Another group of voters the GOP lost

Since the election results came in, Republicans have been given lots of advice about how to save their party from irrelevancy by broadening their focus, and their working definition of "American." Don Wycliff wrote perceptively here at dotCommonweal about the GOP's "undisguised hostility to non-traditional Americans." Eduardo Penalver wrote about race as a factor in the election, noting that "the Republican party has coddled and relied on overt racists (people like Joe Arpaio, who was elected to a sixth term last night) for far too long."

The suggestion that the Republican party is consciously exploiting racism and bigotry for political ends has met with some pushback. (After all, as Tom Scocca wrote in a provocative and, I think, highly accurate piece for Slate, "White people don't like to believe that they practice identity politics.") But I defy anyone to argue that the GOP has not been culpable in embracing the crudest kind of bigotry when it comes to one particular subset of Americans: Muslims.

Rany Jazayerli, a blogger who I gather usually writes about the Kansas City Royals, posted a long and compelling essay, "The GOP and Me," at his blog on election day. I recommend it as an intelligent and thoughtful take on how the GOP has lost the trust of Muslims in this country -- an often overlooked story, and one that I think overlaps in many ways with the party's relationship with other minority groups. As Jazayerli writes, he started out a committed Republican, like his immigrant father before him:

[A] political party whose platform rested on tax cuts and placed small business owners on a pedestal well, they didn't have to ask my father twice.... My parents had settled in America to get away from an authoritarian regime in their homeland, and here came a man running for President on the platform that the best way to govern was to leave the public alone. All my parents wanted was to be left alone, to work and raise their children and own a house with a finished basement and a white picket fence. My dad, who had just obtained his American citizenship in 1978, became a reliable supporter of the Republican Party, both with his ballot and occasionally with his checkbook. He wasnt alone. Most immigrant Muslims to America once they obtained their citizenship joined the Reagan Revolution.

He cites some numbers I haven't verified, but if they're accurate, they're certainly worthy of note:

In the 2000 election, approximately 70% of Muslims in America voted for Bush; among non-African-American Muslims, the ratio was over 80%.

Four years later, Bush's share of the vote among Muslims was 4%.

And this Yahoo News story says that "in 2008, 89 percent of Muslims who voted supported Barack Obama" -- and according to a CAIR exit poll, "more than 85 percent of American Muslim voters picked President Obama in Tuesday's election."

So, what changed? Jazayerli rightly points out that President Bush was admirably careful not to cast suspicion or blame on Muslims, and especially Muslim-Americans, after 9/11. But his policies were not so careful. And after he left office, the party lost all its caution when it came to prejudice against Muslims. Jazayerli provides ample evidence for his assertion that "the Republican Party made it crystal clear to the Muslim community that we were all under suspicion." He reminds readers of several examples of politicized persecution of Muslim groups, in particular the disgusting campaign against the "Ground Zero Mosque." (If you've forgotten just how vile that particular circus got, you can read our editorial on the subject, or revisit the coverage at dotCommonweal in August 2010.) Jazayerli writes, "It was not lost on the Muslim community that, with very few exceptions (most notably Senator Harry Reid), every politician who was publicly opposed to the project was Republican."

And then of course there was the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, when Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and others vied to outdo each other in decrying the threat of Muslim infiltration and "sharia law" to the American way of life. Remember when Cain said he wouldn't allow a Muslim to serve in his administration? Jazayerli adds,

Mitt Romney, perhaps because he is a member of a religious minority himself, has not said anything nearly as inflammatory about Muslims. On the other hand, he once said, in response to a question about whether a Muslim might serve in his Cabinet, "based on the numbers of American Muslims in our population, I cannot see that a Cabinet position would be justified." I'm waiting for him to say the same thing about Episcopalians, or Jews - or Mormons.

Obviously, in answering that question, Romney was a lot more concerned about reassuring the GOP base than he was about defending the rights of Muslim Americans. Which is too bad for him, because, as Jazayerli wrote: "If Nate Silver is right, not only will Romney lose the election, but it can be safely said that if the Muslim community had voted the same way they had in 2000, he would have won."

The rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric has greater consequences than electoral turnout. But it is, among other things, a concrete example of how the GOP is alienating the voters it will need in the future in order to keep the ones it has counted on in the past.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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