With the presidential and Congressional elections now behind it, the Republican Party is facing a test on its future direction. Having watched the top of its ticket experience defeat on November 4, and losing ground in areas of the country that were once considered predictably “red” in voting behavior, the GOP appears headed for an internal fight that could very well determine if it will remain relevant in national policy making for the immediate future. In one corner are conservatives who seem hell bent on imposing their will on the party despite the negative electoral consequences and in the other moderates, who have been in hiding as the right has been better organized and funded to dominate the party’s direction.
The “Party of Lincoln” is adrift and perhaps there is no better indication than the tone the McCain campaign took in the final weeks of the presidential race. Rather than rely on an affirmative message, the Arizona senator’s advisers chose to stoke the flames of racism by appealing to the bigotry of some white Republicans. The results were startling. Not only were some McCain supporters emboldened to unleash the vilest comments toward Senator Obama, the atmosphere helped fuel a rash of racial incidents we see unfolding across the country; including a direct threat on the life of then candidate Obama.
In many ways, the GOP’s acquiescence to its extreme right has now come back to haunt the party. For decades it used its racially coded “southern strategy” to lock down the south, win governorships and align with so-called “Reagan Democrats” in the nation’s heartland to piece together an electoral map capable of securing the White House. Now it appears, time and demographics have turned on the party. The south is certainly not what it was during Richard Nixon’s run in 1968 or for that matter resembles the region that supported George W. Bush in 2000. Over the last decade the migration of Blacks to the south, combined with the movement of educated whites to southern states from the north, has created a “new South” that is beginning to look and feel more like northern Virginia in a lot of places than it does the Mississippi Delta.
A party that for so long has relied on racial animosity to drive its base is finding that base growing older and being overwhelmed by younger voters, even young Republicans, who see the nation through a different lens. Though Barack Obama’s margin of victory in certain southern states was slim, the fact that he won and was competitive at all is an indication that the Republican’s “solid South” is showing cracks. Some of that slippage is likely attributed to the nation’s economic crisis but the fact that a Democrat, a Black Democrats at that, was connecting with white voters in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida is an indication that the racism’s power is losing a little bit of its grip.
For Republican partisans the big question is “who speaks for the party?” For Black Republicans the question may be “why am I in this party?” In many ways the GOP needs to experience the same sort of soul searching Democrats faced in 1964 when Blacks from Mississippi challenged the seating of an all white delegation to the party’s convention in Atlantic City. That episode literally changed the complexion of the Democratic Party. At the same time the GOP took a hard right and never looked back; choosing in succession to be the party’s standard bearer, Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1968. Save President Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976, the Republican Party has not enlarged the tent, it has made it smaller.
It must now contend with the perception among many voters of color that it is the party of white resistance. With no Blacks in leadership positions, the party that once boasted having Edward Brooke as the first elected Black U.S. Senator post-Reconstruction is now challenged to present a credible case to Blacks and Latinos as to why they should consider the party in light of its many racial missteps. The party once thought Latinos would provide a counterbalance to the Democrats hold on Black voters but the often spiteful views of its leaders on immigration may have destroyed any chance of the GOP making inroads among that growing voter bloc. Its position with Blacks, considerably weakened by decades of indifference and outright hostility, is further complicated by the lack of Blacks in leadership positions who could speak to Black voters. Too often the party trots out Michael Steele, the former Maryland lieutenant governor, when it wants to show “diversity” but the hue of its conventions and political rallies tell a different story.
As Republicans begin to line up and take sides, with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin angling to be the standard bearer and Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee and Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney positioning themselves for a run in 2012, the real test is whether the millions of moderate Republicans will stand idly by and watch the ship go down in flames. Someone has to save the party from itself because its leadership seems hell bent on driving a wedge between the GOP and the nation’s emerging majority of color. Rather than engage in a polite discussion on the future of the party, Black Republicans need to embrace some of the rage and courage Fannie Lou Hamer demonstrated in taking on southern Dixiecrats in 1964. Rather than demand a seat at the table, Black Republicans may have to deem the table unacceptable. It may be the last chance for the party that for decades was associated with Emancipation to remain relevant.