Republican Multiculturalism, The Director’s Cut

Nikki Haley, the new face of the Republican party.

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.

4 thoughts on “Republican Multiculturalism, The Director’s Cut

  1. This article is alright, but, without wanting to be needlessly critical, I would still make some criticisms of it, which are partly related to my thoughts about the recent Weigel affair. I would say that a piece like this exemplifies some of the shortcomings of having someone cover a culture/movement/whatever who is not part of it. Basically, you get a polite mix of condescension, looking for the dark side of the story, highlighting loaded terms/anecdotes which are meant to remind the (presumptive) like-minded reader “these are still really bad people, and we are now, always have been, and will continue to be, the virtuous ones”, etc. I’m not being as hard on it as it might sound: there is a lot to criticize in the subjects being covered, and so it’s legitimate to air some of that. But there’s a kind of irony, I guess, in that this is an attempt to show how Republicans deal with a foreign culture, but it’s actually also itself an exercise in something similar: that is, elite Eastern liberal types dealing with what they consider to be the most foreign and dangerous of all cultures (the U.S. south). And so one gets a mix of curiosity and suspicion, insinuation and interest that one finds in the story being covered. I’m not saying that this is all bad or unjustified. It just makes for a striking read, and makes one wonder who is best to cover a given culture/movement (given that “insiders”, let alone active sympathizers, will carry a great deal of baggage of their own). Again, I’m not trying to be too hard on the article, which has several strong points, but it is interesting to see how it bobs and weaves to give things a certain spin or emphasis. Take this passage for instance (supplied by a professor in the article, and quoted approvingly):

    “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,”

    Isn’t this self-evident though, in a value-neutral sense? When the largest part of the population remains white, naturally “racial gesturing and symbolism” will be “designed *as much* to appeal to moderate white voters as… to non-white voters”. So a bit of line like this just comes down to moralistic finger-wagging about the moral superiority of liberal elites rather than giving us any insightful political analysis: yes, it says to the Globe and Mail’s like-minded readers, your sense of self may be shaken by the prospect of those dirty Southern conservatives being represented by some non-whites, but don’t worry – all of the moral credit continues to belong to you, as it always has and always will, as reflected in a strange statement like this:

    “So the real story may be that Strom Thurmond’s spiritual son defeated his biological one.”

    Now what is this supposed to mean? In what sense is Scott Thurmond’s “spiritual son”? Well, earlier in the same piece the author tells us that Thurmond was a “fabled segregationist”, and frames the introduction to the article around this “irony”. But is Scott a segregationist of any sort? Obviously not. So then how, again, is he Thurmond’s “spiritual son”. Because he’s extremely right-wing, presumably. Alright: but the content of “extremely right-wing” varies over time and place – for better and for worse – as shown by the very fact of Scott’s existence. In other words it makes little sense to speak of him as a “spiritual son” of Thurmond, especially not in a context where Thurmond has just been defined primarily as a “fabled segregationist”. The point of this line, then, is to provide a kind of careless association between conservatism-as-such and segregation, across time, space, and persons. In other words, it tells the Globe and Mail reader: look, this article is going to tell you some things about those nasty foreigners (i.e., Southern conservatives) that you aren’t going to like (i.e., that they don’t hate nasty foreigners as you much as you’d like to think they do for the sake of your moral superiority) – but don’t worry about that because, as I shall insinuate to you right from the outset, I know as well as you do what all these people are (segregationists). Of course, if it was really that simple, socio-political change would have never happened in the first place. But these kinds of simplifications are, I think, partly the product of having outsiders comment not so much for the purpose of understanding a given foreign culture, as using it to buttress their sense of their own.

    But, overall, a decent article!

  2. Some more comments on various gems from this article. Start with the opener:

    “Historical memory might be on the wane elsewhere, but it is very much alive in South Carolina, whose expansive cotton fields and stately plantations memorialize the paradox of a genteel civilization built on slavery and segregation.”

