many Evangelical pastors will give thanks for President Obama this Sunday, even as they intercede with God to give the president wisdom and an understanding of justice in his second term as President of the United States? How many Evangelicals will give thanks for all people – all Americans – even after they have just re-elected Barack Obama to a position of authority in this country?

It is far too soon after election day to offer up any objective or balanced interpretation of the significance of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the future of the Republican Party, or the viability of conservatism in American politics. Pundits and theorists will declare the election to be a clear verdict that the Republican Party has veered too hard to the right and that the Tea Party was like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck, not to mention the direct cause of the Republican Party’s failure to retake control of the Senate. Others will try to tease out just what missteps by Romney and other Republicans were most fatal. And of course, there will be a lot of talk about demographics: the old, white, male Republican Party simply cannot win without finding ways to gain the support of younger voters, Latinos, and women.

These are all discussions that Republicans and conservatives need to have. But over and above all of these questions the most striking thing about last night’s election may well be that it took conservatives entirely by surprise. Although the polling and analysis of the mainstream media turned out to be right, numerous leading conservative writers predicted with absolute confidence in the days leading up to the election that despite what the polls said Romney would win. The polls were biased in their methodology, they said, and polls have no ability to capture enthusiasm or energy. Politics is about much more than statistics and predictive models; what matters is what is happening on the ground. Americans are discouraged about the economy and too many don’t like Obamacare. Democratic voters are discouraged and fewer would go to the polls than in 2008.

All wrong. The best conservative minds in the country were out of touch with the sentiments of most Americans and with the reality on the ground. Even after it was clear that President Obama had won many conservatives refused to believe it because they had been told this would not happen. They could not understand why people would vote for Obama and thought that in the end their man – Mitt Romney – represented the spirit of America. But again, it turns out that they were wrong. As Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:

[Obama] did one thing that surprised the Romney campaign, Republicans, and political writers, myself included.  He and his campaign delivered a massive turnout by Democratic voters who were supposed to be unenthusiastic, dispirited, and less inclined than Republicans to go to the polls.  By voting in droves, they offset the increased Republican turnout.

Last night the conservative John Ziegler offered an explanation in a column on the Huffington Post, suggesting that many conservatives have become so isolated in the bubble of their own intellectual worldview that they simply tell themselves and their followers what they want to hear, regardless of reality. In many ways this is understandable, he argued, because the mainstream media is openly biased towards the left (if you don’t believe that you were not watching MSNBC last night; there is no way Fox News leans more to the right than MSNBC does to the left). But conservatives failed to distinguish the liberal media from the science and data of polling.

In another post Ziegler got at a deeper reason why conservatives were so taken by surprise:

Conservatives like to think that there is a “silent majority” out there that the media/pollsters will suddenly show up on Election Day. There is very little evidence that this actually exists. The 2010 election deludes conservatives because they don’t seem to realize that in presidential elections the turnout is much higher, especially in the states that actually matter. Republicans only have “tides” in low turnout elections. When the “low info” voters get to the polls, Democrats simply can’t be blown out in the key states. I never understood why conservative commentators couldn’t understand that Obama’s turnout would be just fine in the states which would actually decide the election.

Although conservative strategists have long known that white voters are a shrinking demographic, history told them that whites are far more likely to vote than are blacks or Latinos, especially in a poor economy with high unemployment. And while many conservatives have long been warning that the Republican Party is doomed if it fails to win over a substantial number of Hispanics, the rhetoric of the GOP’s primary season was if anything more harsh on illegal immigration than ever before. In 2004 President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008 John McCain won only 31%. Last night Romney’s portion fell to around 27%. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing demographic in the United States.

The main point I want to make, however, has less to do with demographics and more to do with 1 Timothy 2:1-2. As I have argued before on this blog, if conservatives are going to earn the right to guide this country politically they have to figure out how to lead by persuasion, not simply by power politics. There is no moral authority in conducting brilliant strategic campaigns and hoping your opponents have low turnout. If you can’t make conservative political theory make sense to millions of hard working Christian immigrants who just so happen to be part of the fastest growing demographic in the country you don’t deserve to win regardless of how skillful you are politically. Your politics have to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity and affirmation toward all people – not simply those who are already like you. You have to learn to speak for all Americans, not just the people you judge to be real Americans.

Former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp is quoted as making precisely this point in an analysis offered by Politico:

Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments… It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.

Do conservatives get this? Do Christian conservatives in particular accept this as part of their moral duty? Will we continue to view every political divide through the lens of a culture war, writing off entire ethnic or economic groups as part of the other side needing to be defeated rather than engaging them as fellow citizens who might have something to tell us about their own welfare, let alone the welfare of this country?

Note, my point is not to criticize conservatism nor is it to criticize Christian political theology. On the contrary, it is that in a democratic society any political perspective loses its moral credibility if it ceases to take seriously the need to treat other perspectives with dignity and respect. If we can’t explain our moral and political judgments to those who disagree with us even while they often share our faith, if we don’t trust them even while we demand that they trust us, why should we expect them to cede to us any moral or political leadership?

Again, do conservatives get this? I’m not sure. In the National Review Kevin Williamson writes:

The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”

So according to Williamson Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were right all along. Most Americans are just greedy and selfish and there is nothing we can do about it.

