A Segregated Selfie

Am I the only person who thinks House Speaker Paul Ryan’s whites-only intern photo was just slightly more disturbing than Iowa imbecile Steve King’s statement supporting supremacy?

I expect boorish, bigoted behavior from Rep. King, who once infamously declared that undocumented immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes” as a result of their alleged devotion to drug-smuggling. However, I had slightly higher standards for Speaker Ryan, a former aide-de-camp to the late Rep. Jack Kemp, who tried in vain to bring diversity back to the “Party of Lincoln”–and who would have considered Ryan’s monochromatic meeting beyond the pale.

If Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump loses in a landslide on November 8, will the GOP finally do something about its diversity deficit? The Southern Strategy was always morally repugnant, but it was sadly successful, as least for a few decades. It’s interesting to note that in a 1970 profile of Kevin Phillips–the man who was the primary proponent of the GOP’s politics of prejudice–the New York Times recognized that the Southern Strategy could only work for a limited time:

The two bulwarks of the old [Democratic] coalition, working-class Catholics and the descendants of the Confederacy, began to defect from the Democratic Party because of its identification with [African-American and Latino voters]. These defectors have not yet lodged permanently in the suspect G.O.P. Many of them are in way stations–the Conservative party of New York, the [George] Wallace movement. But they have left the Democrats and Phillips feels they have no place to go in the end but the Republican party. Hence, the emerging Republican majority that will dominate American politics until the year 2004…

Sterilized and scientific as are the terms by which Kevin Phillips plots the emerging Republican majority, its common denominator is hostility to blacks and browns among slipping [white] Democrats and abandonment of the Democratic party because of its identification with [voters who are] minorities.

No wonder George W. Bush laments the prospect of becoming the last Republican president: the 2004 election was perhaps the last time a Republican could emerge victorious in a presidential election by appealing almost exclusively to white voters. A Trump loss could finally force the GOP to move beyond the politics of racial resentment.

Of course, the question is just how quickly the GOP will move from the barefaced bigotry and terrible tokenism that has defined the party for five decades. Deradicalizing the GOP and making the party truly tolerant when it comes to communities of color will take time and patience; perhaps it will take an entire generation before the GOP has reformed enough to effectively compete for significant numbers of African-American, Latino and Asian votes.

(Perhaps the party’s problems won’t be fixed in earnest until the larger problem of big money in politics is remedied. In theory, Republicans who had the freedom to take centrist or somewhat progressive positions might have a shot at attracting nonwhite voters repulsed by far-right policies; however, that theory can never be tested so long as the Citizens United ruling still controls our political system, preventing Republican candidates from demonstrating the sort of ideological diversity that might allow those candidates to attract voters from a diversity of backgrounds in a general election. The separation of billionaire and state could do a lot to change our politics in this regard.)

One wonders if the interns in Ryan’s instantly infamous image feel any sort of embarrassment about the lack of diversity in the GOP. Those interns must know that this country is getting more and more diverse by the day, and that a party that fails to “look like America” will be a party that effectively no longer exists in America. Those interns must know that segregation has to go.

Years ago, former Republican National Committee chairmen Ken Mehlman and Michael Steele apologized for the Southern Strategy.  When will Paul Ryan apologize for forgetting the lessons Jack Kemp tried to teach him about the importance of inclusion?

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.