The election of Donald Trump has led to a national debate among Democrats about their path to victory. For some, the loss signaled that the party “had moved too far to the left,” embracing identity politics and alienating the white working class. Others, however, noted the decline in black turnout and the need to cultivate the next generation of Latinos, Asians, and progressive whites.
These tensions have played out dramatically in the race for governor of Virginia, where the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, has tried to paint the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, as an ally of MS-13. Northam went as far as to condemn nonexistent sanctuary cities after decrying Gillespie’s rhetoric as “fear mongering.”
Was this a wise move by Northam? Historical analysis and some research I performed suggests it wasn’t. The two parties have sorted along the lines of race, making appeals to the center of less political benefit to Democrats, because they wind up gaining few votes, while alienating their base.
The Republican Party Did Not Have To Become A Racist Party
In the early years of realignment after Barry Goldwater’s overwhelming loss, some prominent Republicans argued that the Republican Party should court black voters, and many actually put the model into practice, with varying results. In 1966 and again in 1968, Winthrop Rockefeller was elected governor of Arkansas with 81 percent of the black vote in his first election and 88 percent in his reelection. In Mississippi, of all places, Republican Gil Carmichael put up a formidable challenge to arch-segregationist Jim Eastland. Carmichael ran a pro-business campaign centered around the idea that white supremacy was bad for business because segregation had made Mississippi “a third-world country.” He lost with 39 percent of the vote, and lost another gubernatorial election in 1975 with 45 percent of the vote. When another Republican lost to Eastland in 1966, one AFL-CIO chief noted that “You just don’t out-segregate Jim Eastland.”
Eventually Republicans decided to follow the path that one party official outlined in 1963, which was detailed in a book by Robert Novak. “‘Remember,’ one astute party worker said quietly over the breakfast table at Denver one morning, ‘this isn’t South Africa. The white man outnumbers the Negro 9 to 1 in this country.’”
Over the past 30 years, the parties have diverged, driven by elite strategies: with Democrats tying racial liberalism to economic liberalism and conservatives using racist appeals to undermine support for the welfare state. This process has taken time, because most Americans don’t pay close attention to politics, and because political attitudes are set early in life and remain sticky. The Republican Party is full of people who subscribe to racist views, while Democrats are increasingly liberal on issues of race. The result of this realignment is that Republicans are less concerned about alienating their base with racial ads. Summarizing their recent research showing that explicitly racist appeals are no longer enough to change respondents’ views on policies, political scientists Nicholas Valentino, Fabian Neuner, and Matthew Vandenbroek conclude that “Many of our subjects simply did not reject political arguments that explicitly derogate Black Americans.” It’s clear that Republican politicians have internalized this lesson. In New Jersey, Kim Guadagno is running Willie Horton–style ads in a race she’s almost certain to lose. In Virginia, white male House of Delegate candidates are sending out racist mailers attacking Latina candidates over non-existent sanctuary cities. And elected Republicans like Steve King openly flirt with white-supremacist rhetoric. It’s hard to claim, as some political scientists once did, that candidates would face electoral penalties for explicit racism. And it’s about to get much worse.