Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the selection of Michael Steele to head the RNC. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
The Republican party has become Andrew Jackson’s Democratic party, strong in Appalachia and in the west through Oklahoma. It has become the party of whites in the deep South. Great, except that we’re not in 1828. The selection of Michael Steele to head the Republican National Committee signals an intention to do what the Democratic party has done since Franklin Roosevelt – woo minorities. “We’re going to bring this party to every corner, to every boardroom, to every neighborhood, to every community,” Steele said in his short victory speech.
And if this wasn’t clear enough, he also said to local party leaders in an interview with Time , “if you want to be chairman under my leadership, don’t think this is a country-club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don’t want to drill down and build coalitions in minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does.”
Steele means business, but he has his work cut for him, because there are elements within the Republican party who do not think of America as a demographic or cultural mosaic. Republicans will struggle to hold on to their identity and principles while becoming – if they are
successful – the very thing they have accused the Democrats of becoming, a patchwork coalition of motley interests.
Steele’s moderate Republican supporters recognize as much. “He understands the importance of having candidates who appeal to different constituencies without promoting a monolithic agenda,” says Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice. There are elements within the Republican party who continue to hold on to a monolithic conception of America. As the first African-American man to head the party of Lincoln, Steele has been symbolically charged to dispel his party’s Jacksonian nostalgia. (Steele won the race for the RNC’s chairmanship on the fifth ballot against Katon Dawson , chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who until last September had been a member of an all-white country club. So this battle within the party isn’t over yet.)
The one reliable motive force in America politics is that the desire to win elections will motivate politicians to destroy even the most ancient of institutions and the most stubborn of prejudices. “It is time to turn it on and work, and work to do what we always do well – and that is win,” so proclaimed Steele. Conservatism will change if only to win. So change I expect it will.