Editor’s Note: Shawn Turner is a Distinguished Terker Fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. Turner is also a CNN national security analyst and the former director of communication for US National Intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Despite all appearances leading up to last week’s midterm elections, the Republican Party is not inherently racist. That will come as a surprise to many of my Democratic friends, and for good reason.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly disparaged and insulted people of color, even before taking office almost two years ago. From denigrating Judge Gonzalo Curiel, to asserting “very fine people” were among neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, to attacking the intellect of African-Americans, the President has embraced the power of racism.
Trump’s flirtations with open bigotry became more pronounced leading up to the midterms, as he rallied his base by proclaiming, to rousing applause, that he is a nationalist. He threatened to end birthright citizenship, and endorsed a campaign ad that paints Latinos as murderous criminals.
Unsurprisingly, Republicans in elected office were unable or unwilling to mount any semblance of a full-throated condemnation of Trump’s bigotry and race-based threats. On the campaign trail and in the press, they found refuge in suggesting that the President was misunderstood or that his comments should not be taken seriously.
Despite the President’s shameless efforts to turn racial animus into votes, and the cowardice demonstrated by Republican leaders, it would be wrong for Democrats to label the GOP as racist.
The mainstream Republican Party is, in fact, made up of decent, hardworking Americans who believe in a core set of conservative values. Those include strong national security, lower taxes, adherence to free market principles, and limited government. They want their rights under the Constitution protected, the rule of law upheld, and individual freedoms respected. And whether we share their worldview or not, these ideals form the foundation of their Americanism.
Conservatives who fit this description will tell you, with heartfelt sincerity, that their core values do not and will not ever include racial intolerance or bigotry. They believe that the legitimate principles of conservatism transcend race, ethnicity and gender and contribute to the prosperity of all Americans.
Nonetheless, many mainstream conservatives continue to be confounded by the GOP having a clear, discernible and persistent race problem.
According to the Pew Research Center, 84% of African-American voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 8% align themselves with Republicans. Among Hispanics, 63% affiliate more strongly with Democrats, compared to 28% who lean toward the GOP. The numbers are virtually identical for Asian-Americans, who prefer Democrats over Republicans 65% to 27%. Exit polls from the midterm elections also show people of color voted overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats.
But the numbers painted a drastically different picture when minorities were asked specific questions about their ideology, including how large government should be and how much businesses should be regulated. When the American National Election Studies used this approach in a 2012 survey, it found 47% of African-Americans identified as liberal, while about 45% identified as conservative.
As someone who grew up attending a largely black Southern Baptist Church, I saw firsthand how social conservatism was a core value – while voting was about electing Democrats.
Instead of questioning why people of color with conservative values vote for Democrats, Republicans should ask why so many people with white skin and racist values embrace the GOP.
For far too long, there has existed an uncomfortable relationship between the GOP and those who pander to intolerance, including the President himself.
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But for all the decent, upstanding conservative Americans who reject racism and all it represents, it may be time to reconsider this unseemly union. I know it’s not an easy sell, especially among politicians unwilling to leave votes on the table. They know that an outright and unequivocal rejection of all forms of bigotry, racism and intolerance would alienate a good number of voters.
As the 2020 presidential election season kicks into full gear, it’s time for mainstream conservatives to stop wondering why people of color disproportionally vote for Democrats. The answer is clear. For many conservative minorities, they see no place for themselves in a political party that both tacitly accepts and openly disparages people of color. When this reality shifts, so will the racial makeup of the GOP.