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At What Price Scalise?

Congressman Steve Scalise of Lousiana has recently gotten himself into the news for the wrong reasons.  It has been revealed that in 2002 the then state legislator addressed a racist group known as the European-American Unity and Rights Organization closely associated with former head of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke.  Duke was probably one of the last politicians to gain national prominence running openly and unabashedly as a racist, but his political career consists essentially of one loss after another: quixotic runs for president (both as a Democrat and as a Republican), multiple bids for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and a try for Louisiana governor that culminated in his loss to the notoriously corrupt Edwin Edwards.  His one taste of victory occurred in 1989 when he was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives.  That was it for Duke, yet it was enough to give him a strangely enduring place in American politics that, thanks to Steve Scalise, seems set to continue well into the indefinite future. 

What Scalise said that day over a decade ago was probably not racist or offensive.  Judging by the way the political winds are blowing, Scalise's position in the House is probably secure.  He has the backing of Speaker Boehner, and his friends of all races are largely sticking by him and vouching for his character.  He has apologized for addressing the group and denied sharing its views.  The case against him at this point is purely guilt by association and as with any political scandal the looming question is how perfect voters have the right to expect their politicians to be.  Everyone has skeletons in their closet, the argument goes.  "The spotlight shines so bright that no one would meet muster, and such close scrutiny just dissuades good people from running."  I've heard it all a thousand times, and I'm not entirely unsympathetic to that view.  Still, I find myself wondering sometimes whether our standards as voters aren't too low.  Think about it: at any given point in time, there is one president, one hundred senators, and four hundred and thirty five representatives.  We could similarly break the numbers down for each state, though New Hampshire's four hundred member House of Representatives must probably inevitably include a few clunkers given the state's small population.  My point is there aren't that many people in power at the highest echelon.  Can't we elect the ones who don't address racist organizations, don't accept bribes, and don't cheat on their spouses?  They needn't be perfect, just a little more circumspect, moral (if not moralistic), and self-controlled than the average schlub.

The real pity for the Republican Party is that Steve Scalise's political survival bolsters its naysayers and undermines its own efforts to reach out to minorities.  I've long been struck at how the Republican Party is frequently portrayed as being unabashedly and extremely racist by liberal bloggers.  The more nuanced argument to this effect is that Republican policies hurt minorities and benefit whites even if the average Republican politician or voter isn't necessarily racist.  That, of course, is subject to debate, but it is a serious argument one could quite thoughtfully make.  The less nuanced argument is that Republicans are, in fact, largely racist and deliberately pursue policies to further a particular race agenda.  This one I have a much harder time following.  Racial rhetoric is simply not a regular feature of mainstream American politics today.  There is, for instance, no longer a publicly pro-segregation or anti-integration wing of either party.  The Republican Party remains mainly white, but in recent years many minority Republicans have been elected to high office: Tim Scott, Bobby Jindal, Raul Labrador, and Marco Rubio are a few names that immediately spring to mind.  As far as I can tell, these politicians have largely been embraced by their party; Jindal and Rubio remain in the mix as potential presidential candidates.  Rubio and Rand Paul are among the Republicans who have sought to appeal to minority voters directly, most notably on the issues of immigration reform and drug laws respectively.  Thus, it seems to me that the Democratic Party is vulnerable to a degree because the grassroots rhetoric of some liberal activists about racist Republicans, at least at its most vitriolic and hysterical, often doesn't seem to remotely match reality.  Undoubtedly, there are minority voters whose political views are actually closer to the Republican Party that nonetheless continue to vote for Democratic candidates simply because they feel like they can't trust Republicans.  Those are voters that Republicans could win, but every time something happens like the Steve Scalise debacle it strengthens the perception that open racism remains a norm in the modern Republican Party.  That's the true price that must be paid for Steve Scalise.  Representative Scalise might be a good person and an excellent politician, but he has damaged his party.

In closing, let me play devil's advocate for just a moment.  Could Scalise have possibly framed his speech in a POSITIVE light?  It is an expectation that an elected official will, while holding on to his or her own views, also strive to represent all members of his or her constituency.  Taking that idea to its logical conclusion, we must admit that Scalise has a duty to represent racists in addition to everyone else in his district.  In that context, addressing a racist group might be forgivable, one of many onerous duties a politician might perform.  I can't quite go along with this argument, though.  Unless one were to spend much of one's speech condemning the very group one is addressing, simply speaking in front of a group affords it legitimacy and respect.   It would raise understandable fears that such a politician might secretly share a few, or some, or many, or all those views espoused by the group even if he or she was not willing to openly admit it.  While a politician has a duty to serve his or her racist constituents just as any other constituent should be served, he or she certainly does not have any duty to promote or respect hateful views.  Representative Scalise has done well to distance himself from the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, but he should never have allowed himself to get so close to it to begin with.                   

This post first appeared on Learning Politics, please read the originial post: here

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At What Price Scalise?


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