White Districts and White Sensibilities

You may have heard that in the incoming Congress, white men will constitute a minority of the Democratic caucus for the first time. That's an interesting fact, but it's only part of the story. At National Journal, Ron Brownstein and Scott Bland have a long, Brownsteinian look at how "the parties glare across a deep racial chasm" not only in the members of Congress themselves, but in the people they represent. "Republicans now hold 187 of the 259 districts (72 percent) in which whites exceed their national share of the voting-age population. Democrats hold 129 of the 176 seats (73 percent) in which minorities exceed their national share of the voting-age population. From another angle, 80 percent of Republicans represent districts more heavily white than the national average; 64 percent of House Democrats represent seats more heavily nonwhite than the national average."

The implications for the GOP of the fact that most of their members represent mostly white districts are profound, touching on the continuous interaction between individuals and policy. Politicians are shaped by their political environments and the things they have to do to win, and the fact that most GOP members represent overwhelmingly white districts means that as they rise through the ranks, the time they're going to have to spend talking to and listening to non-white people is going to be limited. Brownstein and Bland talked to some of the few Republicans who represent more diverse districts:

But even some House Republicans from racially diverse districts worry that many of their colleagues representing more monolithically white areas aren't doing enough to court minorities. "Honestly, I don't believe they are," says Rep. Joe Heck, who won reelection in a diverse district outside Las Vegas.

Heck says he's established beachheads among minority voters by working first with ethnic chambers of commerce. "For me, meeting with the members of the chamber was a door to building relationships with members of those communities," he says. Then he hired aides to coordinate outreach to Hispanic and Asian constituents; during his campaign, he organized coalitions in those communities. "When I'm home in the district, we would do entire outreach days, visiting multiple Hispanic businesses, even ones outside of my district."

As it happens, Joe Heck is an extremely conservative Republican. But he does all that outreach because he has no choice. And over time, that will make him more understanding of, and sensitive to, the concerns of people who aren't white. It means that he'll have a better awareness of the things that piss Hispanics off, and learning how not to piss different kinds of people off—with both substance and symbolism—is a big part of politics. This is important for both sides, and with a variety of constituencies. For instance, one of the first things you learn working on a Democratic campaign is that every piece of printed material you produce, from brochures to door hangers, has to have on it the tiny union "bug" that shows it was printed at a union shop. If it doesn't, you can be damn sure you'll get some angry phone calls from union members and representatives, because they notice. Republicans have I's to be dotted and T's to be crossed for their own constituencies as well. But somebody coming up through Republican politics in an overwhelmingly white district won't have to learn, for instance, what pisses off Hispanics. So when they talk about immigration their speech is peppered with terms like "illegal aliens" that Hispanics find, well, alienating.

The advantage Democrats have is that nobody has to teach them how to talk to white people, because you learn that no matter where you live. It's the same reason colleges don't offer courses in White History or White Literature—you're already learning it. Yes, there are subgroups of whites whom you can fail to understand, but it's a lot less likely that you're going to alienate them and end up losing the White House because of it.

So the real problem Republicans have isn't that they don't want to recruit minorities, because they do. They don't want to change their policies to do it, of course, but they're pleased as punch when they find someone like Tim Scott or Ted Cruz, a real-live minority who also happens to be rabidly right-wing, whom they can hold up as an example. Their problem is that they don't know how to attract minority voters, because where most of them come from, they don't have to.

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