The Young Republicans elect a real joker

The new chairwoman seemed to endorse a racist joke. Is this party doomed?

Published July 13, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

Pity the poor Republicans. Every time they think they can start winning some non-white votes from "urban-suburban hip-hop settings," someone has to go and start talking like a white supremacist.

This weekend, the Young Republican National Federation elected as its new chair a woman named Audra Shay. Shay, running at the top of the Team Renewal ticket, had run into trouble after seemingly endorsing a racist statement on her Facebook page. She wrote, "You tell em Eric! lol" on her Facebook wall below a pair of comments by someone named Eric S. Piker who'd said, "[we] need to take this country back from all these mad coons." Shay claimed that although she'd responded to Piker eight minutes after his second comment, she had only seen his first one, which didn't have any racist language.

Though the Daily Beast found other disturbing comments Shay had made online, including a joke about lynching "homosexuals" and Barack Obama in effigy, her excuse was good enough for the Young Republicans. She defeated opponent Rachel Hoff with 470 votes to Hoff's 415.

Salon spoke to Lenny McAllister, author of the forthcoming "Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative)" and an activist of what he calls the "hip-hop Republican" strain, about Shay's election, which he opposed. The GOP, said McAllister, is in the midst of a "culture war." Though there are reasons for optimism and gains for the "hip-hop Republican" side, he argued, such as Michael Steele's election as chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Tea Parties, there is also "a minority that represents the ugly sides of America."

A generation of activists, like Shay, raised on divisive politics, has learned to take the easiest path to victory. But it doesn't lead there anymore, McAllister believes. "You can't grow generations through the Southern Strategy, and teach them that we can still win key elections without engaging the African-American vote, and then expect them to be able to relate to African-American voters, and their everyday issues, challenges and ideals," McAllister told Salon. "So that's why we saw how it bit the Republicans in the behind in the last two federal cycles.

It's easy to side with McAllister over Shay. McAllister wants a diverse party, though he emphasized that Democrats know how to demagogue too. But note that, much like Steele's pursuit of voters in "urban-suburban hip-hop settings," it isn't clear how exactly McAllister thinks holding Tea Parties and emphasizing small government are going to win African-American and Latino voters for Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin in 2012. It's not like he's calling for a different legislative agenda than Shay is -- he just wants the GOP not to sound racist. That's nice, and obviously the right thing to do, but that's supposed to do the job?

The two sides may have deeply different ideals on some matters, but on policy substance, they're much the same. Shay and McAllister, ostensibly opponents on the question of the party's future, are both unwilling to endorse the sort of painful sacrifices that help a party get out of the ditch. Republicans had to admit that the New Deal wasn't going away when they wanted to come back from the Roosevelt era. Democrats had to give up on an expansive welfare state to elect Bill Clinton. The British Labor Party struck out the core clause of its charter, which endorsed nationalized industry, in order to get Tony Blair into office. The Republicans can't seem to come up with better ideas than using Twitter and maybe stopping with the racial epithets. (Or not!) That'd be a start, but only barely.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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