"If you talk to anyone about shaping the future of this nation, they will tell you that there are certain demographics that must be touched—millennials, women, and minorities. And so I tell people that unless our ideas are reaching those demographics, then we are going to be looking at a shrinking minority view in this country." —Kay Coles James, President, The Heritage Foundation
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.
Show up has long been the outreach mantra. It is a simple enough concept. If we don’t show up, we have no chance of reaching new audiences. Some conservatives are eager to show up, but the big question is where? Most people are familiar with the NAACP and the National Urban League. But, there are a number of great community organizations that present avenues for engagement. For example, African American sororities and fraternities are more than mere college cliques. They represent thousands of pro-business, pro-economic-freedom professionals who continue to stay engaged in the success of their communities.
True engagement is an intentional and sometimes uncomfortable two-way street. We conservatives put efforts into short-term outreach and scratch our heads when the results yield nothing. The reason the results are disappointing is because most efforts are designed for quick victories on Election Day. The efforts being made are not to build relationships with minority communities to understand their concerns.
Success will come only if we are focused on long-term efforts at building trust and earning the right to be heard. We regret to say that there are very few examples of conservatives making an effort and doing it the right way. The longest, most consistent effort to reach minorities with conservative ideas that we have seen is The Gloucester Institute. It was founded over a decade ago by Kay Coles James (now president of The Heritage Foundation) and her husband Charles James. Its mission is to train and nurture the next generation of minority leaders to be better critical thinkers and well-informed citizens.
The Gloucester Institute shows up and sticks around. We have been blessed to see first hand the real-time investment Gloucester makes in the lives of minority college students who participate in the institute’s Emerging Leaders program. Students from diverse political backgrounds are given the opportunity to meet and discuss issues with Cabinet-level officials, national community advocates, and business leaders. No investment in their professional success is left to chance. From learning appropriate dining etiquette to dressing for the success of the C-Suite, Gloucester makes the investment.
Most critically, the institute does not teach students to be conservatives, but rather trains them to consider all points of view (including the conservative one) about problems such as poverty, disinvestment, community policing, and education.
In 2015 our firm, Bass Public Affairs, was hired by Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. That April, Carson was invited to speak at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference.
Many prominent conservatives criticized Carson for accepting the invitation. They said attending would only legitimize Sharpton. Such thinking will kill any true efforts at reaching new audiences with conservative ideas. Carson’s participation in the forum did not legitimize Sharpton. Sharpton is made legitimate by the hundreds of thousands of people who watch his MSNBC cable program and listen to his Sirius XM radio show. He is legitimate because of his huge influence in social media. Ignoring him and the audience he attracts doesn’t erase him or his ideas from the public square.
Ignoring Sharpton only means ignoring his audience and leaving space for liberals to define conservatives. When Sharpton introduced Carson, he said they may not agree on the day of the week, but he appreciated Carson’s willingness to join him on stage. The audience welcomed Carson with polite applause. However, by the end of his remarks, they were applauding enthusiastically and rushing the stage to shake his hand and to snap selfies.
Carson may have won over only 10 people in that audience, but that’s how the movement grows—a few people at a time. But even more important, he did not cede ground and leave open an opportunity for the liberal narrative about conservatives to thrive. Ninety-nine percent of the audience was African American. How often do conservatives penetrate the liberal base with a direct message?
Carson’s speaking at the NAN conference would have been identity politics if he had sought to engage a black audience with a different message than he used with white audiences. He did not change his message. He also did not believe the hype from the mainstream media or Sharpton himself who paints pictures of conservatives as unfeeling hypocrites whose values are out of touch with regular people.
The national news media does a fine job of painting such a picture of conservatives when it comes to issues like abortion. If we actually believe the major news outlets, women came to near riots because states like Georgia and Alabama have curbed access to abortions. In reality, women are far more outraged and disgusted by late-term abortions and the passage of pro-infanticide legislation like that of New York.
In 2017, as Planned Parenthood marked its 100th anniversary, Bass Public Affairs hosted a series of roundtables with women from all walks of life who were pro-choice. We were honest and transparent in our invitation, making sure that each woman invited understood that we were pro-life and interested in hearing how they arrived at their pro-choice stance.
Most of the women had never actually talked through why they considered themselves pro-choice. Fewer still had ever heard the explanation of what happens during a late-term abortion.
Yes, it was a bit terrifying, but it was important for us to speak up on the issue. The roundtables were among the most amazing, deeply moving conversations we have ever had. The conversations were uncomfortable but necessary. In the end, we made an impact in two areas. First, we actually changed minds about abortion. But for those women who remained pro-choice, they no longer painted all conservative pro-lifers with the broad-brush strokes of unfeeling hypocrites.
Shut Up and Learn
Finally, engagement means not only talking about issues that are important to you, but also shutting up to listen to issues of importance to the communities you want to reach. Here again lies the rub. Conservatives have an aversion to the idea that different demographics have concerns that are not shared by the overall community. It seems offensive to say that thoughts, ideas, and policy are not race-, gender-, and age-neutral.
The issue of income inequality consistently ranks as one of the top three concerns of millennials. Millennials’ and Generation Z’s concerns for income inequality have created what most conservatives would view as a misguided love affair with socialism. The best way to engage millennials on this issue is to shut up and listen to their concerns. Listening to millennials might surprise you. We have created allies and eliminated adversaries when we are silent long enough to hear and understand their goals. When we listen to millennials, it is clear that they do not despise America or even find fault with authority and order. They simply have a huge heart for the down-and-out. They root with passion for the underdog. Ultimately, they want the same outcome we want: healthy, thriving communities.
We are free market capitalists, and we are always inspired and impressed when millennials in our mentoring group share their heart for low-income, disadvantaged communities. Because we believe in attacking policy not people, we do not call millennials misguided snowflakes when they articulate plans that amount to little more than wealth redistribution. Because we have spent time listening to them and not attacking them, when we lay out basic truths of how socialism and wealth distribution have only worked in Smurf Village, they are far more inclined to listen.
Heritage Foundation founder Ed Feulner often reminds the conservative movement that it is better to add and multiply than to divide and subtract. As we look to the future, the most effective way to multiply is to show up, speak up and by all means, shut up and learn.
Mrs. Bass Wilbon and Mrs. Bass Williams are the founders of Bass Public Affairs and GROWTHComms.com, an annual conference for conservative communicators.