Sunday, February 8, 2009

The GOP Back in Black? Will Michael Steele turn it around or cause further division?

It had to happen sooner or later.

On January 30, 2009 the GOP held an election between 6 candidates, two of whom were Black, to see who would become Chair of the Republican National Committee. The two black candidates, Ken Blackwell and Michael Steele, made it to the final rounds of the election before Blackwell dropped out and endorsed Steele who went on to win the chairmanship of the RNC, thereby becoming the first African American to head the Republican Party. Ever.

It is no coincidence that this historic moment came on the coat tails of the election of the nation's first African American President, Democratic candidate Barack Obama. A parallel observation could also be made last August when the Republicans, again following the lead* of the guinea pig-like Democrats, nominated a female candidate for Vice President after witnessing the popularity and near success of the Democratic female candidate, Hillary Clinton, in her bid for the White House. (The Democrats had also previously tested these waters in the 1980's when they nominated U.S. Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York for Vice President) So it would appear we have a pattern here in recent history with regard to diversifying our political landscape. The Democrats, being the more inclusive party, have "led" the way in terms of accepting and producing non-white male leaders,* and the Republicans, now forced to deal with the stark reality of a Black President, have had to follow suit in order to remain competitive.

Which brings us back to Michael Steele. I had occasion to meet Michael Steele in person at a National Black Law Students Association convention in Denver, Colorado back around March of 2005 where he was featured as a keynote speaker for one of the luncheons that weekend. I must give him full credit for coming and speaking to the organization, as it is no secret that NBLSA is, and has always been, a predominantly liberal and progressive group of mini Michelle and Barack Obama's ever since it's inception in 1969. Even though his ideology was frowned upon that day, he still took the time out to come and speak to us about common ground between conservatives and progressives in tackling the problems that face the Black community. So again, I give respect to anybody who shares my passion in serving the Black community.

That being said, there are, of course, a litany of issues that I fundamentally disagree with Steele on; too many to name and ultimately irrelevant for purposes of this piece. What is relevant here is what a black RNC chair means to the already fractured Republican party.

After the great ass whupping of 2008 2008 election, the GOP received a wake up call that was heard all across the country from the east coast to the place where you can see Russia from your house. The message was clear: any political party that excludes people on the basis of who they are is a losing party.

For the better part of the 20th century, both parties were guilty of being neutral and conveniently turning a blind eye when it came to racial and gender diviersity/issues in politics. The Democratic party, by no design of its own, became the de facto reservoir for any female politician or politician of color who sought affiliation with a party that at least remotely addressed their issues. The Republican party, by contrast, had morphed into 2 factions: (i) the core "William F. Buckley" Republicans who believe in smaller government and fiscal responsibility, and (ii) the social conservatives who basically believe that America should believe as they believe about all things social, which is effectively to say anything or anybody that doesn't resemble the WASP's is wrong. It is the latter faction that seems to be causing the most trouble for the Republican party lately. To personify it, the former faction is more like John McCain while the latter faction is more like Sarah Palin.

In Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, he accurately describes how the majority of the population in the mid-west continues to "successfully" vote against its own interests in every single election due to the Republican party's uncanny ability to tap into the psyche of the social conservative faction which makes up a majority of these "red" states. In other words, they use buzz words like "pro-life," "affirmative action," "same-sex marriage," and "family values" to tug at the heart strings of the red state masses who, although they believe in these things genuinely, do not benefit from Republican policies that give tax breaks to their employers' factory or plant that ships their job overseas, or that give tax relief to individuals making more than $250,000 a year, of whom they are not. But the red state masses, largely gun totin', God fearin', blue collar people, will vote with the Republican party out of principle time and time again due to their perception that this is the party who actually cares about these things that they are so passionate about. The irony in all of this is that not only does the federal government NOT care about taking on any of these buzz word issues, it is effectively impossible for it to do so. Nothing could illustrate this better than the 6 years during Bush 43's administration in which he had a majority Republican Congress and a majority Republican Supreme Court and yet still failed to add a single amendment, act, or executive order banning same-sex marriage, or affirmative action, or abortion. Rarely are the stars ever so perfectly aligned, and yet the red state masses, perhaps oblivious to how government works, continue to believe that if they keep voting Republican, some day these issues will be addressed by the U.S. government. As the saying goes, "don't hold your breath."

All of that to say, the social conservative faction of the Republican party is resistant to things like logic, pragmatism, and most of all, they are resistant to change. Change. A scary word, that change. For 200 years the face of leadership has literally resembled those upon Mount Rushmore and now for the first time in this nation's history it looks like someone else. That's scary to some people, especially to the social conservatives who take pride in making their grits like the guy on the stand in My Cousin Vinny.

Many of them are still having extreme difficulty in fully accepting as reality the fact that America has a Black President.

So the Question I submit to you is this: If they are having this much difficulty in acknowledging a Black guy in the other party, how will they now react to a Black guy heading up their own party?

* I use the word "led"/"lead" here very loosely lest we forget it was the southern Democrats of the 1950's and 60's, then known the "Dixie-crats," who openly fought (and for the longest time defeated) civil rights legislation in Congress. Furthermore, if we go back to the 1800's, it was the Republican Party who, in fact, ended slavery. So the dynamics of these two parties that we know today are only recent transformations within the grand scheme of their respective historical records.


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