In his first inaugural address, the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan said that “government is not the solution, government is the problem,” and set out the conservative message that would prevail in Republican circles for the next 30 years.
Flying in the face of the Great Society and of the New Deal that preceded it, Reagan tapped into deeply held distrust of “big government” solutions and convinced people to reject the notion that government programs could help improve people’s lives.
Reagan’s philosophy claimed that government programs hindered the capacity of individuals to achieve their own successes. For the conservative movement, the social safety net espoused by Democrats was actually a set of ties that bind. This anti-government rhetoric resonated like a bell with many Americans.
Over the intervening decades we have seen this idea claim an increasing share of a diminishing market. Minorities and immigrant communities simply don’t see government as a hindrance. But according to Dr. Stephen Klinberg’s research for the Kinder Institute of Urban Research at Rice University, attitudes about government among Harris County’s racial and ethnic groups differ starkly.
Whether it’s government regulations, climate change or the death penalty, there is generally a 15-20 point difference between Anglo and minority views on the role of government. That is the crux of the problem for Republicans — one of their central organizing themes is rapidly growing irrelevant to a very relevant constituency. Increasing divides within the party on social and cultural issues complicate the problem.
In 2003, Texas became became a majority-minority state — one where Anglos no longer constitute a majority. Although this is not reflected in the voting population, that is likely to change in the years to come.
We hear much about the need for the modern Republican Party to attract emerging groups of voters (notably Hispanics, but also Asians) or risk political death. But how will that even be possible when studies suggest that the vast majority of this crucial voting bloc utterly rejects the founding premise of the modern conservative movement? A political party enamored of curtailing the role of government faces an extremely difficult task convincing people who don’t view government as the source of the problem.
Yet the conservative messaging has stayed the same. From Ronald Reagan to Rick Perry to Ted Cruz, conservatism’s consistent theme is that government is the problem, government must be tamed and government must be starved. This echoes some of the deeper principles of what it means to be conservative, but the new majority just doesn’t believe it.
Republican branding and messaging aren’t the issue — it’s the thinking that underpins it. The new Texas majority has a different world view and a different perspective on the issues.
Hence, immigration reform is needed, but will not help the Republican brand. In the short term, yes, many Republicans already recognize the need to solve the immigration problem. But in the long run, support for comprehensive immigration and a pathway to citizenship is not going to close the gap between Republicans and Latinos. Much is made out of the supposedly conservative social views of Latinos and Asians, that they are a natural constituency of the Republican Party. That doesn’t take into account this core difference in world view.
The only reliably Republican Latino group is Cubans. Why? Because their experience with the Castro regime and Communism is so fresh. They view government as the problem, because in Cuba, it is. Similarly, in the Asian community, Vietnamese Americans who fled the North Vietnamese Communist regime are likewise fairly Republican.
As the GOP looks toward the future, it needs to find philosophical ways of appealing to groups without relying on an anti-government sentiment. Loudly proclaiming opposition to government might work in local Republican primaries, but where do you go in the general election in the coming years, especially with an electorate with a rapidly changing complexion?
The Latino and Asian demographic in Texas didn’t just grow over the last decade — it boomed at a nearly unprecedented pace. As of the 2010 census, the Hispanic or Latino community had increased 41.8 percent in a decade and the Asian population had increased of 78.4 percent. That reflects growth that is not just big, but fast, and immigration alone does not account for this.
In the current battle for Texas Medicaid expansion, Perry is willing to disregard 1.5 million working uninsured Texans. The bulk of them are Latinos, blacks and Asians. If their perception is that the Texas Republican Party doesn’t care about them, it could have something to do with a Republican governor willing to deny them access to health care coverage. His justification? The favored argument of the American right: It’s a flawed federal government program.
Reagan also said, “Once you begin a great movement, there's no telling where it will end.” The question for the GOP is whether the anti-government sentiment in Texas started to come to an end?
Mustafa Tameez is the founder and managing director of Outreach Strategists LLC, a communications and public affairs firm based in Houston.