President Donald Trump in a prayer circle, 27 February 2020 (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP)

Minority appeal

Can right-wing parties win with ethnic minorities?

Artillery Row

Last month, American right-wing libertarian writer Richard Hanania’s past as pseudonymous 2010s alt-righter Richard Hoste was exposed in a hit piece. Hanania responded by disavowing his previous views, chronicling his journey away from the alt-right and towards “small-l liberalism”.

Trump’s nativist rhetoric harmed him less with minorities than predicted

Hanania remains vehemently anti-woke. Key to his current vision is the possibility of some sort of “multicultural based alliance”, where conservative immigrants join forces with conservative white Americans to oppose the woke ideals and policies advocated by white liberals. In a discussion with legal scholar Amy Wax, he argues that rural white Americans hate liberal elites more than they dislike being around immigrants. As immigrants have better (i.e. more socially conservative) values than native-born Americans, they should be encouraged not to assimilate. The right can then appeal to both groups through anti-woke policies, and he has repeatedly excoriated them for failing to do so.

Hanania is presenting one of the oft-asked questions for the right in Western countries: many immigrants and minorities have more conservative moral and economic values than natives, so surely the right should be able to win them over? It is an appealing theory, but so far the evidence for it is thin: that immigrants and minorities tend to vote for the left is a political truism. Black Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats despite holding conservative values; similarly, socially conservative British Muslims vote for Labour. Looking around the Western world, it is rare to find a minority group that breaks this pattern, though that doesn’t stop pundits making exhortations that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The primary example often given for a conservative party successfully winning minority support is the Conservative Party of Canada. After an 18 year period out of power, it won federal elections in 2006, 2008 and 2011 — reportedly helped by abandoning anti-immigration stances, embracing minority communities and emphasising that the party shared their conservative values. Here is our very own Rishi Sunak, writing in 2014:

The Canadian Conservatives were once portrayed as out-of-touch, anti-immigrant and downright hostile to minorities. A Canadian minority voter was three times more likely to vote for the left-leaning Liberal Party. Today, Canadian Conservatives have not just drawn level but actually outpoll Liberals amongst immigrants and ethnic minorities, and have won three elections … The architect of this success is Jason Kenney, a senior Minister in the Conservative government. His insight was that minorities shared Conservative ideals of aspiration, hard work, faith and a smaller state, but did not “vote their values” because of the “static” of their accumulated misperceptions.

Similarly, this 2015 article exhorts the US Republicans to be more like the Canadian Conservatives and embrace diversity coupled with conservative values, else risk losing the next election: “Harper began to change the tone by speaking in community halls and houses of worship to majority nonwhite audiences, making the case that their values — conservative, family values — were more aligned with Conservatives than with those of the Liberals or the left-leaning New Democratic Party.”

In fact the Canadian Conservatives lost the 2015 election. They have been out of power ever since, with the Liberals presiding over Canada’s continuing transformation into a “woke nightmare”. The US Republicans did not lose the 2016 election, and Trump’s nativist rhetoric harmed him less with minorities than was widely predicted. Whilst the experience of the Canadian Conservatives in the early 2000s is certainly worth taking into account, it hardly seems like a winning path to power for the right in societies with growing shares of minorities that are more socially conservative than the mainstream.

Other examples of this supposed opportunity for the right are thin on the ground. George W. Bush won 35 per cent and then 40 per cent of the Latino vote in the 2000 and 2004 elections (though this is, of course, still a minority) with a relatively pro immigration but socially conservative platform. Supposedly, Muslim Americans used to vote for the Republicans prior to 9/11, though some of this data is questionable.

This question of whether the right can appeal to minorities on the basis of moral values lies atop two deeper ones: why do people vote in the way they do at all? Which motivations trump others when it comes down to the decision at the ballot box? Some motivations for voting behaviour (in no particular order) are:

  • Economic interest: which party will best protect my wealth and income, and allow me to gain more?
  • Moral values: which party aligns more with my values, e.g. which one cares more about the environment, or the poor, or the church, or families, or animal welfare, or the rights of the unborn?
  • The personal characteristics of the candidates and parties themselves. Are they perceived as ethical, competent, likeable, charismatic?
  • Partisan affiliation: I’ve always been a Labour voter, or I come from a Conservative family.
  • Group identity. Which party is “for my tribe” in a broad, symbolic sense?

