The Republican National Committee went with former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as fundraiser-in-chief and (for now) the de facto leader of the Republican Party Friday, becoming the first African American to hold the post.
Steele beat South Carolina GOP chief Katon Dawson, who had to quit his alleged "white's-only" country club to stay in the running, after six rounds of voting. So what shall we call this? Watershed moment? Window dressing? Political plagiarism? (Wow. There's a lot of Negro firsts going around this political season!) Who knows? But Steele, a black Republican out of a largely Democratic state, a moderate conservative with staunch, Catholic bona fides, but not much in the way of NRA support, is now the big enchillada at the RNC.
Change is a-comin'!
Princeton University Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell went on Rachel Maddow's show Friday night arguing that Michael Steele's election wasn't so much about the Republican Party wanting to reach out to minorities, but to reach out symbolically to whites who didn't want to be associated with a party that is perceived as monochromic. (Re: Once you get saddled with the "racist" stigma, it's pretty hard to shake.)
I tend to agree with Harris-Lacewell's assessment, being that at least once a month I'm inundated with some rebuke of the flawed Democratic Party and its seemingly cozy relationship with blacks. In these notes I am "educated" that the Republican Party was originally the party of abolition and Lincoln, ignoring the huge hit the Republicans took in the handling of the stock market collapse of the 1930s, when more and more blacks started voting as populists during FDR's administration. They later went solidly Democratic after the Democrats distanced themselves of their racist past via one Civil Rights Movement and the push of President Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Great Society Plan and use of state troopers to integrate schools. For this change in beliefs, the Dems lost the South for the next forty years (as LBJ predicted) and the Dems became a hodge-podge party of inclusion.
One can ignore the fact that black people vote on issues if you'd like. You can believe that someone as skeevy as Sen. Harry Reid put the voodoo on all of us, but if blacks started voting Democratic during the 1940s when FDR wasn't exactly known as a lover of the brown peoples of America (I believe he once referred to the black contemporaries of his wife as "Eleanor's niggers") that should tell you something about our ability to separate policy from people.
This is truly no different than the many Southern whites who had historically voted Democratic as they too were populists, but fled to the Republican Party after the federal government decided to send some troops down to end that whole "separate but equal" deal and ram equality and integration down their throats.
And you'd have to ignore the fact that nearly all the defectors from the Democratic Party post the passage of the Civil Rights Act tried to form their own party, the failed Dixicrats, before joining the Republicans as part of the larger "Southern Strategy."
So, yeah, if you just ignore the last sixty years of American political history, I guess you can keep making the argument that the Democrats' dark racist past makes them worse than the party that had a guy who was a member of a whites-only club as Steele's main competition (IN 2009!), and before that, a guy pimping the ditties "Barack the Magic Negro" and "Star-Spanglish Banner."
Big tent party, my ass!
It's not that black people love Democrats. I mean, have you ever visited St. Louis? Have you asked a Negro how they feel about Dem. Mayor Francis Slay?
No one also seriously believes that all white Democrats love black people -- although, they'll proudly cling to the "I can't be racist, I'm a Liberal" mantra even when they're being patently racist, like it's an immunity cloak. That is a common mistake outsiders make. Blacks, like all groups, vote their interests. You could argue that financially, it made no sense for Southerners to abandon the populist-lead Democratic Party who had served them well when they had been pro-Populist for decades. But once the culture wars took prominence over the class wars, choosing the conservatives was a no-brainer. They voted the issues. Not the brand.
So we ask, does the election of Steele change the brand?
But it does give it something new and exciting to talk about after a year where the only bright spot (or malignant spot depending on which conservative intelligentsia you ask -- Kathleen Parker!) was veep nominee Sarah Palin's Alaskan pluck. This could cause some soul-searching. Or this could be color-coded rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Pat Buchanan, my favorite bigot, quite famously argued in his most jerky way that the conservatives had tried to get the black vote and lost it -- and didn't give two shits. That he'd accepted that the Latinos in the Southwest would progressively grow more Democratic. He didn't care. He was holding fast to the belief that the Republicans needed to hold even faster to their conservative principles and representation of the North American white middle class Christian (mixed with some anti-globalization, protectionist policies), rather than mimic the Dems "big tent/big fight" structure of competing minority groups, women and union members.
He, to the face of a black conservative Mike Paul, quite loudly told him that he did not know why some blacks vote Republican, but if they do, great. But he wasn't going to change a DAMN THING to get those votes.
Steele, as I said before, is not some happy bigot nutter like Pat. He's reasonable. He's intelligent. He once considered being a priest. But he's also a wily politician. When he ran for senate in Maryland he scarely mentioned he was a Republican and quite brazenly used banners that read "Steele Democrats" at rallies. The implication was that Democrats were voting for Steele, but he lost the bid, badly. And he lost the black vote by even more.
It is the issues. Not the window dressing.
One can bring up former Klansman/Highlander candidate, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd as proof of the Democrats' sins, but what does it say about Byrd, A FORMER KLANSMAN, who chose to stick with a party that became increasingly more accepting of black people, resembled less and less the party he joined as a young man, electing black candidates, putting blacks in charge of committees and even supporting Barack Obama for president when as a senator from West Virginia Byrd could have made the switch right along with his former colleague Strom Thurmon years ago and no one would have faulted him.
But he didn't. Obviously, populism trumped race for Byrd. He sucked it up and accepted that the times had changed.
Others did not.
And that is why there is such a divide.
This isn't about what Republicans did in 1864. It's about what Republicans are doing now. I'd hope that they will become more supportive of minorities running for elective office, not pulling a JC Watts where you get lawfully and popularly elected only to wind up fighting not only the Congressional Black Caucus, but House Rep. Tom Delay, fellow Republican, who preferred a pro-abortion, female candidate over the anti-abortion, loyal conservative Watts for ... who knows? I'm going to go with the fact that Watts is appreciated as a token. Not respected as a mover and shaker.
And that's the problem. Black people aren't blind. The Democratic Party is flawed, but if you have a choice between a flawed party where you can get elected and get support versus a party who won't even let you touch a committee once you defy the odds to get to Congress, where your best bet is an appointment, not a popular vote -- you have a problem.
Democrats aren't fooling black people. Republicans aren't fooling black people. Give us a party of inclusiveness, with movement for advancement, with a populist undercurrent and pro-Civil Rights stances (mixed with some fight for social justice) and you will get bundles upon bundles of black votes.
No one is putting the hoo-doo on anybody. And neither will Steele. He will represent a watershed moment. The important question will be -- will Steele be respected as a true influence and leader in the party or will he find himself marginalized by individuals who only want him as a symbol of progress, not actual progress?
Or, as Rush Limbaugh said succinctly, just another dude-in-waiting as this is Sarah Palin's America we're living in and we're all just squirrels in a world trying to get a tax cut.
But to congratulate Steele, I'd like to serenade his victory with a tweaked rendition one of my favorite ditties by a Mr. Chuck Berry of St. Louis, Mo., a man of my hometown:
It was an RNC election, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Steele did truly sieze the Republican mantel
And now the young moderate and the old battle axes have rung the bell,
"C'est la vie," say the GOP, it goes to show you never can tell
(Source: "You Never Can Tell," Chuck Berry)