The GOP’s political incompetence in Selma

I share Mark’s admiration for the president’s speech for the ages in Selma. It was written for the history books commemorating what happened fifty years ago, and for the history books yet to be written about President Obama himself. We will soon miss his eloquence, not to mention his no-drama integrity.

The contrast yesterday in Selma between the president’s largeness of spirit and Republicans’ small response was fairly astonishing. Two presidents Bush attended, to their credit. Some senior Republican lawmakers scrambled to attend once their pending absence became embarrassing news. But where was John Boehner? Where was Mitch McConnell? Where was Paul Ryan? Where were the main Republican 2016 presidential candidates? Where was Mitt Romney, whose father did so much to advance civil rights?

This was horrid optics bordering on the politically incompetent. A party trying to reassure moderates that it’s more than a party of cranky old conservative white people might have used this occasion to mark its own civil rights heroes who helped pass landmark civil rights legislation. The Republican Party of 1960 actively competed for black votes. Its civil rights wing included liberals who would later become Democrats. This wing also included more traditional conservatives on other matters.

That was a long time ago. There is now the tawdry effort to reverse-engineer and hinder the Obama ’08 campaign’s success in turning out African-American and Latino voters. In battleground states where the GOP controls the statehouse, Republicans seem conspicuously more interested in hindering early minority voting practices than in actively engaging minority communities. Ninety percent of poor adults being denied ACA’s Medicaid benefits live in Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and a few other southern states.

Republicans’ awkward handling of an event sacred to African-Americans sent an unavoidable message: These are not our people. It strains credulity to imagine Republicans would have offered up same bumbling and belated response if African-American voters were key constituents in Republican primaries or in Republican fundraising. More Republican candidates participated in Sheldon Adelson’s various personal primaries than chose to make their appearance yesterday in Selma.

Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and others damaged the soul of the Republican Party to court race-conservative whites.  There’s no denying that the southern strategy and its successors helped win big elections. Such discomfort with a widening circle of “others” still works for many in the congressional GOP, especially in non-presidential years. On a national level, it is increasingly out of step with a changing society.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

3 thoughts on “The GOP’s political incompetence in Selma”

  1. "A party trying to reassure moderates that it’s more than a party of cranky old conservative white people …" The cranky ideology and the dead-end demographics reinforce each other. The base has money, donates, and shows up at meetings and elections. But how on earth can you reproduce this complex in the next generation?

    The reverse outreach, which used to be known as pulling up the drawbridge, to women, young people, gays, blacks, Hispanics, environmentalists, big city dwellers …. just makes the opposing rainbow coalition easier and easier over time. HRC can probably get elected without any more platform or GOTV message than inclusion.

    There’s a desperation about the GOP attempts to rig elections by “voter fraud” laws and buy them with PACs; one of these days – not 2016 – the Democrats may field a genuine radical reformer like LBJ, and the gig will be up.

  2. And where were Bill and Hillary Clinton? If the 2016 GOP candidates were wrong for not showing up, why not mention the absence of the 2016 Democratic Party front-runner? Jimmy Carter and the two George Bushes were there, so the only living ex-president not to make it there was a Democrat.

    You mention the liberal Republicans who supported the civil rights struggle. Back in those days, being a liberal was synonyomous with supporting the civil rights movement. There were other issues, but that was the big one: if you supported the civil rights movement, you were a liberal; if you didn't, you weren't.

    By that standard, almost everybody is a liberal. Mitt Romney is a liberal. George W. Bush is a liberal. Maybe not Rand Paul. Jim Crow is dead, and nobody wants to bring him back. Nobody questions whether blacks should be able to vote, most people would be offended if some greasy spoon wanted to deny service to persons with the wrong skin color. Not that it's the only metric to use, but George W. Bush appointed more black cabinet secretaries than any other president except Bill Clinton.

    Of course, today the term liberal is used differently.

    Republicans are enacting voter-ID laws, ostensibly for the purpose of reducing fraud, but probably also for the purpose of making it require more effort to vote, which would work to their advantage. I don't know if this is smart politics or not. Democrats have put forward policies (Clinton's motor-voter law, for example) to make it easier to vote, also offering a high-minded-sounding rationale. Suggesting that voter-ID laws have anything to do with what was going on in the Jim Crow South is demagoguery.

    Republicans get the majority of votes from White Christians, and Democrats win most other groups, but blacks (when they actually make it to the polls) are the biggest supporters of the Democrats by far. Often, Republicans choose to write off the black vote.

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