The GOP Must Lead Again on Civil Rights

by CLIFF ASNESS January 30, 2013

From its anti-slavery roots to the battles for justice in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights. Only after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the Democratic Party get in on the action, giving up on its historical base in the South to court minority voters in the North. Since then, the GOP has not reduced its commitment to civil rights, but it has emphasized them by fighting for personal freedom, individual empowerment, and protection from government; meanwhile, Democrats expanded government to push for more equality of outcomes, group rights, and protection by government. Somehow the Democrats managed to portray their version as the only approach to civil rights, and to saddle Republicans with the historical sins of the Democrats: segregation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and repression.

There are three important civil rights issues today on which the GOP should lead. They are each sound public policy. Their first and most direct impact will be improving the lives of minorities, but they will also have widespread economic benefits for everybody. They are clearly in synch with Republican values, particularly the libertarian part of the Republican coalition. And they would be extremely popular, making them good politics, particularly amongst a demographic Republicans are now losing badly. But the GOP has failed to frame these as civil rights issues and place them at the core of its party platform, partly resulting from a belief that Democrats already "own" civil rights as an issue, partly due to some less-libertarian Republicans disagreeing with the proposals, and partly because some of the changes, while consistent with small government, feel a bit too radical for those embracing the label "conservative."

There have been many articles since the election by pundits detailing how the GOP must change. Clearly I'm now writing one too. But there is a difference. Many of these articles can be summarized as, "If the GOP would only move to all of my positions it would be so much better." In contrast, I've only chosen issues where I think it's reasonable to ask my party to move. There are other issues where it might be politically expedient for the GOP to change, and I desire these changes myself, but I would not ask it. For instance, after the election, many have written about how the GOP must move to the center on social issues. That would be welcome to me as I am not a social conservative. I'm pro-gay marriage and have actively supported groups trying to advance this cause, and I am generally pro-choice. But to ask members of my party to change on the issues many find sacrosanct is a bridge too far. I accept that both parties are coalitions and I will never find full agreement with anyone other than myself (some days even that feels ambitious). Rather, I have chosen issues where, after what I assume will be considerable debate, there is hope we can come together based on the GOP's avowed small government, free enterprise principles.

We are allowed to attempt to skew immigration toward skills we need, or at least away from those who immigrate not to join our free enterprise system, but to immediately partake in our safety net.

Issue #1 is immigration. The hysteria of some Republicans on this issue, with threats of excommunication for straying from the party line (which I guess I now risk - though as a donor, not a politician, I suspect they will continue to take my money!), is counterproductive. Immigration is, and always has been, a huge positive for our country. Every Republican who talks about the American Dream should know it is a tale of immigration. There are those who deserve the label RINO, but it's those who would compromise our small government principles for power, not those who wish to allow millions of hard working freedom-seekers to pursue the American Dream.

More and easier immigration does not have to be a free-for-all. We are allowed to protect our borders. We are allowed to attempt to skew immigration toward skills we need, or at least away from those who immigrate not to join our free enterprise system, but to immediately partake in our safety net. We are allowed, to some extent, to protect our culture and encourage new immigrants to assimilate like generations before them have done. Republicans should continue to advocate for these things. But, speaking bluntly, too often the GOP's boisterous opposition to most things immigrant comes across as racist, even if that's not the intent. To the extent that this is a misunderstanding, and much of it assuredly is, it has to be fixed. To the extent that it is a reality, and at least a small part of it sadly must be, our party should unequivocally repudiate it, as Democrats should repudiate some very similar anti-immigrant attitudes found in some parts of their ranks.

Of course the most contentious issue surrounding immigration is what to do with the illegals who are already here. I use a simple test when thinking about this issue. Would I commit the crime (and it is a crime) these people committed to make my family's life better? I would in a heartbeat. If I were Jean Valjean, I'd have stolen that loaf of bread. Frankly, if you would not have done these things for your family, I have no use for you. This is not always the test we want to use in matters of law. If I can understand how an aggrieved father would take vengeance on the person he thinks murdered his child, it does not mean the law should always forgive his actions. But in the case of illegal immigration I think the empathic course is the reasonable one. To punish people harshly for doing precisely what I would do in their situation is a hypocrisy I cannot endorse.

Now, the riposte to this is a fair one: "What about those who immigrated legally? Is it fair that illegals, who indeed broke our laws, get the same benefits as those who followed the legal path?" Of course that is not fair. I will leave the specifics for others on another day, but surely there is a path to legality for illegals that is considerably more generous and humanitarian than the current situation, but still a substantially tougher path than that of legal immigrants.

As I have been working on this essay this past week, there have been some welcome signs of movement on this issue. It should continue. The Republican Party should be the party of immigration, folding it neatly into our beliefs that free enterprise, strong families, and economic growth - assuredly increased by immigration - make all things possible, including, ultimately, liberty.

Issue #2 is education. Republicans are already the party of school choice. We must become more so, and make it clear that the schools the poor, and too often minorities, have to attend is arguably the number one civil rights issue of the day, and that Democrats are on the exact wrong side of it.

The schools the poor, and too often minorities, have to attend is arguably the number one civil rights issue of the day, and Democrats are on the exact wrong side of it.

