The GOP Must Choose: Rush Limbaugh or Minority Voters

By Conor Friedersdorf

The talk radio host is the voice of a coalition totally oblivious to how its racially-charged rhetoric sounds.

rush limbaugh full reuters.jpg

Reuters

Rush Limbaugh is confused.

He just can't understand why the Republican Party has so much trouble with blacks, Hispanics and women. Here's how he put it on his nationally syndicated radio show, channeling the way that a lot of conservatives are feeling after looking at the demographic breakdown of Election 2012:

We have achieved, brilliant, highly accomplished African-Americans, blacks, Hispanics, you name it, throughout the Republican Party. They serve in office. Many of them are CEOs. It doesn't count. It doesn't count in the media. It doesn't count in the Democrat Party [sic]. It doesn't count with Obama voters about whom it is said that stuff matters most. It doesn't count. Why not? Why, putting it somewhat coarsely, why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Condoleezza Rice?  Why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Marco Rubio? Why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Suzanne Martinez?

How is it that Michele Bachmann, a highly achieved woman, barely, barely ekes out reelection, and Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic going through everything he's a going through, wins in a landslide? I could throw these examples up to you all afternoon. Why don't those people, why don't the Marco Rubios, the Allen Wests -- what a great man.  What a great American. Allen West, what a great role model. Clarence Thomas. Herman Cain. None of it counts. Don't tell me the Republican Party doesn't have outreach.  We do.  But what are we supposed to do now?  In order to get the Hispanic or Latino vote, does that mean open the borders and embrace the illegals?  I want you to think about this.  Is that what this means? Is that what the Republican establishment means?  We've gotta reach out to Hispanics, is that what they mean? If we're not getting the female vote, do we become pro-choice?  Do we start passing out birth control pills?  Is that what we have to do?

There's no single way to make the Republican Party more appealing to blacks and Hispanics. But talk like this never ceases to amaze me with its incredible lack of self-awareness. Just what is it that Republicans like Limbaugh have to do? Here are a few useful changes that the most popular conservative entertainer in America could make to stop turning off so many black voters:

1) Stop saying things like, "Why doesn't the Republican Party get credit for Condoleezza Rice?"

2) Stop the shameless race-baiting, like telling listeners, "Obama's America, white kids getting beat up on school buses now. You put your kids on a school bus, you expect safety but in Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on,' and, of course, everybody says the white kid deserved it, he was born a racist, he's white."

3) Understand that when you commission a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" for your radio show, the average black person is going to take offense. And that if you pretend to be surprised when they do take offense, no one will believe you.

4) If you (or any other famous conservative) gets a gig doing commentary for a professional football league, probably best not to use the forum to air your pet theories about how the media coddles black quarterbacks because it is made up of guilty whites who want them to succeed.

5) Another thing you probably shouldn't say is, "Look, let me put it to you this way: the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it." Admittedly, you didn't say this on an NFL telecast, but it's actually offensive in any setting.

6) Any gains you may make in the black community may be jeopardized if you once again muse, "Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"

7) As you try to understand Obama's presidency on your show, it may be a good idea to avoid reading pieces with titles like "Obama, The African Colonial" aloud, then concluding that Obama is "more African in his roots than he is American" and is "behaving like an African colonial despot."

8) Given your track-record of quotes like the ones previously discussed, it's probably best to avoid jokes such as, "Barack Obama has picked up another endorsement: Halfrican-American actress Halle Berry."

9) When a black politician makes an earnest attempt to grapple with race in America, it's perfectly fine to disagree with substantive points that he makes, but certain kinds of demagogic reactions might be unwise.

For example:

"Typical white person"? What does this reveal finally about Obama? He is not transcendent on race. Obama is telling us he is a black American first and an American second. Typical white -- his grandmother, who raised him, is a typical white woman? And that these kinds of inordinate fears are bred? I have a question: I wonder how white college students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, are feeling these days. I wonder if they are nervous walking down the street, and they see a couple of black boys dressed in baggy clothes with their hats on backwards swaggering toward them. I wonder how they feel. I wonder if it makes them fear that they're going to be shot in the face for their ATM cards and their PIN numbers. Obama, do you think there might be reasons here rather than this being inbred?

10) If you have a track record like that, and then insist that it's liberals who are obsessed with race, people will not believe you.

If I might address conservatives generally now: I don't want to argue about whether Rush Limbaugh is a racist. Let's presume for the sake of argument that he isn't. It remains the case that he said everything I've listed above. And that's just what I could pull together and verify in 20 minutes. Imagine how many sound-bytes Democratic opposition researchers would come up with if the GOP ever started making inroads in the black community but still associated with Limbaugh.

How could that nonsense be defended? 

To be clear, Limbaugh doesn't speak for all Republicans -- not even close.

And he is but a small part of the GOP's demographic problem.

Still, every time a new Republican president is elected, Limbaugh gets invited to the White House. Conservative think tanks lavish him with awards. Republican politicians are eager to appear on his show, where they talk to him like an old friend. And among rank-and-file conservatives, Limbaugh is easily the most popular voice in America. Given all that, how can it possibly surprise anyone that lots of black people perceive the conservative movement as a hostile entity?

Perhaps it is actually far less hostile than they imagine. Surely you can see why many think otherwise.

Take another very popular conservative entertainer, the late Andrew Breitbart. I've spoken with him enough times to gather that he bore no personal animosity toward black people. Nevertheless, he was most famous for turning Shirley Sherrod's touching story of racial redemption into a firestorm that got her fired, all so that he could try to prove a gathering of older folks at an NAACP meeting were racist. Again, this isn't the time to argue the finer points of the matter. I'm just saying it doesn't take much to understand how the average person would perceive that.

Or Don Imus' remarks.

Or countless others from obscure conservative radio hosts all over the country.

There will be plenty of talk in coming weeks about the Republican Party, the conservative movement, racial demographics, and whether they'll inspire significant changes in policy or philosophy.

That conversation is more important than this one.

It would still be prudent for conservatives to take some advice that seems blindingly obvious, but apparently isn't: Stop letting prominent voices of movement conservatism get away with saying things that are a) actually just racist; b) demagogic race-baiting; or c) so obviously tone-deaf that anyone with common sense can see how terrible it would sound.

This isn't a call to embrace mindless political correctness, or to implement a full scale amnesty, or to cave on issues like affirmative action. This is so much easier! Just stop associating with people who deliberately play on America's racial anxieties for profit! Given the contours of America's racial fault lines, doing so is always going to turn off blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and a lot of whites. The crazy thing is that movement conservatism is more likely to totally change its position on numerous public policy issues than it is to disassociate itself with the poisonous Limbaugh.

Why is that so hard?!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/the-gop-must-choose-rush-limbaugh-or-minority-voters/265002/