Alex Massie

Michael Steele & Dog Whistles

Text settings

Ta-Nehisi Coates is encouraged by Michael Steele's election as chairman of the RNC:

I have no idea whether Steele will be any good, but I think his selection marks the start of excising the Obama is a M00zlim contingent of the party. I am, perhaps, being too optimistic. But I maintain that you have to begin somewhere....I think Steele has a Sarah Palin problem. Remember the silly math that had Palin giving Obama fits for the votes of women? Ultimately, that line of attack fizzled because, I'd argue, a lot of women found Palin embarrassing--an obvious token who wasn't ready for prime-time. I think Steele is twice the politician that Sarah Palin is. But the question remains--How does he get black folks to look at him as more than a token? And how does he get that magic to extend itself to the broader party?

There's something to this. Equally, it's hard to see how the GOP is really going to attract extra votes from African-Americans in this, the Age of Obama. But we're not talking about the 2010 o2 2012 elections. Rather this is the beginning of a process that, the GOP must hope, will have a long-term pay-off (in addition to simply being the correct and proper thing to do). That's for the future, however. Politically Steele's election is all about white voters, not black ones. It's a signal to educated suburban white voters (especially women) that the GOP wants to be more than than just the country club set. That this may be an innacurate view of the party is not the point; it's the perception that counts.

Steele's election is, then, a symbol that the GOP recognises it has a problem and is beginning to do something about it. There are a lot of white voters out there who don't like the idea of voting for a "white" party in a multi-coloured America. These are the voters in northern Virginia or North Carolina's "Research Triangle" who helped Obama win those states. (In the south-west these wre also the voters most appalled by the nativism that increasingly dominated the GOP's rhetoric on immigration. That rhetoric didn't just cost latino votes, it lost white ones too.)

Secondly, the GOP needs to remember that they were hammered by young voters. Obama won the under-30 bracket 66-32. These are voters who've grown up in a multi-coloured, multi-cultural America and, by and large, they're pretty comfortable with it. That's not to say there aren't issues of race (and class) that remain problematic, but in general most voters under 30 have only known this kind of American. They have rather fewer hang-ups than their parents of grand-parents. They won't vote for a "white" party either.

Steele can't change all this on his own, of course, but as the man said evey journey, even the longest, has to start somewhere with a single step.

For more on some of this see Dave Weigel and Michael Barone today.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePolitics