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The Party Of Lincoln Needs To Look In The Mirror

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Michael Stafford
Michael Stafford
Author Michael Stafford is a 2003 graduate of Duke University School of Law and a former Republican Party officer from Middletown. He works as an attorney in Wilmington. He is the author of the book “An Upward Calling” on the need for public policy and politics to advance the common good.

Earlier this year, a tape of NPR’s head fundraiser, Ron Schiller, making remarks critical of the GOP and the Tea Party surfaced.   In the tape, Schiller referred to the Republican Party as “anti-intellectual” and described the Tea Party as “racist,” “Islamophobic,” and “xenophobic.”  He went on to opine that “Jews” control America’s major newspapers.


Schiller’s bizarre and conspiratorial anti-Semitic remarks are disturbing and offensive.  His remarks about the GOP and the Tea Party, though, warrant further analysis for a simple reason:  they are perceptions widely shared in our society.


Conservatives reacted to Schiller’s comments with anger.  In their eyes, it was just one more example of a liberal establishment standing ever ready to portray Republicans and conservatives as ignorant racists and bigots.


That reaction was a mistake. In truth, Schiller created an opportunity for discussion and critical self-analysis about racism  within the Republican Party. This was an opportunity, not for anger, but for self-examination.


Simply put, it’s time for the Party of Lincoln to take a good look in the mirror.


Although conservatives were quick to dismiss Schiller’s remarks, there is ample evidence available that would lead reasonable people to such conclusions.  One can point to examples such as Sharron Angle’s 2010 anti-immigrant campaign television ads,1 Renee Ellmer’s overtly Islamophobic “Ground Zero” ad,2 Sen. Rand Paul’s remarks about the alleged unconstitutionality of portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the career and associations of Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (the man who sponsored Arizona’s infamous SB 1070), and Kansas State Representative Virgil Peck’s recent suggestion that illegal immigrants should be hunted down and shot like feral swine.3 Indeed, just last week, a Republican State Representative in Massachusetts, Ryan Fattman,  stated that unauthorized immigrant rape victims “should be afraid to come forward” and report the crimes to authorities. 4


And this is just the tip of the iceberg.


According to a February, 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling (“PPP”) done prior to the release of  President Obama’s birth certificate, 51% of likely Republican primary voters believed President Obama was born in a foreign country.  Some 21% were “not sure.”5 The accuracy of this polling data was illustrated by the meteoric rise of Donald Trump as a potential Presidential candidate after he publically embraced and began promoting the birther canards.  Other data suggests that a significant percentage believe the President is secretly a Muslim.6 Even more troublingly, a separate April, 2011 PPP poll found that 46% of Mississippi Republicans believe that interracial marriage should be a crime while a substantial group, 12%, indicated that they are “not sure.”7


Nor is the depth, breadth, and intensity of Tea Party rage explicable without reference to the presence of an African American, with a foreign sounding name, in the White House.


And then there are the e-mails. Nationally, Republican staffers8 and local party officials9 have made headlines forwarding racist e-mails about the President to friends and colleagues.  And lest we forget, there is also the case of Audra Shay, who was elected Chair of the national Young Republicans despite the fact that she had replied “You tell em Eric!  Lol,” to a friend’s Facebook comment that said: “Obama Bin Lauden [sic] is the new terrorist… Muslim is on there side [sic]… need to take this country back from all of these mad coons… and illegals.”10


Most recently, the reaction within Republican circles to an offensive cartoon distributed by a local GOP officer and Tea Party activist, Marilyn Davenport, led a prominent African American leader active in the California GOP to leave the party. 11 The cartoon at issue “depicted President Barack Obama and his parents as chimpanzees, while simultaneously implying that the president is not a legitimate American, but rather an African-born interloper.” 12 Writing in the Sacramento Bee,  Ken Barnes (the leader who left the GOP) notes that “[h]ad this been an isolated event, it could be set aside as a mere aberration. However, when placed in the context of similar offenses by the same self-identified tea party-conservative Republicans, there emerges a disturbing pattern of extreme intolerance.” 13 That “pattern of extreme intolerance” includes the “use long-held racist imagery in portrayals of Obama” such as in depictions of him “as a communist witch doctor, [14] a man inclined to plant watermelons on the White House lawn, [15] and…  on an ‘Obama Bucks Food Stamp’ [16] along with stereotyped pictures of fried chicken, barbecue ribs, Kool-Aid and the obligatory watermelon.” [17] For Barnes, the chimpanzee cartoon was the final straw.


The practical electoral implications of this mindless fear and hate were brought home to me on a trip to Washington, D.C. with representatives of Esperanza, a national faith-based Hispanic organization.  One pastor spoke of a young man in his congregation – a young, conservative, Christian man – who was deeply torn over his choices in the 2008 Presidential election.  In the end, he voted for Obama because, as he said, “I can’t be in a Party that hates me.”  I don’t blame him.


How did the Party of Lincoln come to such a pass?  I think the answer is simple.  For far too long, we have refused to confront, and condemn, the vestiges of political racism that have, over the course of the past 30-40 years, found a new political home within the Republican Party.   I’m speaking here, primarily, of the movement of the segregationist Dixiecrats (and kindred ideological spirits) out of the Democratic Party,  and into the GOP- a movement personified, in some ways, by the late Senator Strom Thurmond.  This alliance has poisoned the very soul of American conservatism by tying it to belief systems that are reprehensible, and indefensible.  It has permitted a dangerous pathology to survive, and today, at a moment of great social stress, despair, and anxiety about the future, to move back towards the political mainstream.  It was, and remains, a fundamental betrayal of the founding ideals of the Republican Party.


