There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.
As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.
In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.
States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?
A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.
While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.
It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.
Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.
Over the past year, the Tea Party movement has grown to the point where it can get a great deal of press attention and exposure. While that may be a good thing for the Tea Party, it is proving to be not necessarily so for the Republican party, which has jumped onto the Tea Party bandwagon.
Some Republicans may have become affiliated with the Tea Party movement in the hope of aligning themselves with an invigorated and energetic grassroots conservative movement. Instead, Republicans are now finding themselves in alignment with a movement in which some members feel that it is OK to shout out racist and homophobic insults (including the N-word) and spit at Congressmen as happened this weekend when the Tea Party protested against healthcare reform on Capitol Hill.
Despite the weekend’s shocking behaviour – one Congressman and civil rights leader, John Lewis, said he had not experienced such attackssince the 1960s – Republicans, particularly GOP chairman Michael Steele, spent the weekend defending and rationalising those Tea Party goers’ actions. This is dangerous ground for the Republican party.
There are some benefits of getting involved in a movement that is not clearly defined. The Tea Party was originally framed in the media as an umbrella movement for a bunch of disgruntled Conservatives, whatever their discontent may be. On that level, the Tea Party presented an opportunity for Republicans to gain some leverage.
The flip side is that a movement with no specific cause attracts all sorts of people with all sorts of agendas, which can put the GOP in a tricky position, and potentially turn important voters against them. The idea of what a “conservative” or “Republican” is continues to be shaped and distorted by a minority of people on the fringes who get the most attention. This does nothing to attract new supporters or independents and it may indeed turn off existing, more moderate Republican supporters. This is not a good strategy for the 2010 elections – unless that is, the GOP is looking to portray itself as a very rightwing, almost extremist party.
The obstructionist attitude may have worked while healthcare reform was still going through Congress, but with its passing, it is likely that public sentiment may continue to warm in the president’s direction. The fringe elements of the Tea Party will only start to look more and more repulsive which would only harm the Republicans, making them look even more narrow and one-dimensional.
“Appealing to the base” seems to be a key concern of Republicans, but if the base is the type of people who were at the rally this weekend and Republicans do not denounce that type of behaviour, the Tea Party may start to be of more harm to the Republicans than good. Yet, this all leads back to the question that was raised after Barack Obama’s election, which is what the GOP actually stands for. Right now, it looks like the Tea Party is getting to say who the Republicans are. And that’s a type of tea that many people might not want to drink come election time.