There is simply no greater example of this lesson than the importance of Hispanic voters, whom Republican candidates for president not only ignored but went out of their way to scorn. Playing to ethnic fear and even dwelling in the basement of outright racism against Hispanics is a perfect formula for the long-term destruction of the Republican Party as a national political party, and its transformation into a shrinking, regional one.
Look at the numbers: Hispanic, or Latino, voters pulled the lever for President Obama by a margin of 71 to 27 percent over former Gov. Mitt Romney. In turn, Romney relied upon a shrinking coalition of largely white, older male voters. Women, Catholics - the largest religious denomination in the country - younger people, African-Americans and Hispanics returned the president to the White House despite a terrible economic recovery and the widely held belief that the country is on the wrong track.
You can credit it to the deftness of Chicago political machine, sure. But in the hours after the election some conservative commentators did their best to underscore their party's problem. I am a huge fan of two old-school columnists, George Will and Charles Krauthammer, himself formerly of The New Republic, where I once worked. One can disagree with Krauthammer's point of view - but rarely with his analysis.
And yet, here was that rare moment. "All this cosmic stuff about how we have to reinvent the party," he said on Fox News, "it is just a huge mistake." And what about calling for immigration crack-downs and "self-deportation" as about the only way Republicans even bothered to speak to Hispanic voters, when they weren't screaming about voter fraud, that is? "A tactical error," Krauthammer called it. Not "structural." And then he mumbled something about Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Wrong. The Republican Party has a structural problem. It is ignoring the fact that the majority of children born in this country today are born into Hispanic households. Hispanics will be the majority in this country by 2050. Now, before all the fear-mongerers set in on this fact it's important to note two things. Yes, this portends an important shift in political power in this country. But no, that's not as simple as it sounds. Through inter-marriage, upward mobility and greater tolerance the country as a whole is simply becoming more tolerant and multi-racial. The Hispanic experience in America may mimic the experience of Italians, Irish and African-Americans. But it will be distinct.
Take Texas, for example. Texas may become majority Hispanic within the next two years. But Texans aren't calling for mass deportations. Yet, the conservative, Republican power structure of Texas is in danger of being woefully out of step. With enough organization and money, Democrats could be competitive statewide in just a few years, according to Matt Glazer of Progress Texas, in the state that gave the nation George Bush and nearly gave it Rick Perry. Hispanics simply vote at lower rates than non-Hispanics right now. What's not clear is what will drive more Hispanics to vote, according to University of Texas professor Daron Shaw. Neither party has really figured that out.
Frankly, the Democratic Party is taking Hispanics for granted - and has for years. The only thing that can be said for Democrats is at least that they don't generally go out of their way to insult Hispanics, something that the Republican Party has taken to doing - despite knowing far, far better. George Bush wanted to shape a coalition that competed for Hispanic voters. His father's political architect, Lee Atwater, wanted the same thing in the 1990s. He told me so before he died. So, it's not as if Republicans cannot read reality.
But the Republican structural problem is its increasing over-reliance on being a Southern, white party that dominates legislatures, governors' mansions and, as a result, particularly carefully drawn (read gerrymandered) congressional districts. Demography and the Census Bureau will not-so-gradually erase the latter - irrevocably.
And no, Mr. Krauthammer, this is not a public relations problem solved by a former governor who has a Hispanic wife or a sharp young senator who has the right last name - but still doesn't come from the largest bloc of Hispanics, Mexican-Americans. The Republican Party can acknowledge reality and begin to find new ways to share power. Or it can continue to try to divide and conquer.
It can insult not just Hispanics but what is rapidly becoming a multiracial society. And Democrats will laugh. All the way to the White House.
Richard Parker is the president of Parker Research in Austin, Texas. He is a regular contributor to McClatchy-Tribune as well as The New York Times.
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