The Republican Party's future: evolve or die

If the GOP is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to embrace people who actually understand modern America.

While President Obama’s supporters bask in re-election glory, America’s conservatives have been left asking themselves how and why their man managed to lose this election and what they can do to ensure a Republican win in 2016.  

The truth is that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Romney lost. His failure is obvious to anyone who exists outside of the conservative bubble. People voted not just against Romney, but against his party’s values and what the Republican Party has come to stand for, particularly on social issues like race, women's rights, gay marriage and immigration, in recent years. The question now is what the future of the party is.

When, after the 2008 election, the party took a sharp shift to the right and fully embraced the Tea Party as its "base", it embraced ideology over pragmatism, and decided that fanaticism based on nostalgia for a (older, white, male, deeply religious, exclusive) America of yesteryear was better than keeping up with the pace of progress. 

The Tea Party – and other radicals like those in the Birther movement who have spent a great deal of time on petty issues such as demanding President Obama’s birth certificate - was allowed to become synonymous with mainstream conservatism, even though it is really a fringe group made up of a small number of people. This led to the Republican brand falling into an even sadder state than it had been after eight years of George Bush's contentious presidency. 

Unable to accept the shifting social, cultural and demographic realities of modern America, the Republican Party clung to the idea that it could fight the direction in which the country is moving and thought little of alienating key voting blocs such as women and minorities - to its own detriment. 

These past two elections have seen a huge increase in non-white voters and increased support from women, youth and minorities that was enough to swing the vote in President Obama’s favour in 2012 as they did in 2008. Whether or not conservatives like it, these groups hold the key to the future and will only gain in power and number. In other words, they will not be ignored. 

In the post-election analysis, some have started to acknowledge this fact, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich admitting that he and others like Karl Rove were "wrong" about Romney's prospects. "We all thought we understood the historical pattern and the fact that with this level of unemployment, with this level of gasoline pricing what would happen...,” he said.  

On the Huffington Post, a Republican strategist also outlines the level of disconnect that the current party has with the country:

  • We thought young voters would not turn out at the same level as 2008. They did. In fact, they represented 19 per cent of the electorate per exit polls--as high, if not higher, than four years ago.
  • We said that Democrats would not be +6 over Republicans and if they were, Obama would win. Well, they did and he did. Again, exit polls say Democrats were +6. Romney needed the proportion of Republicans and Democrats to be even to win.
  • We thought minority turnout would be lower than 2008. It was not. In several important precincts in key states, minorities voted in numbers equal to - and in some cases better than - four years ago.
  • We thought Romney would win Independents by double digits. He won them, but by just five points.
  • We thought Romney would have a huge gender advantage among men; it was only seven points. Meanwhile, the President won women by 11 points.
  • We thought Romney would dominate on being "better able to handle the economy." He only beat the President on this issue by a few points. Not enough.

This level of flawed thinking is stunning.

If the Republican Party is to move away from being seen as fringe and disconnected, it needs new leadership that will embrace the mainstream, acknowledge the country's changes and face reality head on. It needs people who actually understand modern America - perhaps themselves young, brown, female. But this must go beyond mere tokenism. 

Republicans would do well to denounce the deeply unpopular Tea Party as its base and admonish the racist, misogynist, fanatics that it brings with it. It would benefit from separating itself from people like the sensationalist Donald Trump, Todd "legitimate rape" Akins (who lost his Tea Party seat in Missouri) and people of their ilk, moving away from the extreme right to a more palatable middle ground for those who may be fiscally conservative yet socially moderate or liberal. It should speak to people and ask them what they need and what they’d like to see from the party. 

Those who put millions of dollars into super PACs with very little, if any, return on investment should realize that more than money, the party needs a strong sense of purpose and vision that resonates with a wider range of Americans.

I’m no Republican, but even I have been shocked by the party's lack of understanding about the direction of the country and their arrogance in believing that somehow they can ignore, dismiss, denigrate and insult large swathes of the voting population and still win. The Republican Party of today risks becoming irrelevant in future years if it cannot get with the programme. 

It is time for a new "base", one that accurately reflects the direction in which America is moving. Whether or not such leadership can emerge from the Republican Party, however, remains to be seen.

It is Charles Darwin who said “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” If the Republican Party is to survive, it must listen to Darwin's words. Its current choice is to evolve or die. 

Mitt Romney makes his concession speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Lola Adesioye is a British-born, New York-based political commentator, writer and broadcaster of Nigerian heritage. She tweets @lolaadesioye.

Getty
Show Hide image

Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.