Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Republican Party's real diversity problem

Six years ago a couple of conservative Republican friends excitedly sent me an e-mail that they were sure would foster "reconciliation of the races." I decided to click on the link, and it turned out that it was touting the candidacies of Michael Steele, who was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland; and Ken Blackwell and Lynn Swann, who were each running for governor in Ohio and Pennsylvania respectively -- all African-American and all as Republicans.

I quickly dismissed the publicity as irrelevant, saying that the conservatives who run the GOP wanted capitulation, not reconciliation. It turned out that they had the bad fortune of running for office during the Republican "meltdown" of that year, all of them losing easily and with Ed Rendell, the victorious Democrat in the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania, even saying that he received a lot of votes because Swann was black.

I bring this up because South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is planning to nominate Tim Scott, touted as the first black Republican to enter statewide office since Reconstruction, to the Senate to replace Jim DeMint, who is taking a position with the Heritage Foundation. Some folks are making this appointment into a big deal -- which it isn't, especially when you consider that Scott is a hard-core conservative and a tea-party sympathizer. In that context, in many eyes nominating Scott to such a position is a lot like nominating an ex-slave to promote the positions of the slavers.

But the problem with Scott being in the Senate is not merely, or even primarily, about race. Rather, it's about the unwillingness to address ideological diversity -- or, more accurately, the lack thereof -- in the party.

Since the 1980s, when the political right began to take firm control of the former "party of Lincoln," it has systematically pushed out "apostates" who dared to deviate from its ideological line. Even after it took unexpected losses, especially in the Senate where tea-party adherents ended up being crushed at the polls, last month, it still remains committed to the death to the principles of "less government." (In practice, however, only for themselves.)

Such an unyielding stance was bound to cost it politically because it willfully, and in some cases deliberately, alienates much of the electorate, as evidence by last month's election. Trouble is that it doesn't get that, always blaming its defeat on "political correctness," hostile media or a lack of understanding of its views, nor does it talk or listen to anyone else.

Some have said that the Republican Party will soon become a relic of history à la the Whigs, which it eventually replaced. That may be overstating things a bit, considering that it still remains strong in the South and rural America, but unless it makes an effort to communicate with the rest of the country it will be relegated to permanent minority status as a whole. And nominating racial minorities to prominent posts won't change that.

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