POLITICS AUGUST 6, 2013
Sean Trende's "missing white voter thesis" has elicited a lot of commentary about what path the Republican Party should take going forward. Simplistically put, should the G.O.P. aim to appeal to white voters who either sat out the last election or grumpily voted for Obama, or should it try to expand its base with minorities? Ryan Lizza, among others, has claimed that following the former strategy will lead to a racial divide:
If this is indeed the path that the G.O.P. pursues, it would intensify one of the less welcome political trends of the past few decades: the racial polarization of the electorate.
To which Ross Douthat responds:
The Democrats haven’t just been passive players in the recent racial polarization of the parties: Rather, they’ve embraced and furthered the trend, as a necessary part of making their new presidential-level "coalition of the ascendant" work. Where the Clinton-era Democrats still tried to win working class whites outright, the Obama-era Democrats mostly just used scorched-earth campaigning to try to minimize the G.O.P.’s margin and/or keep these voters on the sidelines. Where the pre-Obama party still made room for immigration skeptics and coal-country populists, the Obama-era Democrats have pushed in policy directions calculated to alienate many of the swing voters who cast ballots for Byron Dorgan in the past, or Joe Manchin or Mark Pryor in the present. Where the pre-Obama party spoke the language of "safe, legal and rare" on abortion and basically set gun control aside as a losing issue, the Obama Democrats have mostly dropped the "rare" part and, post-Newtown, taken up the gun-control cause anew. And so on.
In one sense, of course, Douthat is right: Obama and the Democrats have turned off white voters with issues like gun control, and with a liberal record on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But these issues are not racial issues; it is not as if Obama and the Democrats are, say, trying to pass laws disenfranchising white voters, or prominent Democratic lawmakers are making offensive statements about what white Americans will or won't contribute to the future of the country.
On the other side of the aisle, Republican racial polarization has taken the form of trying to pass voter ID laws that are clearly aimed at reducing minority turnout, and powerful Congressional Republicans are using a legitimate debate about immigration to make disgusting, racially-charged remarks. Meanwhile, giant conservative media outlets, from Fox News to Drudge, frequently fan the flames of racial polarization in the most blatant possible manner. To compare this, ethically speaking, with Democrats pissing off rural white voters by calling for gun control—as Douthat does—is quite a stretch.
Finally, however, Douthat is certainly right, prescriptively speaking:
If Republicans interpret Trende’s analysis correctly and set out to increase their margins with working class whites by developing a more inclusive and populist vision on economic policy, then they will probably ultimately win more Hispanic and even African-American votes as well … because the G.O.P.’s current weakness with those groups is driven by economic issues as well as identity politics, and there is a reasonably-strong overlap between the kind of arguments that would woo downscale white voters in Minnesota and middle-class Hispanics outside Las Vegas. Properly understood, then, the argument that the G.O.P. should focus on the Democratic Party’s white-working-class vulnerability is not an argument for a conscious strategy of racial polarization. Rather, it’s an argument for a Republican Party that recognizes liberalism’s growing weakness with a particular demographic, and responds with a reinvention that’s pitched to those voters and to the places where their concerns overlap with those of electorate as a whole.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.