And, as a consequence, in a United States growing increasingly diverse, the GOP is devolving into an ethnic/regional party.  Worse, it will be a minority ethnic party incapable of winning national elections. Remember, today Caucasians, the group from which the GOP draws the vast majority of its support, make up less than half – 49.3% – of children under 3 years of age.  According to U.S. census projections, by 2019, Caucasians will make up less than half of Americans aged 18 and under.18


As Harold Meyerson has observed, “[w]hat these numbers mean is simply that the Republicans have an existential problem.  As America becomes increasingly multiracial, the Republicans have elected to become increasingly white.”19


A more diverse, majority-minority America is inevitable – the GOP, and conservatives in general, need to adjust and adapt to this reality if they want to remain relevant over the long-term.  A future GOP that serves as a bastion for angry, resentful and embittered, “white minority politics,” would be an unmitigated disaster for our nation and for the health of our democracy.20

Truth and decency need referents in the world, especially during difficult times. Today, it is essential that Republicans of good will confront the racists and the xenophobic elements in our midst.  As Ken Barnes has correctly observed, “[t]hese are not issues which pit moderate against conservative views, but rather consequential matters which transcend political positioning and speak to universal human values.” 21 In doing so, we are keeping faith with the best traditions of our Party, and preserving an alternate, more welcoming and inclusive vision of political conservatism in America- one in which Conservative is not synonymous with Confederate.



[1] SharronAngle. (Oct. 25, 2010). “The Wave.” YouTube.  Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIkNAA2y4I4&feature=player_embedded


[2] ReneeforCongress. (Sept. 21, 2010). “No Mosque at Ground Zero.” YouTube.  Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QvKOdiyFaw


[3] KCTV 5 News. (Mar. 15, 2011). “Kansas Rep. Suggests Shooting Illegal Immigrants Like Hogs.”


[4]   Monahan, John J. (June 8, 2011). “Immigrant checks urged.” Worcester Telegram & Gazette.


[5] Schlesinger, Robert. (Feb. 16, 2011). “Poll: Birthers Now Make Up a Majority of Republican Primary Voters.”   U.S. News & World Report.


[6]  As reported in Politico, two polls done in August, 2010 showed, respectively, that 46% and 31% of Republicans believed the President is a Muslim.  Gerstein, Josh. (Aug. 19, 2010). “Poll: 46% of GOP thinks Obama’s a Muslim.”  Politico.  Retrieved from: http://www.politico.com/blogs/joshgerstein/0810/Poll_46_of_GOP_thinks_Obamas_Muslim.html


[7] Public Policy Polling. (April 7, 2011). “Barbour, Bryant lead in Mississippi.” Retrieved from:  http://publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com/2011/04/barbour-bryant-lead-in-mississippi.html


[8] Pareene. (Jun. 15, 2009) “Today’s ‘Racist Email From a Republican Staffer.’” Gawker.  Retrieved from: http://gawker.com/#!5291679/todays-racist-email-from-a-republican-staffer


[9] Murphy, Logan. (Oct. 31, 2008). “FL GOP Chair Sends Out Racist E-mail: Beware of the Car Loads of Blacks.” Crooks and Liars.  Retrieved from: http://crooksandliars.com/logan-murphy/fl-gop-chair-sends-out-racist-e-mail-


[10] Rowe, Michael. (July 12, 2009).  “Audra Shay and the New Ice Age of Young Republicans.” Huffington Post.  Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-rowe/the-new-ice-age-of-the-yo_b_230125.html


[11]  Barnes, Ken. (Jun. 12, 2011). “Racist cartoon of Obama forces me to  leave GOP.” The Sacramento Bee.


[12] Id. For an image of the offensive cartoon, see Flaccus, Gillian. (April 19, 2011). “GOP official apologizes for Obama chimp email.” MSNBC. Retrieved from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42656911/ns/politics-more_politics/t/gop-official-apologizes-obama-chimp-email


[13]  Barnes, “Racist cartoon.”


[14] See, Roth, Zachary. (July 23, 2009). “Conservative Activist Forwards Racist Pic Showing Obama As Witch Doctor.” TPMMuckracker.  Retrieved from: http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/07/conservative_activist_forwards_racist_pic_showing.php


[15] Huffington Post. (Feb. 25, 2009). “White House Watermelon Email From California Mayor Dean Grose Inspires Outrage.” Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/25/white-house-watermelon-em_n_169933.html


[16] DeArmond, Michelle. (Oct. 16, 2008). “Inland GOP mailing depicts Obama’s face on food stamp.” The Press Enterprise.   Retrieved from: http://www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/PE_News_Local_S_buck16.3d67d4a.html


[17]  Barnes, “Racist cartoon.”


[18] Tavernise, Sabrina. (April 6, 2011). “Numbers of Children of Whites Falling Fast.” The New York Times.


[19]  Meyerson, Harold. (Mar. 3, 2011). “Republicans fighting demographic change.” The Washington Post.


[20] Indeed, given the fact that the nation will be increasingly divided between an older, predominantly white, population and a younger, far more ethnically and racially diverse one, it may also serve to exacerbate intergeneration conflicts over the division of resources and public policy priorities. Navigating the transition to a “majority minority” future safely, and in a way that serves the common good, is one of the greatest political challenges facing our nation today.  It cries out for forward-looking, responsible, leadership.


[21] Barnes, “Racist cartoon.”





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