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Politics and Culture at the Conventions

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
September 12, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

In American politics, sadly only the Democrats seem to know how to capitalize on the country's cultural and ethnic diversity. I say sadly, because although black, latino, women and gay voters will likely re-elect Obama, cultural polarization in national politics is nevertheless bad for solving the country's many problems.

The contrast between the two parties was on glaring display at the Republican and Democratic national conventions over the last two weeks. Party conventions take place every four years. Their formal purpose is to nominate and approve each party's presidential candidate and policy platform.

Three days of frenzied national media exposure convert the conventions into a visual montage of the nation's cultural identity. At the Republican convention in Tampa, the colors on the screen came mainly from the American flag's red, white and blue of the convention center's decorations and the clothing worn by delegates. Romney wore a red and blue striped tie for his acceptance speech, his wife wore a red dress for her speech and a blue for his—etc. Nor is the media's allegedly liberal bias to blame for inaccurately depicting the contrast between the two conventions. According to the Republican National Committee, of the 2,286 delegates attending the Republican convention, 2.1%, or 47 were black; no numbers for latinos were released. And Rupert Murdoch's Fox News reported that over 90% of convention delegates identified as "non-hispanic whites." No information is available on the representation of women.

The contrast with the Democratic convention is striking, and disturbing. Of a total of 4,438 delegates, 1,087 or 24.5% were black; 800 or 18.02% were latino; 202 or 4.6% were Asian and Pacific Islanders; 486 or 8% were LGBT and over 100 were Muslim. And according to the Democratic National Committee, fully half the delegates were women. Enumerating these numbers is not meant as an exercise in politically correct tokenism. The extreme polarization the numbers reveals profound and consequential differences for policy and governance.

The Republican Party once had a bigger tent. Just one example: until 2004 my own representative in Congress was a moderate, pro-choice woman, and a Republican. It's possible the Republican party can survive with its increasingly radical base. But can it thrive? The paradox that the GOP asserts it is the standard bearer of individual rights and freedoms, while promising to pass laws restricting them for women and gays, seems to be a contradiction a once liberal governor Romney can live with. If he does take the White House—he could still recover from this week's drop in polls, Romney, as Republican moderates such as Jeb Bush have warned, must bring a little more rainbow into the coalition they hope will lead the United States in the 21st century.

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