    That’s right: a “civilization” built on nothing more than “slavery and segregation”. That’s all there is to it, folks. Thus, even when the author is forced to discuss the election of a black Republican, he can intimate that this too is nothing more than the spiritual progeny of segregation, and since there’s nothing more to this “civilization” than segregation, “conservatism” as such might as well be considered “segregation” (see my previous comment for how Heer conveys this message). But how, one might wonder, is “slavery and segregation” “alive” in S.C. in ways that “history” isn’t anywhere else? Can one imagine Heer opening a column on some Islamic country in such a deliberately derisive manner, for instance? No, because here he is dealing with the real foreigners – to the mind of his audience, that is.

    “Few politicians better symbolize the hypocrisy and rigidness of the Old South than Strom Thurmond.”

    This sounds compromising – the “Old South”, so, presumably not the contemporary South. But as the Toronto liberal paragon of righteousness giveth, so he shall taketh away, since a few short sentences latter we learn that Thurmond’s “spiritual son” has just been elected in the South. Never mind the absurdity and vague calumny involved in characterizing him as such (see my previous comment on this): the main point here is that “hypocrisy and rigidness” characterize Heer’s subjects, along with, of course, “segregation” (not to mention “slavery”).

    “But is it enough to run minority candidates if they have policies that most non-whites would disagree with?”

    Begging the question. The author evades the possibility that non-whites could agree with some conservative policies – for better or for worse – because that possibility would be disturbing to his reader’s sense of themselves (as spiritual allies of the poor and oppressed against evil Southern whites). But then the author has just quoted an anti-gay marriage black politician – surely he knows that blacks (and racial minorities in general) are more likely to oppose gay marriage than the guilty rich white liberals that he’s writing for. Instead of considering this possibility, the article moves on to a rather pointless observation from an academic (read: guilty rich white liberal) (see my previous comment for an analysis of this guy).

    “Yet she was still the target of racial and religious bigotry during her campaign.”

    The author pulls up one quote, so far as I know the only quote, to demonstrate this point. Not to say that the phenomenon doesn’t actually exist. But the reason it’s given such disproportionate weight in the article is that the author is less concerned with telling his readers about how and why racial minorities have actually become successful in Southern politics, and more concerned with telling that Southerners are the same evil things they always have been and will be: “segregationists”, etc. To put this another way: if some random, isolated example of bigotry didn’t exist, Heer would still have to invent it, in order to protect his reader’s sense of cultural superiority. And he couldn’t do that, he wouldn’t tell the story or it wouldn’t get published, because he and his audience would be too disturbed by the prospect of losing the evil Other against which their own righteousness is defined.

    Ok, but doesn’t the author have to admit something positive in the whole phenomenon he’s covering. Well, he doesn’t, no. But he can quote someone else doing so, namely a magazine editor. But never fear. That editor’s remarks won’t go unchallenged by our fearless traveler to barbarian lands, as the author immediately interjects:

    “But Ms. Haley’s life shows that there is a downside to any triumphalist narrative of immigrant success”

    With this line you can hear The Globe and Mail reader breathing a sigh of deep relief: after all the author began the piece by promising her that this was just going to be a story about how nasty foreign segregationists are still nothing but nasty foreign segregationists. So the last thing she wants to hear now is about how her spiritual sisters of a darker shade are something less than enslaved in the barbarian lands to which her fearless reporter has journeyed. And he does not disappoint her:

    “Having reinvented themselves, Gatsby- like, some immigrants embrace a radical individualism that denies the communal and social obligations that are an essential part of human life. [Ed. note: this is obviously question-begging, i.e., the conservative would often claim to champion precisely such obligations, but in forms which the liberal would reject, i.e., in terms of family or criminal justice. But since the author is writing for people whose worldview is set and narrow enough as to necessarily go unchallenged, such nuances can hardly be dwelt on.] The self-made man or woman can be full of scorn for those who don’t make it.”

    Right. So those mean old conservatives (read: segregationists) are nothing more than – well, mean. They used to be mean old segregationists. And now they sort of still are segregationists (or their “spiritual sons” in the form of black politicians, somehow), but even if not really (because come on, that’s not very credible), well, they’re just MEAN.

