How Conservatives Can Win In Blue-State America:Lessons From South Africa’s Opposition

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Joel B. Pollak @ Big Government:

The new conventional wisdom in the aftermath of the 2012 elections is that Republicans face two challenges: first, that the United States is no longer a center-right nation, but a center-left one; second, that the country’s demographic shift away from whites will make it tougher for Republicans to win votes. The proposed solution is that Republicans must compromise on the party’s core policies, from immigration to taxation to social issues.

The conventional wisdom is wrong.

I once worked in South Africa for a centrist party, the Democratic Alliance, which faced the same challenges as Republicans do, only far more extreme. Though it had opposed apartheid, its leadership was predominantly white, in a country that is nearly 80% black. Moreover, it supported free-market economic policies in a country whose political culture is dominated by socialist and nationalist ideologies.

The party had worked its way up from receiving less than 2% of the vote in 1994 to just over 12% in 2004. It had become the leading opposition party, but seemed to have hit a ceiling. If it could not grow, it would die. How could it broaden its appeal to black voters without losing its core constituency of white voters? And how could it advocate for the free market when large portions of the electorate demanded massive redistribution?

I joined the team that helped elect Helen Zille mayor of Cape Town in 2006 (she is now the premier, or governor, of the whole Western Cape province). It was the first time an opposition party unseated the dominant African National Congress, and the first time a white politician was chosen by a predominantly black electorate in post-apartheid South Africa.

Our success could offer lessons for the Republican Party as it seeks to refocus.

1. Do not compromise basic principles; instead, show how they are relevant to all. You don’t gain trust from voters by becoming a “me, too” version of the majority party. It makes sense to adapt your policies when the other side’s policies are objectively better, as the Democrats did in the 1990s (a legacy Bill Clinton has now, sadly, disowned). It is impossible to find even one example of a successful Democratic policy worth copying.

The task, then, is to show how Republican policies work–especially for constituencies that Democrats currently take for granted. School reform is immensely popular in both black and Hispanic communities, for example. Right-to-work laws are better for jobs than laws that force workers to join unions and pay dues–and which push employers to leave. Lower taxes may help the rich–but they help the poor more by creating jobs.

We did this in South Africa by pointing out the failure of the ruling party’s affirmative action policies. Though ostensibly intended to help blacks, in effect the policy allowed the ruling party to help itself and its cronies. Most black people were excluded from the benefits, while a few billionaires were re-“empowered” over and over. Putting merit first was an attractive policy alternative for at least some black voters and communities.

2. Take the fight to the opposition’s turf. Rumor has it that Paul Ryan wanted to take the Republican argument to inner cities and make the argument for individual freedom–as his mentor, Jack Kemp, once did. The Romney campaign was cool to the idea, since most of the people in the audience would vote for President Barack Obama anyway. But  they should have listened–and Republicans should do more of what Ryan proposed.

There are three reasons to take the conservative case to liberal areas. One is that some people, even if just a few at first, will actually be convinced. Another is that it assuages the doubts of white Republicans who are afraid of being associated with the bad labels liberals affix to the party. And, finally, Democrats have been making the liberal case on conservative turf, aggressively, for over a decade. It’s long past time to return the favor.

Occasionally, that requires courage. Both before and after being elected Cape Town’s major, Zille had to face physical violence in some of the communities that she visited. She kept returning, to show she was not intimidated, and that she would stand up for local party members–who sometimes suffered isolation, and worse, from neighbors. There are few such dangers in the U.S.–and therefore few excuses not to do the same.

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Curt served in the Marine Corps for four years and has been a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for the last 24 years.

2 Responses to “How Conservatives Can Win In Blue-State America:Lessons From South Africa’s Opposition”

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    It’s a nice, thoughtful article. Still, as a California resident in the very liberal SF bay area, I don’t think any of those ideas will work. People I live with, many of them good friends, have closed their minds long ago, and seem able to either ignore evidence that might challenge their belief system, or in some cases parrot Democrat talking points without ever bothering to look at the underlying facts. They’ve grown up to actively hate conservatives and/or Republicans, to the point where one is afraid to even admit you don’t agree with the progressive thinking of the herd. I don’t see how you break through that kind of fog with any form of logical argument.

    Only a smack in the face by reality has any chance of getting through. And perhaps not even then! The deplorable state of our finances ought to be a clue that driving businesses and successful people out of the state while importing low-income and no-income voters from anywhere and everywhere is a losing strategy. The pension system is also pretty obviously unsustainable. Yet our voters continue to blame proposition 13 for the chronic fiscal woes. Perpelxingly, they also turn a blind eye to the domination of state politics by powerful unions, even though virtually all of them should be able to figure out that they have no hope of matching the pension and retirement benefits that their counterparts in state government enjoy. In short, reality has already hit us in the face with a shovel, and yet nothing’s changed.

    It’s possible that, like alcoholics, we’ll have to hit rock bottom, and we’re not there yet. Each year we kick the fiscal can down the road a litle further. The massive tax increase just passed won’t solve our problems, but may buy another year or two. The only hope is that now the GOP is a truly and obviously vanquished enemy. With a new Democrat super-majority in Sacramento, perhaps they’ll finally drive a stake through the evil heart of prop 13. At that point, they won’t be able to play the blame game any further.

    Perhaps I’m too optimistic – even with the GOP completely dead as a force in the state, they’ll probably still be blaming their budget woes on the poor national economy, on which the pension funds are ultimately dependent. And that poor economy can still be spun as George Bush’s fault! Though perhaps that latter argument will cease to work on my friends, it might still work with the large number of poorly informed voters on which they depend for power.

    What’s scariest of all is that we not only have low-information voters, but low-information politicians as well. At least Brown has his head in the game – he ultimately has no interest in presiding over a failed state, and will do things, even if misguided, that he thinks are going to work. Not so the scary political leaders from around the state, who only care about maintaining their power, and frankly haven’t a clue as to how the economy works.

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    Doug, if all Liberals were that extreme, you would be right. One of the problem with getting conservative votes among the inner city and other liberal strongholds is that the conservative message isn’t being delivered there.
    Although there are some here who would disagree with me, “liberal” does not mean “stupid”. It is possible for intelligent people to make decisions in error through a lack of information.
    I have found that, in general, when people are exposed to a message of individual freedom and responsibility they tend to respond positively. But they have to be provided the information by someone that they trust.
    I know several people in the lower economic spectrum, primarily in the service industry, who are liberal because they have never paid attention to the conservative message. They don’t watch Fox, they don’t read political blogs online, they don’t do much more than follow their peers. Who follow their peers, and so on. Willful ignorance, maybe, but still that – ignorance, not stupidity.
    I’ve turned anti-gunners, for example, by taking them to the range and letting them find out how much sheer fun it is to shoot. Not all become pro-gunners, but at least they drop off of the “enemies” list.
    Just as with firearms, the best answer to ignorance is education.
    As for the rabid liberals? The “What? Are you STUPID?” crowd? Don’t waste your time. They are a minority. Spend time with those who can learn, your efforts won’t be wasted.
    And if you are discussing politics in a calm and reasoned way, when some liberal loses it and starts abusing you, you will look much more believable in the eyes of the not-rabid.

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