Of these categories, modern liberalism is much less comfortable with group identity than the others. Many commentators seem to have a serious blind spot when it comes to this aspect of political behaviour. (I am using “liberalism” here and hereafter in the sense of the broad moral and political arrangements we live under, rather than any specific political sense.) The blind spot becomes evident in oft-heard obtuse rhetorical questions like “How can working class people vote for the Tories?”, “How can a Christian vote for Trump?” and “How can anyone vote for Boris the liar?”. Less frequently asked is the equivalent question regarding voters for the left, e.g. “How could a socially conservative Muslim vote Labour?”, but it is the same logical category of question. I remember reading articles in the 2010s claiming that Labour’s increasing dominance in London was down to Londoners’ “liberal values”, with the changing demographic makeup of the city (which actually made it more socially conservative) ignored. This obtuseness was behind the liberal shock at the victory of Trump and Brexit: American liberal writers seemed oddly confused about why working class white Americans with conservative moral values would vote for a relatively libertine, morally depraved billionaire, with their British counterparts not getting why working class Brits would back an ex public school stockbroker as their tribune of Brexit. Liberalism blinds people to aspects of human political behaviour that would be entirely obvious to any vaguely informed observer on the streets of Delhi or Baghdad. It’s the group identity, stupid.

Why can modern liberalism be so blind in this way? It was simply never designed to, and until recently, never had to deal with communalism. Having arisen in small, comparatively homogenous states on the shores of the Atlantic, group identity was not as salient as other factors. The way voting behaviour is conceived of in liberal societies has often not caught up with the reality of how people behave in diverse societies, which explains why the power of group identity is so often underestimated.

Liberalism persistently discounts the importance of group identity, and the right generally fails to win minorities on the grounds of moral values, economic interests or other non-identity factors. Is Hanania’s vision doomed then? Though it is difficult to swim upstream politically against the power of group identity and win minorities for the right, it is not impossible. It depends on whether a situation emerges where moral and economic concerns become more salient than minorities’ separate identity, or where this separate identity itself fades away.

Muslim identity is becoming less salient politically in the US

If Hanania’s vision is to come to pass, then this situation must be emerging in today’s America. His favourite example is Muslim Americans who are against LGBT topics being taught in their children’s schools: “Selling immigrants on hating liberals would be the easiest thing in the world to do if conservatives had a real interest in winning,” he tweets. The easy response would be that this is the same mistake the right always makes in neglecting the power of group identity. However, as mentioned, it is not always a mistake. The current situation indicates that today it may well not be. A similar situation in 2022 in Dearborn, Michigan (Muslims protesting over LGBTQ books in public schools) did actually lead to many Muslim-majority areas in the city flipping from Democrat to Republican. Muslims have been trending more Republican in 2020 and 2022 (albeit from a low base).

What factors have allowed this to happen? As previously mentioned, most American Muslims supposedly did vote Republican prior to 9/11. Then they swung sharply to the Democrats, when the changed situation in the US after 9/11 made their identity more salient and distinct from the mainstream. It would be hard to imagine seeing these swings to the right caused by LGBT issues in schools, if the US military were still occupying Iraq. With the era of Islamic terrorism and consequent Western military intervention in the Islamic world seemingly receding into history, however, Muslim identity is becoming less salient politically in the US. There is more chance for Muslim conservative moral values to come into play in voting behaviour. This is coupled, of course, with the “Great Awokening”, which has opened up more moral divisions, especially on sexuality and gender identity, than existed a decade ago.

Something similar seems to be happening with the Latino vote, which has also been trending upward for the Republicans since 2016. There was no 9/11-like event in this case to explain the recent change, nor have the Republicans become much friendlier to immigration or to Latino identity in a broad sense. It seems likely that for American Latinos, with their high intermarriage rate and economic convergence with white Americans, increasing length of time in the country, and fast growing rate of conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, the social distance between their identity and the American mainstream is decreasing. A minority ethnic identity may have less power in determining their politics, allowing moral values more influence (and group identification with the mainstream as well).

How possible is Richard Hanania’s “multicultural based alliance” strategy for the right in today’s America? Past experience has generally taught that this approach is more campaign strategists’ wishful thinking than workable electoral reality. However, there are factors today that make it a more plausible strategy than it once might have been. So, with reservations, it’s worth a try.

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