Let's say that again, as it is exceptionally important: Democrats are on the wrong side of this absolutely vital civil rights issue. Does it seem that the word is out on this momentous reversal of popular perception and that the GOP has gotten the credit, and Democrats the opprobrium, each deserves? Somewhere David Axelrod wakes up every night in a cold sweat dreading the moment the GOP realizes this and resolves to make the most of it.

The GOP must expand its efforts for all manners of reform - charters, vouchers, tax credits, and direct reform of the public system itself. We must fight to end the big government programs that everyone knows are failures, and reduce the federal control of education that has only worsened every problem with the typical bureaucrat's wasteful and heavy hand weighing on the pupils and teachers in the classroom. We must continue to point out that the problem is not even slightly related to spending, which has only increased while the plight of those in our failing public schools has only worsened. We must be louder, more comprehensive, franker, and - again only allowing politics to follow the truth - we must trumpet ourselves as the party fighting for kids against the tragic status quo, especially for poor, minority, isolated kids, currently shut out from the world of work and middle-class or higher aspiration. And, of course, we must live up to what we trumpet. We are already on this path, but not far and fast enough. And, moving once again to politics, we are treading too quietly! Education should be front and center in everything Republican.

Issue #3 is the failed war on drugs. Here the GOP has to get more libertarian and less conservative. The war on drugs is a moral and practical failure just as prohibition was before it. While it is not my immediate intention, as a grown-up it's nobody's business if I want to spend my weekend as part of a "choom gang," and the party of Liberty should support this idea (if anyone has advice on where to find whatever "choom" is, or, for that matter, where to find a gang, please help). The war on drugs is an epic economic failure. If we want to help the economy, we need to stop much of this utterly useless spending and either give the money back to the people, reduce the deficit, or even (my last choice) spend it on something else. But most of all, the war on drugs is an absolute tyrannical scourge that touches all walks of life but is particularly devastating to lower-income, and yes, minority, families. Scaling down this war (we can separately debate the degree), incarcerating far fewer young minorities (and thus allowing more minority families to flourish in a more traditional fashion; something clearly linked to economic success), spending far less on this incarceration and all other aspects of the "war," and creating a new lawful industry that we can tax and regulate, is a no-brainer morally and economically, and, fitting this essay's theme of civil rights, would disproportionately benefit society's downtrodden. Only the paternalistic soft bigotry of the Left's nanny state, claiming that the downtrodden in particular would make poor choices in a freer world, would argue otherwise. We should leave this false argument to them.

Note that I'm not arguing for zero laws unless slow deliberative experimentation supports that. But at a minimum, we could ask that drugs be restricted based on scientific evidence of their pharmacological properties, and, in the true spirit of dealing with externalities and not policing individual consequences, emphasize most those drugs that cause violent behavior. And we can make these changes gradually, learning along the way (perhaps earning ourselves the label "the grand old party of science"). Where to draw the precise line is obviously difficult. But, for instance, if one surveys the many arguments for why marijuana, but not liquor or cigarettes, is illegal, one finds a wasteland of confused cognitive dissonance (nobody show this to Mike Bloomberg, who will immediately try to fix this dissonance from the wrong end!).

Somehow the Democrats managed to portray their version as the only approach to civil rights, and to saddle Republicans with the historical sins of the Democrats.

My theme has been a dual one. First and foremost crafting the right policies, benefiting the most people, and most consistent with the liberty that comes with small government. Second, a distant second, believing these policies would also benefit the GOP politically among the demographics where it needs it most. Clearly, it is in this last recommendation, pulling back from the war on drugs, where these goals are, perhaps, arguably in conflict. The historic conservatism of many African Americans, particularly religious African Americans, on social issues is indeed a serious problem for my assertion that this would be good politics as well as policy. I acknowledge that risk, but also believe the return of their sons would soon overcome initial reticence. Though, admittedly, I'm venturing even deeper into conjecture here. Frankly, if I am correct that all three policies I advocate will improve our lives while making us freer, but the politics are less certain for one of them, I will take that scorecard.

All of the above are complex issues with more pros and cons than I can do justice to in one article. But all three are actually within the spirit of what Republicans and libertarians are supposed to stand for, all are the moral choices for one who loves liberty, all would be both short- and long-term economic boosters, and all are specific and substantive ways to directly benefit those most in need of help.

And then, again, there's the politics. Political stances should always follow truth not expediency. I do not recommend these things for political advantage. But, when embracing liberty and helping the disadvantaged and the economy happens to be great politics, I say make the most of it! Individually these policies make sense, but together they are more than the sum of their parts. Together they show our party's avowed belief in equality of opportunity, not outcome, to be part of our true quest for justice and prosperity, not a rhetorical device attempting to preserve unearned privilege. Politically, if we can't sell this civil rights agenda as superior to the Democrats' implied slogan of, "Here is a bunch of free stuff, pay no attention to the dependency and opportunity-destroying policies that come with it," well, then we have fallen off our game far more than has been reported.

Cliff Asness is managing and founding principal of AQR Capital Management. He is a trustee of the American Enterprise Institute. Send him comments at

FURTHER READING: Asness also writes "We Are the 98 Percent" and "The Health Care Myths We Must Confront." Steve Conover addresses the problems with the GOP in "Grand Old Party Poopers." Jonah Goldberg asks "What is the Future of Conservatism?" and argues "No More Boring White Guys for the GOP." Michael Auslin says "We Will Never Win Unless ..."

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