The 2008 election season was a victory for African Americans on many levels. President Obama and his family project both pride in their background and a fundamental American-ness that show people in and outside the U.S. how complex and progressive our notions of identity can be. Obama’s accomplishment means that in spite of economic disparities, the black experience in America spans every class, profession, and level of power. The fact that Americans as a group could choose the right person for the job, without worrying about race, shows that though the battle is not over, the mindsets of white Americans have changed in a significant way.
One chapter of the story, however, stands out in the saga of the 2008 elections, namely, the humbling of the Republican Party. This was a great step for African Americans as well as other minorities because the electorate rejected an organization which increasingly looked like the party of intolerance, pushing the Republican establishment into a long-overdue identity crisis.
In an election cycle that persisted for a historic two years, the American people had a chance to hear more from the Republican Party than was good for the GOP. In the primaries, the Republicans had their first warning sign. Every Republican except for John McCain participated in a competition for the title of “most nativist.” The usually soft-spoken Mike Huckabee aired a television ad proclaiming that Chuck Norris would be his “plan to secure the border.” In a grueling debate, Rudy Giuliani accused Mitt Romney of having a “sanctuary mansion” and Romney responded that Giuliani had run a “sanctuary city.” Americans, however, recognized that America’s problems could not be pinned on immigrants. They were turned off by the coded hate speech. Registered Republicans enthusiastically chose John McCain, the immigration moderate.
As Obama gained popularity, the McCain campaign drove itself into a corner by playing to intolerance. Sarah Palin was presented at the RNC as the solution to all the party’s problems. She was—that is, for a few weeks. Then voters stopped focusing on the fact that she was a woman and noticed that she was part of the theocratic wing of the Republican Party, interested in shoving creationism down the throats of public school children and treating women who don’t follow a Christian interpretation of reproductive rights like murderers. Pro-life candidates often alienate women as a voting bloc. Christian fundamentalists also alienate non-Christians, no matter how much they simper about their love for Israel. Before long, Palin became a weight on the campaign.
The most disturbing side of the McCain campaign was the attempt to “run on narrative”. The campaign drew attention away from political issues. What was important was that McCain was an all-American war hero and Obama was The Other—or in McCain’s words, “that one”. The ads asking voters, “Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama?” invited our minds to run wild with ideas about Obama’s un-American loyalties. Soon we all saw the McCain-Palin rallies on TV, where audience members shouted “kill him” and “terrorist”. It is hardly a surprise that the American people as a whole had had enough.
Republicans agonized over their losses: a governor, eight senate seats, twenty-one house seats, the presidency, and electoral control of nine states. According to a now infamous January Gallup poll, the Republican Party had only retained solid control in Alaska and Mormon country, where there has never been concern over the separation of church and state. The similarly infamous New York Times election results map showed that the only areas where McCain did better than Bush did four years ago were his home state of Arizona and the so-called “bigot belt,” stretching from northern Texas through Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and part of West Virginia. Had the GOP become a regional party?
Voters were responding to something fundamentally distasteful about the Republican Party, which was brought into view by McCain’s ads, Palin’s rhetoric, and the xenophobic conspiracy-theorists they attracted. The Republican Party is run by conservatives. Conservatives wish to conserve—they look to the status quo or the past for inspiration, whether they evoke Reagan or the Founding Fathers. On the other hand, liberals generally think the past held good ideas but many despicable actions. By nature, they do best when their rhetoric is future-oriented. Hence hope and change.
Much of the American national past is only appealing to what Bill O’Reilly might call the “white, Christian, male power structure.” For African Americans, the past brings memories of busing crises, segregation, and slavery. For Latinos and Latin Americans, it is the Monroe Doctrine imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt and Reagan. For independent-minded women, it is the oppression of aprons, corsets, and back-alley abortions. LGBT Americans remember sodomy laws in the 1990s and the still-raging conflicts over the legitimacy of their relationships.
From the introduction of the Southern Strategy in 1968—Nixon’s plan of picking up the South by appealing to segregationists—the Republican Party’s subtext has been racially charged. They attack affirmative action as well as welfare and healthcare programs that bring dignity to people in underprivileged communities who, because of lingering disparities, are still very often people of color. The Republicans encourage the gun lobby and gun manufacturers, who stand to profit from violence between young people, again often Latinos and African Americans. They may frame these issues in whatever light they choose, but the Republicans continue to cater to white people on issues that benefit white people—often at the expense of the other thirty percent of Americans.
In a step to move forward, the Republicans have chosen Michael Steele, the former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and an African American, as their new national chairman. This said, Chairman Steele makes regular public statements, giving the orthodox party line. Meanwhile, Republicans have not agreed on whether to drift to the center or stick to their right-wing guns—all they can agree on is that they do not like the bailout, and would rather solve the economic crisis with tax cuts. A Herbert Hoover-oriented approach to recession and choosing Michael Steele will not be enough to save the Republican Party and make them a party for all Americans. They need to stop looking at the past and start looking at the future. And that will be a fundamental change.