Remember the Whigs

The Republicans are in the wilderness right now.

There are two seminal events of the last 50 years that shaped the party as it exists today. The first was the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson. Folklore has it that Johnson put down his pen and remarked to an aide “We have lost the South for a generation.” The racism that pervaded that culture then and lingers today was no longer the property of the Democrats. Those who turned away from the Southern Democrats not just moved to the Republican party, they became an influential constituency.

That influence shows in the policy positions of the conservative Republicans when it comes to immigration policy. That influence shows in the comments by Newt Gingrich on May 2009 that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was racist. That influence shows in the writing of Mark Krikorian, author for the conservative publication “The National Review”[1], that stated that Sotomayor was pronouncing her name wrong. To quote: “Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English … and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.” He ends the article with “And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.”

In recently released tapes, Richard Nixon comments on the Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade[2]. His comment was “There are times when an abortion is necessary. I know that. When you have a black and a white, or a rape.”

The second event that shaped the Republican Party was Ronald Reagan’s embrace of evangelical Christians in his bid for the White House in 1980. Ronald Reagan was not particularly evangelical in his own beliefs, but he realized the electoral power of reaching out to those who wanted to interject their theological ideas into the political process. Evangelicals had been energized behind the anti-abortion debate and became politically active in an attempt to change the laws surrounding a women’s right to choose.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, John McCain specifically called out Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance”. Unfortunately, in the 2008 campaign, he tacitly acknowledged the political power of those who are indeed intolerant of those different from themselves by embracing them.

The demographics of America have changed in these two areas in the last quarter century. There is an increasing percentage of non-white people in America. Trending data suggests that less than half of American will be white within the next few years. Based on my personal experience with my kids and their friends, it seems that young people tend to view skin color as a quantitative attribute, not a qualitative one.

In a Washington Post article published March 9, 2009 [3], fewer Americans are calling themselves Christian and people are increasingly non-specific about their religious beliefs. This makes it less likely that people will be willing to accept the dogma of any particular religion and more likely that they will customize their spiritual beliefs to be consistent with their personal beliefs and cultural norms.

While I would not characterize the majority of Republicans I know this way, I think those who determine the core planks in the Republican platform have made it the party of Bible-Thumpers and Bigots.

The Republicans have a choice. They can become a more tolerant and inclusive party or they can hold true to the “Bible Thumpers and Bigots” platform. Perhaps more Republicans should take a look at the history of the Whig Party in America to get a glimpse into what could happen.






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