Or take Matthew Schmitz’s comments on the First Thoughts blog:

Gallup’s recent polling finds slightly more than half of Americans identifying as prolife, and while support for gay marriage continues to increase, the issue motivates far more conservative than liberal voters. There’s a large intensity gap that should continue to tip the issue to the right for some time even if current trends hold.

Hmm … where have I heard that sort of logic before. Most don’t agree with our perspective but we care more so we can defeat them at the polls even if we cannot persuade them.

These comments do not sound like the expressions of lessons learned. They sound like a continued refusal to recognize that the American people, in a free and fair election, chose President Obama to continue to lead this country over the Republican Mitt Romney, chose Democrats to serve as United States senators in states thought to be solidly conservative, and endorsed same-sex marriage despite strong campaigns to prevent it.

Conservatives can view this data as a simple condemnation of their opponents and pat themselves on the back for standing for the truth even as their country (as they see it) falls apart. Or they can take it as a sharp rebuke that calls them to begin again the hard work of re-engaging the American people, hearing and taking seriously their concerns even as they try to make sense of how conservatism might best help address those concerns. The American people are open to persuasion, I firmly believe. Few people really think this country is on a sustainable path to prosperity. But if conservatives are ever going to lead it in a different direction, they will have to do a better job persuading the rest of the country that they actually deserve it.

Is Joel Belz right that the church should say more about politics?

In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.

What is Belz looking for in particular?

When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?

Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.

I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.

But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?

I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.

Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge.  Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.

In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,

although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.

I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.

I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.

Is the Republican Party losing credibility at just the time its conservatism is most needed?

In a sharply critical article at the Atlantic Conor Friedersdorf (HT: Evan Donovan) argued last month that the Republican Party has lost itself in a world of fantasy and fiction such that it is unable any longer to arbitrate between what is true and what is false. Friedersdorf exaggerates the problem, as well as the degree to which the problem is uniquely Republican, of course, and much of what he complains about is more the result of trends in modern media and democracy than anything else.

Even with those qualifications, however, there is no question that Friedersdorf is on to something in his basic point. The Republican Party has a credibility problem. Or to perhaps put it more accurately, the Republican base has a credibility problem.

Friedersdorf illustrates his point,

National Review’s readers have been exposed to the argument that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemy in a “Grand Jihad” against America; in Forbes, Dinesh D’Souza set forth the thesis that Obama’s every action is explained by a Kenyan anti-colonial ideology that overwhelms all else. I mention those magazines not because they’re worthless, but because both publish good stuff, and employ a lot of talented people who are more than smart enough to see through this nonsense….

A bit farther toward the fringes you’ve got the birthers.

Just now, the GOP nominee was exposed as believing, or pandering to donors who believe, that the 47 percent of Americans who vote Democratic are the same 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes. That is demonstrably false, but many on the right have lined up behind his remarks, and started to shame co-ideologues who dared to criticize the Republican standard-bearer.

He goes on,

The civil war the right needs is one waged against the hucksters, whether they’re in the marketplace of ideas or the marketplace itself. Victory would mean establishing norms that would’ve made Roger Ailes too ashamed to air all those months of Glenn Beck; that would’ve made the Claremont Institute mortified to give Rush Limbaugh a statesmanship award …

Yes, there will always be hucksters. And spending all one’s time fighting them is a foolish enterprise.

On the right today, they are so numerous, prominent and shameless, their pathologies so ingrained in right-wing media and politics, their wealth so corrupting to young talent, and their pathologies so seldom challenged by those who know better, that Republicans are operating at a persistent information disadvantage. (Too many believe even their own bullshit.)

Now let me say again that I don’t believe the Democrats are in any better shape. What’s more, for all of its flaws and weaknesses, the conservative movement is only growing in credibility when it comes to its basic diagnosis of the American (or western style) welfare state. Even a prestigious British magazine like The Economist has recognized that Paul Ryan’s honesty and candor about the federal debt and about the way in which he proposes to solve it is a breath of fresh air for American politics (whether or not the American people are open to Ryan’s solutions). And numerous Republican governors (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie) have worked out their conservative principles in ways that have helped their states thrive. For numerous reasons, in fact, on the state level the Republican Party should be considered a great success. One need only think of California to get a sense of the alternative.

All that said, however, when it comes to national politics – when it comes to the way many Republicans talk about President Obama or the Democratic Party, and when one listens to their proposals for the way in which this country could realistically (and with anything approaching a consensus) move forward – there is something missing. When even Mitt Romney, a man known for his political moderation, pragmatism, and good business sense, goes off the rails pandering to conservative fantasy, and threatening the viability of his campaign among independents in the process, something is wrong.

Even if the world of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ron Paul was the real world of facts and common sense, what good would it do us if these men cannot communicate their vision in a way that actually makes sense to the country? It is not enough simply to have your principles and be sure you are right. You have to be able to make the case to your fellow citizens that your diagnosis of the country’s problems is the right one, and that your solutions could actually work, could actually make us all better off. You have to be able to convince the hard working common man (and woman) – whether white or black or Hispanic or Asian – that you can make his or her life better. Ronald Reagan did that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did that. The Republicans of our day are not doing it.

The tragedy of it all is that given the problems our country is facing right now, and given the inability of the Democratic Party to come to grips with the dead-end road down which its blue welfare state liberalism is taking the country, we have never needed a robust, coherent, and plausible conservative alternative more than we do now.

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