The Return of Herman Cain

Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect

Herman Cain, the Georgia-based talk show host who used the Republican presidential primaries to propel himself to national fame, has returned to the public stage with a new organization of black conservatives—the appropriately named American Black Conservatives. Here’s The Washington Post:

His news conference is held in a room named for progressive Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In attendance: three cameramen and three reporters, including one from the conservative publication NewsMax and another from CNN who is visibly disappointed when told that Carson had skipped the Monday event.

Beneath a gilded chandelier, Cain explains the rationale behind the ABCs. “When black conservatives are attacked, they sometimes are more viciously attacked than white conservatives,” Cain says. “One of the themes of this meeting is: We will not be silenced; if anything, our voice collectively will be stronger.”

Of course, no one is trying to silence black conservatives. It’s more they’re mocked or ignored. And, on the main, this has less to do with ideology—there are plenty of African Americans with conservative views—and more to do with rhetoric and substance. Simply put, self-proclaimed black conservatives have a lot to say about their independence from the Democratic Party, and little to offer to actual African American voters. The Post quotes Mark Sawyer, a professor of political science at UCLA, who fleshes out the dynamic:

What black conservatives are really saying is that “you black people aren’t really smart enough to know what’s good for you,” he said. “Their argument is it isn’t that the current Republican Party needs to create policies that appeal to African Americans. It’s that black people really need to think harder about politics.”

This isn’t far from the message offered by elected Republicans, like Kentucky Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, who attempt outreach by standing firm on the GOP’s policies and asking black voters to reconsider their interests. Or, as McConnell put it in a recent address to the National Urban League, “I want to see a day when more African-Americans look at the issues and realize that they identify with the Republican Party.” The most charitable thing you can say about this view is that it’s condescending—as if black voters haven’t looked at the issues, and are blindly voting for Democrats out of mistaken loyalty. It’s the GOP’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas”—a patronizing accusation of false consciousness.

If Cain and other “black conservatives” want traction with actual voters, they’ll have to abandon this rhetoric with something more substantive. And if white Republican lawmakers want to do the same, they’ll have to do the same. It’s interesting to put this in contract with GOP outreach to Latino voters; there, Republicans understand they have to offer something concrete—immigration reform. Somehow, this lesson hasn’t carried over to black voters.

Instead, Republicans—even ones with something to offer—are much more content to lecture black voters, and then complain of a racial double-standard when this fails to hit the mark.