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Steele, the GOP and Confronting the Southern Strategy

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Michael Steele had a lot to overcome. One of his opponents, the sitting GOP Chair from South Carolina, had just resigned from an all white country club and admitted that he became a Republican in reaction to his personal experience with desegregation. Another opponent, Chip Saltsman, sent out a wildly racist CD to RNC members which included the now infamous Magic Negro and Star Spanglish Banner songs. Saltsman was so battered by his out-of-touch comments that he withdrew from the race before the balloting began. But Katon Dawson, the SC Chair, went all the way to the final ballot before losing to Steele.

What a stark choice this was for the Republicans: an avowed disciple of the Southern Strategy era of racial politics vs. an African-American candidate from that awfully liberal pretty far north state of Maryland. That Steele won, defeating Saltsman and Dawson, is a hopeful sign that the GOP has begun to confront its shameful exploitation of race as a national political strategy over the past 44 years. But the road back to power for the party Mr. Steele has chosen to lead is a hard one. As I recently wrote:

Their recent success as a national party was built on an approach towards race that spoke to a different racial reality in America, an American one where could get away with magic negro songs, and much much worse of course. But that America - a white/black, majority/minority America - is now an historic relic, and is in the process of being replaced by an America that has 3 times as many minorities as it did just 44 years ago, and is on track to be majority minority by 2042 (for more on this historic demographic transformation see here). But for many in the GOP, including ones who might become their Chairman, they know no other politics than this Southern Strategy era politics, a politics that has been rejected once and for all by the American people of today's America.

It is important that the leaders of the GOP have begun to confront its shameful racial past. But their problem has no simple or easy fix. It will require a complete refashioning of their politics around a very different set of 21st century demographics and a much more tolerant understanding of race in America - and a complete and utter repudiation of much of their domestic agenda for the past half century. Which is major reason why I think their road back is such a long one - many of their leaders came to power by becoming expert in this kind of politics; it is the core play in their playbook; it is the foundation of their domestic agenda; and they know little else. Their old Southern Strategy dogs aren't going to learn new tricks - for the GOP they will have to slowly, over time, replace their anachronistic leaders with ones schooled in the modern governing challenges, modern media and technology and modern demography of our day. The process of watching this generational replacement take place will be one of the most interesting political stories of the next 10-20 years, and of course has become all the more necessary in the age of Obama.

Recall that one of Mr. Steele's predecessors as RNC Chairman, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, resigned in 2007 after less than a year on the job because of the lingering intolerance of the party of Saltsman, Tancredo, Limbaugh and Dawson. So these tensions in the GOP - and the nation - will continue to play out for some time as old attitudes and people give way to new racial attitudes and a new America.

Just yesterday, Mr. Steele showed how hard this adjustment would be for the GOP. As Huffington Post's Sam Stein reported, Steele was asked on Fox News whether the GOP's position on immigration had alienated the Latino vote for a generation. His answer? No, of course. Hispanics really agree with our position calling for continued exploitation and demonization of Hispanics, but we just didn't message it very well. Score one for the nativists.

So, all in all, Mr. Steele's election is a hopeful sign for the GOP and the nation. His party not only chose a new path in electing him their new chair, they rejected candidates who would have sent a very bad signal about the values of the GOP in this new age of Obama. But as we saw with the irresponsible House stimulus vote last week, old ways die hard, and the choice of Steele alone does not a new party make.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.