Michael Steele: It’s time to start restoring the party of Lincoln
The 1970s. America was changing. The trials of Watergate and Vietnam were testing the idealism of the 1960s. It may seem strange today, but I was a 17-year-old black kid growing up in DC’s inner-city DC and I found myself (values, priorities and beliefs) reflected in what I heard from a Republican party and its leader whose experiences and backgrounds were so different from my own.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and later earning my law degree from Georgetown Law Center, I took on a more active role in the politics of my party. I was elected the first black chairman of the Prince Georges County GOP, then became chairman of the Maryland State Republican Party. I then had the honor of becoming the first black lieutenant governor in the State of Maryland and from there, I would go on to serve as the chairman of GOPAC and the Republican Leadership Council before being elected chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In a life spent advancing Republican principles, I had the privilege to do so when it was not particularly easy. But I saw an opportunity to grow those Republican principles in a new way, to go a bit against the grain, to push back on the “establishment” mindset within the party and the stereotyped view of a Black Republican outside of it.
No one can question my credentials as a Republican.
And yet, with all those Republican bona fides, in today’s Republican party, it’s not enough. Over time, I would watch Republicans lose their voice on things that mattered as they bent the arc of the party towards the baser motives of one man who was neither a Republican nor a conservative.
More and more of the men and women who once stood on the front lines of moving the party into the future were forced to retreat from that future and watch Donald Trump turn the Republican Party from an honorable political movement rooted in principle and core philosophies into a cult of personality.
Instead of fighting for that future, Republicans gave credence to a man who traffics in conspiracies, fear, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and believes that he can rewrite the Constitution in his own image.
What many inside and outside the GOP fail to understand is our lack of standing with the American people is not the fault of our ideals or the principles we espouse (when we used to unite them. It’s our failure to stand up against the arrogance of power and the erosion of our principles. This wholesale capitulation to all things Trump has exposed the gap between our rhetoric and our values to the point that our credibility has completely snapped.
But it is not just a problem of values. Most reasonable people share what are fundamentally Republican and, yes, conservative values. It is also about our country. We believe our system of government is among one of the greatest achievements in history, especially in terms of building a society that respects the rights to life and liberty. We believe America is a force for good in the world, even as we acknowledge that our history is hardly perfect. We believe that the rights of the individual should be treated with the utmost respect. We believe in the value of freely formed communities. We believe that our nation matters to a living God. We believe that freedom is worth fighting for. Our president does not.
And while the Southern Strategy of the Nixon years, coupled with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s theory of “benign neglect,” might have been politically shrewd, they were morally wrong. To this day, the GOP and our country is paying the political price. It should be no secret to Republicans and this president that America has changed and continues to do so. Yet, when I announced as national chairman that the Southern Strategy was over, I hoped that the party would move away from these past failures and embrace a different path. But we did not.
As Trumpism continues to infect the actions and expressions of Republicanism, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” At this very moment, it matters that our Republic is teetering on the brink of nationalism and authoritarianism. It matters that our president openly suggests he won’t accept the results of a free and fair election. It matters that he has actively undermined our democratic processes and the institutions which support them. It matters that the president has enabled those who preach hate and intolerance in our society to have a voice and to feel comfortable within my party. It matters when the president denigrates the service of our men and women in uniform. It matters when the president engages in efforts to hijack the election, weaken our franchise, and deal a fatal blow to the experiment that has been the American experience.
As I’ve reflected on matters of leadership, decency and constitutional norms, I asked myself two questions: First, would I want my sons or your daughters to treat others the way our president treats others? Second: Is America and its citizens better off today — not just financially, but as citizens — than we were four years ago? The answer is “no.”
This party and this president are a long way from the one that spoke to the ideals of that 17-year-old kid. While I still hold out hope that voices consistent with the radical nature of Lincoln republicanism will give rise to a fresh approach to meet the challenges we face (I will continue to be one of those voices), I know it will not happen under this president. That is why I am joining the Lincoln Project; to work alongside other senior Republicans to restore fidelity to the Constitution and to defeat Donald Trump.
It’s time to begin the restoration of the Party of Lincoln.
“Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee Chairman and former Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. He is currently a Senior Advisor to The Lincoln Project, a political analyst for MSNBC, and the Host of The Michael Steele Podcast.”
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