    One has to wonder just how much of a purpose this sort of journalism serves. I think it has positive elements (which I haven’t taken the time to highlight). But when one’s main goal is to buttress the reader’s sense of moral superiority by assuring him that somewhere out there are some nasty foreign types who are nothing but segregationists or, at any rate, just really, really mean people, one isn’t, I think, doing much more than, well, acting as a cheerleader for the reader’s pre-determined self-understanding and worldview. I think that journalism is increasingly going down this path. Yes, it’s more obvious in other venues. But the fact that this is what we find in somewhat high-minded pieces in such traditional publications as The Globe and Mail tells us that it’s really characteristic of the whole profession at this point. Maybe it always was. I don’t know (I wasn’t alive to see).

  3. Looking at the comments on the article posted the Globe and Mail’s website casts an interesting light on some of the points I make above. So here are some supplementary remarks:

    – One comment suggests merely that the subjects of the article should just simply be classified as Nazis (because apparently characterizing them as segregationists and slave-owners wasn’t enough).

    – One comment reads: “it’s a bit like that Dave Chappelle sketch of the the blind racist who did not realize, and had never been told, that he was black.”. But of course the people in question are not actually blind. But maybe they’re just stupid. In other words, although they are dearly in need of a liberal’s loving care and sympathy, in order to benefit from it, they first need a liberal to tell them how to think and what to do.

    – The presumptive stupidity of the poor minorities in question is made more explicit by the next commenter, who asks: “Don’t all of these minorities realize that the majority of the Republican party hates them?”. Again, these people who are in such obvious need liberal assistance first need liberals to tell them what to think and do in order to benefit from it (this posture obviously mirrors the sort of paternalism which a previous Heer post associated with those mean old conservatives – never stopping to consider liberal manifestations of that tendency because, hey, the point is just to bash conservatives to make Globe and Mail readers feel good about themselves).

    – The final comment highlights one of the same Heer gems that I did, quoting this line: “The self-made man or woman can be full of scorn for those who don’t make it.” To this the commenter adds simply: “Well said”. Yes, and there’s no scorn at all there: the problem with the people we don’t like is that they’re MEAN; just mean. They’re mean. They’re “scornful”. Mean people. I just hate people who are “scornful”. It’s so MEAN. Sort of like when they’re segregationists. Or something. Or just MEAN. Scornful. *tsk tsk tsk* scornful old meanies. That’s their problem. They’re mean. I said that’s THEIR problem. They’re scornful. Mean. Well said. You sure showed how scornful they are. Mean. Scornful. THEM. So scornful.

  4. And for anyone who doesn’t want to read through all of my long comments (longer than article itself, probably), I would just say: try to make sense of the author’s “spiritual son” line. He seems to be saying either that: (a) Scott is Thurmond’s “spiritual son” because he’s a segregationist – which is plainly nonsensical or that (b) Scott is Thurmond’s “spiritual son” because there’s no measurable difference between the policies associated with Thurmond (which the author has just gone out of his way to prominently and repeatedly and virtually exclusively identify with segregation) and those associated with Scott: in other words, the real problem with segregation, according to the author, has nothing to do with denying public services to blacks, say, or preventing them from voting, but rather with voting the wrong way

    In other words, the author’s “segregation” has nothing to do with actual segregation and everything to do with encouraging a kind of vague, lazy sense of moral righteousness (or what the article might call “triumphalism”) by reinforcing the prejudices of its readers, made possible by the fact that the author is writing about how a nasty foreign culture deals with foreign cultures, apparently. In order to pull of this trick of moral grandstanding, however, the author is compelled to trivialize terms like “segregation”, emptying them of specifics, and thus negating their true and original moral content, in order to puff up the empty, easy, narrow righteousness of Globe and Mail readers. All at the expense of some foreign culture (in the same of “foreign cultures”).

    Nice. Real nice.

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