Steele symbolism falling short

Symbolic politics are for losers.

Perhaps that’s too harshly stated, but as some sage once said, second place is just the first loser. So when participants in the political game aren’t winning the competition for tangible benefits, they often settle for symbolic payoffs and even devolve into symbolic rituals as they seek those meager substitutes for victory.

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Symbols, of course, are not always hollow. In fact, the skillful manipulation of symbols and symbolism in the political process is the trademark of a skilled political operative. But symbolism cannot be substituted for genuine substance when it comes to governing. It’s somewhat akin to one’s dietary needs. Calories are essential to the production of the energy that drives our bodies. Yet consuming what dietary experts refer to as empty calories doesn’t produce a stronger self. Empty calories, like symbolic benefits and rituals, just give us a temporary sugar buzz followed by a sense of ugh.

My heart goes out to those who practice mostly symbolic politics. I see this frequently in minority communities. Hispanics often vote for a candidate who embraces their language, ignoring candidates who might improve their schools where language skills are taught. Arab-Americans rally around the candidates who attend their annual dinners while ignoring the policy stances those candidates take on issues affecting their legitimate and fungible interests.

Sometimes, symbolism is so defining that it consumes an entire race and political party. Blacks are Democrats and Democrats are their party. This has become so central to the African-American and American political experience that white Democrats can and do take black votes for granted. Meanwhile, African-Americans too often settle for a pitiful payoff from their elected Democrats in exchange for their faithful backing.

There is another minority group in American politics that has taken to playing the symbolic politics game because it seemingly cannot win the real competition lately. Republicans, who not so long ago ruled the nation, are now panicking and playing the symbols game just like racial and ethnic minorities. But, perhaps because Republicans are new to the games of symbolic politics, they’re not very good at executing. That explains the whole Michael Steele debacle.

While Michael Steele seems like a good and decent man, worthy of respect and honor, we have to be frank and admit that his selection was driven by symbolism. Like African-Americans who have fallen into the trap of one-party politics, Republicans have wandered into an ambush of one-upmanship on race. The Democrats gave you a black president; we’ll give you a black party chairman. Michael Steele didn’t have the most party administrative experience. He didn’t have the coolest technology plan. He didn’t even necessarily have the best story to tell about why he’s a Republican. Yet we chose him, because we wanted to send a symbolic message about race.

Eventually, Steele will be a fine chairman. He’s doing a thorough job of evaluating the party’s bureaucratic structures. And he’s welcoming new faces into that process. These are hopeful first steps that will doubtless be followed by others. He clearly wants to succeed and has the skills to do so. But it’s a little ugly in the unfolding. And when all is said and done, Steele will succeed on substantive issues rather than symbolic imagery. Centrists, liberals and minorities are not going to be fooled into rethinking our party just because we have a black chairman. It’ll actually take some substantive shifts to successfully woo any of those votes to our side.

Perhaps Republicans and conservatives will take a lesson from this episode and return to substance, leaving symbolic politics to the Democrats. A minimum winning coalition in a two-party system is 50 percent plus one. To get there, we need more than wishful and hopeful symbols.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.