How Conservatives Can Win in Blue-State America: Lessons from South Africa's Opposition

How Conservatives Can Win in Blue-State America: Lessons from South Africa's Opposition

The new conventional wisdom in the aftermath of the 2012 elections is that Republicans face two challenges: first, that the United States is no longer a center-right nation, but a center-left one; second, that the country’s demographic shift away from whites will make it tougher for Republicans to win votes. The proposed solution is that Republicans must compromise on the party’s core policies, from immigration to taxation to social issues.

The conventional wisdom is wrong. 

I once worked in South Africa for a centrist party, the Democratic Alliance, which faced the same challenges as Republicans do, only far more extreme. Though it had opposed apartheid, its leadership was predominantly white, in a country that is nearly 80% black. Moreover, it supported free-market economic policies in a country whose political culture is dominated by socialist and nationalist ideologies.

The party had worked its way up from receiving less than 2% of the vote in 1994 to just over 12% in 2004. It had become the leading opposition party, but seemed to have hit a ceiling. If it could not grow, it would die. How could it broaden its appeal to black voters without losing its core constituency of white voters? And how could it advocate for the free market when large portions of the electorate demanded massive redistribution?

I joined the team that helped elect Helen Zille mayor of Cape Town in 2006 (she is now the premier, or governor, of the whole Western Cape province). It was the first time an opposition party unseated the dominant African National Congress, and the first time a white politician was chosen by a predominantly black electorate in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Our success could offer lessons for the Republican Party as it seeks to refocus.

1. Do not compromise basic principles; instead, show how they are relevant to all. You don’t gain trust from voters by becoming a “me, too” version of the majority party. It makes sense to adapt your policies when the other side’s policies are objectively better, as the Democrats did in the 1990s (a legacy Bill Clinton has now, sadly, disowned). It is impossible to find even one example of a successful Democratic policy worth copying. 

The task, then, is to show how Republican policies work–especially for constituencies that Democrats currently take for granted. School reform is immensely popular in both black and Hispanic communities, for example. Right-to-work laws are better for jobs than laws that force workers to join unions and pay dues–and which push employers to leave. Lower taxes may help the rich–but they help the poor more by creating jobs.

We did this in South Africa by pointing out the failure of the ruling party’s affirmative action policies. Though ostensibly intended to help blacks, in effect the policy allowed the ruling party to help itself and its cronies. Most black people were excluded from the benefits, while a few billionaires were re-“empowered” over and over. Putting merit first was an attractive policy alternative for at least some black voters and communities.

2. Take the fight to the opposition’s turf. Rumor has it that Paul Ryan wanted to take the Republican argument to inner cities and make the argument for individual freedom–as his mentor, Jack Kemp, once did. The Romney campaign was cool to the idea, since most of the people in the audience would vote for President Barack Obama anyway. But  they should have listened–and Republicans should do more of what Ryan proposed.

There are three reasons to take the conservative case to liberal areas. One is that some people, even if just a few at first, will actually be convinced. Another is that it assuages the doubts of white Republicans who are afraid of being associated with the bad labels liberals affix to the party. And, finally, Democrats have been making the liberal case on conservative turf, aggressively, for over a decade. It’s long past time to return the favor.

Occasionally, that requires courage. Both before and after being elected Cape Town’s major, Zille had to face physical violence in some of the communities that she visited. She kept returning, to show she was not intimidated, and that she would stand up for local party members–who sometimes suffered isolation, and worse, from neighbors. There are few such dangers in the U.S.–and therefore few excuses not to do the same.

3. Highlight candidates from minority groups. Republicans do this very well already. The hurricane-shortened Republican National Convention featured a slew of Hispanic elected officials–Republicans have far more than Democrats–and a fantastic speech by former congressman Artur Davis, a new convert to the cause. (Shame on the media for ignoring and downplaying the role these minorities are playing in the country’s future.)

The party can do even better, however. Conventions are every four years; the political fight goes on every day. Republicans should recruit minorities to serve in public roles beyond political office. As effective as he was at times as a campaign surrogate, former Gov. John Sununu likely won more arguments than voters during the 2012 campaign. Democrats will trot out accusations of “window-dressing”; they should just be ignored.

In Zille’s 2006 election effort, great care was taken to promote candidates from diverse backgrounds to prominent positions as the party presented its election platform and its candidate lists. Among those candidates were future leaders who could make the case in the media more effectively, at times, than the party’s leadership. That did not end the false charges of racism, but it blunted them and improved the party’s self-confidence.

4. Don’t forget core white voters. As James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal points out, the Democrats’ glee over America’s demographic shift risks alienating white voters, who still form a large majority of the country. Mitt Romney won the white vote handily, but failed to encourage millions of white voters to come to the polls–partly because his get-out-the-vote effort was a disaster, and partly because they could not relate to him.

Many white working-class voters feel alienated from the country’s political and popular culture; they have simply given up hope. Pandering would make the problem worse. Giving in on amnesty for illegal immigrants, for example, would likely win only a few Hispanic votes, while losing a great many white votes. Rather than adopting divisive stances, Republicans should focus their efforts on finding areas of common interest.

In South Africa, the challenge was to keep Afrikaans-speaking white voters engaged in politics. They had lived through the collapse of a political system that favored them; the country’s new political culture despised them. But they equally deserved a political voice. We won their support not by stoking their frustration, but offering them a chance to be a part of something bigger, more inclusive and yet respectful of who they are.

5. Use coalition politics to cobble together a winning team. One of the most glaring omissions from Mitt Romney’s campaign was the use of coalitions. Whereas the Obama campaign created all kinds of sub-groups (“African-Americans for Obama,” “Latinos for Obama,” etc.), and promoted them aggressively, the Romney campaign’s coalition effort was woefully weak at best and virtually non-existent in key swing states such as Ohio. 

