Political Hay

A Wake Up Call

The futility of Republican kowtowing to black voters.

By 12.18.02

Send to Kindle

In the wake of his idiotic remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration, Trent Lott's stop and grovel tour continues. Last Monday found him on Black Entertainment Television, calling the controversy "a wake up call," proposing to start a "task force on reconciliation," promising to "move an agenda ... helpful to African Americans" -- and mentioning, by the way, that he now favors making Martin Luther's King's birthday a federal holiday. (Based, no doubt, on Dr. King's many activities since Lott voted against it in 1983.) How well Lott's mea culpa took in the black community can be gleaned from the venom directed at him on BET.com's discussion board after the interview.

The latest twist in the fiasco came midweek, after New York State Senate Republican leader Joe Bruno said that Lott "ought to be cut some slack"; the outrage from the black community at Bruno's suggestion was so fierce that Bruno wound up apologizing.

This is insanity. But it's instructive insanity in that it highlights the futility of Republicans kowtowing to, or tailoring their message for, black voters. The core value of the Republican Party is individual initiative. But this value is palatable only if you believe opportunities for such initiative are readily available to all. Republicans cannot adhere to their core principle and simultaneously admit that black people are perpetually oppressed -- as Lott's "wake up call" implies. This is the basic reason Republicans cannot attract large numbers of black voters. To be black, in the eyes of many black people, is to be perpetually oppressed; more than skin color, hair texture or facial features, the belief in ongoing black oppression is the unifying element of black culture. As civil rights activist Roger Wilkins wrote recently, "For blacks, there is the pain of slavery and the continual loss of dignity that accompanies our treatment as nonstandard citizens."

It's a profoundly wrongheaded sentiment -- but virtually impossible to debate. If someone insists he's in pain, how do you convince him he shouldn't be? In any event, the percentage of Wilkins's black readers who'd nod in agreement is undoubtedly high. Oppression has, in effect, entered into the very definition of being black. Telling black people they're no longer oppressed, under such circumstances, amounts to telling them they're no longer black.

Republicans are thus in a no-win situation with regard to black voters: Either you tell them that they're not being oppressed, and alienate them by your insensitivity, or you admit that they are being oppressed, and alienate them by appealing to individual initiative ... which only matters in a fundamentally fair society.

The solution to the Republicans' "black problem" lies not in prostrating themselves but in recognizing that their ideals serve blacks as well as whites.

The overwhelming majority of black voters are hardworking, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens. They may not realize it, but they have an abiding stake not only in the value of individual initiative, but also in the correlative values of national defense, civic order, economic responsibility, educational accountability and equal opportunity; these are ideals to which Republican politics is committed. It cannot simultaneously commit itself to government programs designed to redistribute wealth or to ensure equal outcomes -- both of which undermine individual initiative.

The overwhelming majority of black voters, in other words, should see the Republican Party as a viable option to exercise their personal interests. They don't because they've been brainwashed, browbeaten and culturally cowed into believing that their natural constituency is made up not of other hardworking, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens but of a ragtag minority of sociopaths who superficially resemble them. And Republicans only reinforce this line of thought when they attempt to woo black voters as a homogeneous block defined by epidermal loyalties. Indeed, the entire idea of wooing groups of voters is self-defeating. Republicans are faithful to their core values only when they woo individual voters by saying plainly what they stand for.

Until black voters begin to think of themselves first and foremost as individuals, the Republican Party will have little to offer them.

RINGING IN HIS EARS
In the aftermath of his announcement that he would not run in 2004, Al Gore was inundated with phone calls from the men who would like to fill his shoes as frontrunner. Gore took calls with Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry, and spoke for a long time with Sen. Joe Lieberman, who in the next few weeks is expected to make some type of formal announcement about his intentions.

All three called to congratulate Gore on his decision and to wish him well and to ask for a meeting to discuss the future. Thus far, Gore has made plans only with Lieberman, and put off the others.

Several phone calls that Gore did not take came from Rep. Dick Gephardt. No word on whether there is any real animus there or not, but Gephardt has always been viewed as a Gore competitor for money and support from Big Labor. As well, Gore in the past has believed that Gephardt's close relationship with DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe worked against his building a relationship with the party leader.

AT FULL BORE
On Wednesday, at the Brookings Institution, Sen. John Edwards made what his staff had touted as one in a series of "policy speeches." Previous speeches dealt with the economy and terrorism. This one attacked the Bush Administration's Homeland Security plan. The speech drew a moderate crowd of mostly second- and third-tier policy wonks and journalists, many of whom showed up hoping to hear the North Carolina senator tee off on Trent Lott.

Those comments would have been better than the pabulum Edwards laid out. "No specifics, no real meat, nothing," said a Brookings scholar in attendance. "One gets the sense he's running out of gas and the election season hasn't started yet."

To be fair to Edwards, plans for the speech were in the works long before Al Gore made his announcement over the weekend. Nonetheless, with the Democratic presidential race now wide-open it says something that Edwards didn't try to ratchet up the heat on this speech.

The lackluster performance is also surprising in that Edwards' political allies report they expect him to announce within days that he is at the very least forming an exploratory committee for a presidential run.

POINTING AT DANA
As the spectacle surrounding Trent Lott continues, Republicans elsewhere are offering further confirmation that their party is one that truly enjoys eating its own. Word out of California is that some Southern California Republican moneymen are looking to recruit a primary challenger to longtime conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. The key reason is Rohrabacher's continued antagonism toward Israel.

"He's awful on Israel, and it just doesn't make a lot of sense. Maybe he's got too much water in his ears from all that surfing," says one of those California businessmen looking for a horse to run against the sitting congressman.

Rohrabacher has been outspoken in criticizing U.S. support for Israel, and is viewed as the one of the Muslim community's strongest supporters.

The oddity of the Rohrabacher situation is that on many issues he's in the conservative mainstream.

No names have been mentioned as possible challengers.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Mark Goldblatt teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY). His latest novel, Sloth, was published last year by Greenpoint Press.