Minorities, women, and millennials are three communities least likely to identify as conservatives. The survival of the conservative movement is possible only if we grow our number among these groups. It is not at all rocket science. Yet in the 30 plus years that we have identified as conservatives and in the 20 years that we have worked in the conservative movement, we have seen efforts to expand the base fail miserably. The failure has been so glorious that the only way to fail better would be to fail on purpose.
Conservatives naturally bristle at talk of expanding the base to women, minorities, and millennials. The rejection comes not because of some covert racism or sexism or an unwillingness to be inclusive. Rather, conservatives oppose making appeals based on demographics. Conservatives rightly believe dividing the sexes and races pits communities against one another. Separation by such distinctions should make all Americans cautious. Over a century ago, the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision moved America many steps away from the goal of being one perfect union where all men are created equal. The court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) began to march us back in the right direction.
But sincere efforts to expand the conservative movement to deliberately include underrepresented groups are not an exercise in identity politics; they are an effort to unite, not divide. At its very core, identity politics builds walls between the races. What we propose is breaking down walls by identifying shared beliefs with new audiences. Failure to do so will render the conservative movement a dinosaur, a footnote in American history.
Many conservatives believe the history of the Republican Party (which has tended to be the home of conservatives) should play a role in building alliances with African Americans and women. Republicans take pride in roots that stretch back to strong and early support of the women’s suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement. How many times have you heard Republicans beam about being the party of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation? It is, in fact, true that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson needed support from across the aisle to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Republicans like Rep. Charles (Mac) Mathias of Maryland and Sen. Jacob Javits of New York were the champions who carried the bill across the finish line. This rich history is important, but engagement with the issues people care about now is necessary to encourage new audiences to look at our agenda and solutions for America.
Even though growing the base is what everyone wants, it is hard to get conservatives to actually do it right. We have more examples of the wrong way to engage than effective engagement. For example, the wrong way to reach out to African Americans is to visit black churches on the Sunday before the Tuesday of a close election. The wrong way to engage women is to convene a panel of all male legislators to talk about abortion. Simply throwing your content on every social media platform available is the wrong way to engage millennials and Generation Z.
There are no sure-fire recipes for 100 percent success, but sitting on your hands and doing nothing is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Our decades of outreach experience have taught us that three concrete actions give you a chance of reaching new audiences: show up, speak up, and shut up and learn.