Over at the Globe and Mail, I look at the efforts of the Republicans to become a more multi-racial party. I had to cover a lot of ground in 900 words. Those who want to read the earlier, longer version (or “director’s cut”) can do so below:
Historical memory might be on the wane elsewhere but it is very much alive in South Carolina, a state whose expansive cotton fields and stately plantations memorialize the paradox of a genteel civilization built on centuries of slavery and segregation. So the world perked up to the news earlier this week that Tim Scott, an African-American legislator, won the primary to be the Republican candidate in the state’s first district, beating Paul Thurmond, a son of the late Strom Thurmond, the fabled segregationist who represented the state as a Senator from 1956 to 2003.
Few politicians better symbolize the hypocrisy and racial rigidness of the Old South than Strom Thurmond. Although he had secretly fathered an out-of-wedlock black daughter in the 1925, he built his political career on opposition to Civil Rights. In 1948, Thurmond famously declared that “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
While the defeat of his son by a black candidate might be seen as a sign of racial progress, there are many ironies built in: Mr. Scott, who was endorsed by the local Tea Party movement and Sarah Palin, won by presenting himself as a more-conservative alternative.
This is an emblem of an important new trend: As they gear up for the 2010 mid-terms, the Republicans are fielding far more non-white candidates than ever before, many of whom come from the right wing.
“The minority candidates being promoted by the GOP and the conservative movement all seem to be hard-core ideologues,” Ed Kilgore, managing editor of the Democratic Strategist website and a contributor to The New Republic, tells me by email. “Tim Scott was actually co-chairman of pStrom’s last Senate campaign. Paul Thurmond wasn’t even the undisputed candidate of the Strom Thurmond faction of the SC GOP!”
So the story in South Carolina actually might be that Strom Thurmond’s spiritual son defeated his biological one.
In the wake of Barack Obama’s victory in the last election, the Republicans are embracing multiculturalism as never before. Aside from Tim Scott, the party is fielding Asian Americans such as Nikki Haley (who won the governor’s primary in South Carolina after a vicious campaign filled with multiple accusations of infidelity and of faking her religious conversion), Ashok Chandra and Van Tran, African-Americans such as Star Parker and Bill Randall, and Hispanics such as Robert Enriquez and Susana Martinez.
Like Mr. Scott, many of these candidates come from the frothier and more lurid side, earning endorsements from the Tea Party movement and the Sarah Palin. Discussing the recent adoption of gay marriage in the District of Columbia, Star Parker said, “It should concern every American as we watch our nation’s capital city transform officially into Sodom.” Mr. Randall, who is running for congress in North Carolina, has suggested that the Obama administration and BP deliberately conspired together to create the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the past, African-American Republicans have tended to be middle-of-the-roaders such as Ed Brooke (a senator from 1967 to 1979), Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The big change in recent years is the deliberate recruitment of minority candidates by the conservative wing of the party. “Conservative ideologues have become very sensitive about their own diversity,” Mr. Kilgore notes.
Sarah Posner, associate editor of Religious Dispatches, agrees and argues that the religious right in particular has been making an effort at racial outreach: “There has been a very concerted recruitment effort by the religious right. That’s been going on for a while — people like Rod Parsley were seen as useful in 2004 because, while he is white, he has a big African-American following; Dobson handpicked a few people that he campaigned with in 2004 for gay marriage bans; and the Family Research Council has been incubating the Network of Politically Active Christians for several years now.”
Fielding minority candidates is a matter of survival. Since the adoption of the “Southern Strategy” in the 1960s, Republicans have had a hard time winning votes from non-whites. In 2008, Mr. Obama won 95 per cent of the black vote, 67 per cent of the Hispanic vote, and 62 per cent of the Asian vote. Every single Republican senator is white, as are the overwhelming majority of Republican elected officials in Congress and the states. In an increasingly diverse nation, this could mean a bleak future.
But is it enough to run minority candidates if they have policies that most non-whites would disagree with? “At the risk of being cynical, much of the racial gesturing and symbolism that we see from the Republicans … is designed as much to appeal to moderate white voters as it is to non-white voters,” argues Thomas F. Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “Though it is of course easier to identify and recruit the occasional non-white candidates for office here and there, the way to get minority votes is to support policies that racial minorities want.”
Rutgers University historian David Greenberg agrees: “If the GOP fields some minority or female candidates, it may or may not win over voters who are themselves minorities, or women; but … it might very well help dispel bad associations the party has among independent or swing voters, as a bastion of backward-looking, self-satisfied white men.”
Still, Reihan Salam, a writer for the conservative National Review and the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, disputes the impression of tokenism. He argues it is a grassroots phenomenon: South Asians who have immigrated to small towns and rural areas in the American South, for example, are likely to share the conservative values of their neighbours.
The stormy rise of Nikki Haley illustrates the dangers here. She was born Nimrata Randhawa, the daughter of Sikh immigrants, and grew up in South Carolina. When she married her husband Michael Haley, they had both a Sikh and a Methodist ceremony. After her marriage, Nikki Haley attended services at both a Methodist church and a Sikh temple. This sort of syncretic, mix-and-match religiosity is common to cross-cultural marriages but hard to explain in political terms, so Ms. Haley has had to emphasize the sincerity of her Christian conversion. “Nikki is a proud Christian woman,” one of her spokesmen helpfully told the world.
Despite this, she’s been the target of racial and religious bigotry during her campaign.
“We’ve already got a raghead in the White House. We don’t need another raghead in the governor’s mansion,” said Jake Knotts, a South Carolina lawmaker, who later claimed his remarks were meant as a joke.
Yet Ms. Haley also displayed a great deal of political moxie and charisma in the campaign. “I think part of this goes well beyond affirmative action,” notes Mark Schmitt, executive editor of The American Prospect, a liberal journal. “A lot of these candidates are really good spokespeople for the Republican/libertarian worldview, because they have that self-made person’s belief that if they can make it, anyone can. … giving them a totally different way of talking about the world than, say, the grumbly Joe the Plumber.”
Few stories better exemplify the American dream better than the saga of the immigrant who rises from rags to riches. But the life of Nikki Haley shows that there is a downside to any triumphalist narrative of immigrant success. Some immigrants, intoxicated by the quickness of their rise, embrace a form of radical individualism. Gatsby-like, they re-invent themselves and deny the communal and social obligations that are an essential part of a decent human life. The self-made man and the self-made woman can be full of scorn for those who don’t make it, and this is perhaps the deepest source for the Republican party’s new-found multi-racialism.
If Ms. Haley wins the race for governor, as expected, the United States will have two Indian-American governors. The other is Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who was born Hindu and converted to Catholicism. Mr. Salam notes that politicians who have mixed ethnic identities are often forced to “cohere” behind one – as Mr. Obama has done with blackness. Still, it seems unlikely a Republican Sikh, Hindu or Muslim will run successfully for a major office any time soon. While the Republicans may be becoming multiracial, the leaders of the party are still mono-cultural.