Josh Heath | The GOP and the Evolution of Identity Politics

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

Any keen political observer can see that the modern Republican Party is decidedly different from what it used to be. Whereas in Abraham Lincoln’s day, conservatives were racial visionaries, today’s right has embraced an entirely different, bigoted mode of behavior.

You see this in the language from major GOP figures. TV pundit Laura Ingraham argues that due to demographic changes (the nation becoming blacker and browner), “In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” thus claiming America is defined by its white population — that when it declines, so does our society.

Donald Trump bloviates about what he considers inferior African nations, says we should limit visas from that region, while simultaneously implementing policies like his infamous Muslim ban. 

And large swaths of the right taunted our first black president by claiming he wasn’t even American, but born in Kenya. (Could you imagine Aryan Germans pulling such a trick, and claiming their first Jewish chancellor was born in Israel?)

Where does this new white identity politics come from? To figure it out, one must go back to the 1960s, to the era of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert and John Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and other American titans who sought to remake our society in a progressive and humane fashion.

One pillar of that approach was eliminating racism from our immigration policy. In 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Cellar Act, legislation that gave every person in the world, no matter their color, a roughly equal chance at becoming American.

It was arguably one of the most consequential bills in our history, and utterly transformed society. Millions of non-white newcomers flocked to our shores, became citizens, and added an abundance of riches to our national life. Over time however, they embraced progressive values and the left to the point where today our politics are heavily segregated according to race. 

According to a 2012 Pew Research center analysis, 89 percent of Republicans are whites; by contrast four out of 10 Democrats are minorities. This data point has profound implications — namely, no conservative can win an election without the support of a largely white base, and no liberal can succeed without representing diversity. 

In response, the GOP has worked tirelessly to marginalize the political influence of non-white voters through voter suppression bills like the one passed in North Carolina, decried by a federal court as targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Additionally, they have entered into full-on panic mode over the demographic changes brought about by Hart-Cellar. Due to its transformation of our immigration system, most new citizens are Latino, Asian, or black, and as a result the white population has steadily decreased over time, to the point where America will soon be majority-minority. This reality has an obvious consequence — as our country becomes more diverse, the power of the Republican Party will proportionally decline, as we’ve seen in California. 

In order to slow this trend, conservatives have become fiercely anti-immigrant, opposing all paths to citizenship for those who are here illegally, as those policies would only lead to a browner America. If this largely Latino demographic is granted legal status and voting rights, they will flock to the Democrats and further weaken GOP influence, the argument goes. Right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh utilized this talking point as a way of killing immigration reform bills in 2007 and 2013.

In other words, the GOP has become the White Panther Party, a political conglomerate dedicated to advancing their Caucasian base. They’ve lost the support of black and brown voters, and faced with population figures harmful to their influence, have embraced a grotesque racial politics as a way of maintaining their electoral viability.

When Republicans oppose measures that would increase the minority population and try to suppress those communities politically, while at the same time using racist rhetoric about hordes of immigrants invading America, it is clear what is happening here. These folks are summoning up the worst sin in our national life — white supremacy — as a way of trying to hold onto power.

The right could do the honorable thing, and say, take a hard look at what Asian, Latino, black and Middle Eastern folks want in terms of policy and adjust their ideology accordingly. This would help the GOP maintain competitiveness in a diverse, multicultural America.

If they did such an examination, they would see that these groups believe in a strong social safety net, education system, and public efforts to provide jobs and income for all. Minority communities are decidedly not attracted to the Ayn Rand-inspired ideology that currently dominates the GOP, a thinly veiled social Darwinism that venerates the strong while giving the weak little but criminalization and contempt.

But instead they are embracing racism as a means of maintaining high office, just like generations of prior American demagogues. Progressive-minded folks can take solace, however, in the fact that the die has already been cast. No matter how desperate the GOP gets, no matter how much they align themselves with the fringe elements of society, one thing is for certain: The train has already left the station. 

America has opened our doors to all walks of life and we aren’t turning back. The many different races and cultures that now make up our national family, soon to be a majority of the population, hunger for a new politics that properly values compassion, social justice and real opportunity. 

The GOP can either try to provide these people with that sort of a program — or rightfully perish as a political force.

Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.

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