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.