Thursday, October 15, 2009

Extreme makeover, online edition

Much that’s frustrating, and wrong, about the Republican Party vis-à-vis blacks and minorities is embodied in the newly designed GOP.com Web site, which launched on Tuesday. It’s a visually arresting bid for big-tent outreach, and one that embodies a contradiction: In its design and much of its content, the new GOP.com embraces a diversity and inclusion that’s so far eluded the party itself.

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told The Associated Press that GOP.com “takes advantage of various online tools to connect Republicans and concerned Americans across the country to each other and party leaders, creating a larger, more informed, more organized, and more energized Republican community.”

It’s a given, of course, that in a post-Obama campaign world, such a site pursues a younger demographic: GOP.com, still in beta (development) stage, has the trappings of cultural immediacy, down with YouTube and Twitter, Facebook and Flicker. The site includes several blogs, including one written by Steele (his was launched with the title “What Up?”; someone decided to change the name — to “Change the Game”).

The site boasts a bold, red-dominant color scheme and leaner, more elegant graphics. And the new GOP.com tries to take a fresh direction in the graphic depictions of party identity. In the navigation bar on the site pages, a mosaic of faces greets site visitors, faces that are male, female, brown and black displayed at random — each face positioned in place of the “O” in “GOP.”

Visually, it’s striking and high-impact. And interestingly, the party’s traditional fan base isn’t readily apparent. The Village Voice noted: “We sat here clicking away for a good long time and the white-male-to-other ratio of the navbar imagery was about 1-to-6. It's still in beta, of course; we can't wait to hear about the focus groups.”

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What’s more striking is the site’s sections on “Heroes” and “Accomplishments,” with their examples of selective, and revisionist, history.

In Heroes, a photo spread of Republican party favorites includes Pinckney Pinchback, Louisiana’s (and the nation’s) first black governor; Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave turned orator and presidential adviser; and Jackie Robinson, trailblazer in the major leagues.

But while he did campaign for Richard Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964, Robinson more or less abandoned the Republican Party later in 1964, after the GOP convention in San Francisco. In his autobiography, he observed that “[a] new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP. As I watched this steamroller operation … I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany.”

Robinson ultimately supported Democrat Lyndon Johnson for the presidency in 1964, and Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968. All in all, Robinson is a curious choice for a place in a Web site of and for Republican loyalists.

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In “Accomplishments,” an illustrated timeline recounts Republican political, social and governmental triumphs between 1860 and 2004: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; the 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing equal protection and the right to vote; the charter for establishment of Howard University; and the first black, Hispanic and Asian American senators in the nation’s history.

But the GOP’s role in other more recent historical events are massaged or omitted. The timeline says that in 1940, the RNC approved a campaign position calling for racial integration of the armed forces. “Not until 1948 did President Truman finally comply with the Republicans' demands for racial justice in the U.S. military,” the timeline says.

But Truman was hardly reluctant about civil rights. In 1947, the Truman administration released a report detailing a proposed agenda of civil rights reforms. In early 1948 he submitted to Congress proposed legislation creating federal agencies tasked with ensuring equal opportunity in employment and voting rights. In July of that year Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially integrating the U.S. armed forces, and doing independent of “Republicans’ demands.”

GOP.com notes that the author of the legendary 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education was Chief Justice Earl Warren, a Republican. All props to Justice Warren, but Thurgood Marshall, the one who took point in doing the legal legwork that made Brown possible, was a black Democrat.

And curiously, it jumps right from 1957 (President Eisenhower’s move to integrate Little Rock High) to 1972 (Nixon goes to China) without stopping in 1968. But it’d be too much to expect this site to enshrine the year of President Nixon’s Southern strategy, a willfully divisive gambit to wed the GOP to the Southern states with a cynical “states rights” appeal to racial biases — a strategy that laid the foundation for the Republican Party of today.

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There’s much to recommend in the new GOP.com. Visually it’s a spirited makeover, one that reflects an apparently principled, sometimes ham-fisted and certainly overdue attempt to reach outside its demographic comfort zone. But there’s a defensiveness to its content, which fails to address the reasons for the disconnect between the party’s admirable 19th-century history and its angry, confrontational state of affairs in the 21st century.

From ill-conceived Tea Bag Day protests to town-hall shoutdowns of conservatives by conservatives, to race-tinged ad hominem attacks on President Obama, the behavior of many of today’s Republicans and their enablers puts the lie to much of the all-inclusive message of GOP.com.

You have to hope that, like its new Web site, the Republican Party is still in the development stage, too.
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Image credits: President Truman: Public domain.

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