The importance of coalitions is illustrated by the contrast between Jewish and Asians. The Republican Jewish Coalition helped Romney improve his result among Jews to 32%–one of the strongest performances ever by a Republican. Meanwhile, Obama won Asian-Americans–a naturally conservative constituency–with a whopping 71% of the vote. The difference was the lack of serious outreach to the Asian-American community.

In the Cape Town effort, I was put in charge of devising the policy platform for the party. It was clear to me from the start that I could not simply play the wonk. Instead, I sat down with leaders from various the various ethnic and political factions in the party, adapting their ideas into a cohesive program. That approach continued after the election, when Zille put together a governing coalition with several smaller parties.

6. Develop clear policy alternatives. Mitt Romney came up with a 59-point plan for the economy, then a 5-point plan that seemed to change slightly from speech to speech and from debate to debate. Conversely, the best move he made during the campaign was nominating Paul Ryan as his running mate, since Ryan had made his reputation by proposing effective and bipartisan solutions to the country’s pressing fiscal problems.

Republicans have been vulnerable, repeatedly and inexcusably, to the charge that they have no alternative plans on the economy, on health care, and so on. That is partly a feature of our political system, where each party incubates many diverse views. It is also a strategy to avoid Democratic criticism of specific proposals. But the lack of alternatives makes it harder to convince voters Republicans really would do a better job. 

Our plan in Cape Town was simple, and forward-looking. It was oriented around five clear points, each of which addressed flaws in the ruling party’s record while striking an optimistic outlook towards the city’s future. During the campaign, when the city was hit by power failures and an uncontrollable forest fire, the need for alternatives became clear to all–and we already had plans ready to address the administration’s failures.

7. Pursue incremental changes, not sweeping ones. The great lesson of the state labor battles of the past two years is that small changes are better than big ones. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich passed reforms that included every category of public sector employees–and his policy was overturned in a subsequent referendum. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker’s reforms exempted public safety workers–and survived recall efforts.

President Obama’s own record offers similar lessons. He eschewed incremental change to health policy–and promptly suffered a colossal defeat in the 2010 midterm elections. And in the 2012 campaign’s closing days, as Mitt Romney began to offer a message of “real change,” it is possible some voters felt more comfortable with the devil they knew than the one they didn’t, particularly after years of political and economic instability.

In our effort in Cape Town, we kept our proposed changes clear, targeted–and effective. Though the many in the party were philosophically opposed to affirmative action, we did not propose to remove it root and branch, but to change the how it was implemented. Many of the Romney campaign’s more successful policy arguments–such as Medicare reform, which turned out not to be a liability–adopted the same incremental approach.

8. Create flagships of policy success. We heard relatively little from the Romney campaign about the candidate’s successes as governor of Massachusetts. That was partly because his crowning achievement–universal health insurance by way of an individual mandate–was anathema to conservatives, and the same policy that the Obama administration pushed. It was, in hindsight, the wrong example for the times.

However, Republicans now can boast several key examples of success–states in which they have pursued clear alternatives to the Democratic agenda, and enjoyed both policy and political success. Wisconsin saved money, and public sector jobs, by curtailing collective bargaining for public sector unions. Indiana has reformed property taxes and passed a right-to-work law. These should be the model for the party’s national agenda.

Likewise, in South Africa our strategy had been to turn Cape Town into an example of success that would convince voters to support it more widely. After the first year of Zille’s tenure, she increased black participation in city contracts by 10%–by cutting back on affirmative action. She went on to lead the entire province–where she repeated her success, expanding housing swiftly by giving communities control of housing funds.

9. Organize by drilling activists in the basics. There is no doubt that the Obama campaign’s sophisticated data-mining operation helped it identify voters and potential donors. But the heart of its get-out-the-vote effort was old-fashioned basics: knocking on doors, checking voter lists, offering rides to the polls. Romney invested in sophisticated (failed) technology rather than training real, live volunteers in the basics of voter turnout.

Yes, Obama benefited from legwork by union members, who form a permanent corps of organizers (and one that is often subsidized by taxpayers). That is a permanent, and unfair, advantage. But Obama added to that infrastructure, both in 2008 and in 2012, by holding training camps and seminars for volunteers. By Election Day, they knew what they had to do, and they did it–while Romney volunteers waited for orders from Boston.

The get-out-the-vote effort we ran in Cape Town had none of the new technology, and all of the legwork, of the Obama effort. Yet it did have training, which happened over several weeks of canvassing throughout the city’s many and diverse wards, focusing on those areas of likeliest voter turnout. And every member of the party, from top to bottom,  was expected to put in time going door to door, or calling voters on the telephone.

10. Prepare for the politics of the long haul. Selling conservative policies to a blue-state electorate, and to minority communities, is not going to yield instant results. The best that Republicans can hope for in the short- to medium-term is to lose by closer margins, not to win outright. That is especially the case in communities that would see initial Republican efforts as motivated by opportunism rather than sincere commitment.

Jack Kemp did not enjoy immediate political rewards from inner city black voters. But neither did Democrat Cory Booker, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Newark and challenged the local party machine for several years before finally breaking through. It also took years for Democrats to break through to white suburban voters; now they are a critical part of the coalition that elected and re-elected Barack Obama to power.

That was the same commitment that the Democratic Alliance made in South Africa. It is not yet clear whether it will succeed, but it is slowly increasing its support among black voters, and has solidified its earlier gains. 

The United States has a less troubled recent history, and the Republican Party has a long civil rights tradition of which it can be proud. There is no reason it should not expect similar–and greater–success over time.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.