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Embrace civil liberties, GOP

The Republican Party should remove incoming Rep. Steve Scalise from his leadership role.

As is tradition, the New Year has sparked a wave of resolutions. As a declaration of our aspirations, resolutions help us plot a course to self-improvement for success and longer, healthier lives.

In that vein, if the Republican Party hopes to continue its own moment of success, it must resolve to forever lose the dog whistle it borrowed from the Dixiecrats long ago and re-embrace its civil rights legacy.

The dog whistle has hung around the necks of some GOP politicians for decades and has been used as a tool to appeal to the most reactionary part of its activist base during contentious election cycles. Barry Goldwater used it to become the self-appointed GOP ambassador to the white voters opposed to integration who were fleeing the Democratic Party in the 1960s and '70s. Ronald Reagan employed it in 1980 at the Neshoba County Fair, a venue historically known for rallying segregationist sentiment in Mississippi, just miles from where young civil rights workers had been lynched for promoting voting rights and registration. In his speech, Reagan voiced his support for "states' rights" — the rallying cry for Southerners opposed to federal civil rights laws.

The whistle has been blown by GOP candidates in virtually every presidential cycle ever since. During the 2012 presidential election, in his speech at the NAACP National convention, Mitt Romney declared for the TV cameras that if people like "free stuff" they should vote for Mr. Obama.

Even among this long-standing tradition of tacitly encouraging those who are overtly racist, some politicians still manage to shock us. This week's revelation that incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise chose to speak at a convention for the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) is particularly appalling. EURO was founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) categorizes it as a hate group.

Even here in Maryland, we are all too familiar with distressing racial politics. Last November, two of the 12 people deemed most extreme by the SPLC in their analysis of electoral extremists nationwide were candidates for Anne Arundel County Council. One of them, Michael Peroutka, actually won.

The success of the Republican Party need not be chained to this kind of racial politics. For most of its history, it wasn't. From Abraham Lincoln to General Colin Powell to Maryland's own Michael Steele, the Republican Party has a history of sincere civil rights advocacy. We saw powerful echoes of this tradition as recently as 2007, when nearly every Republican senator, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted in favor of reauthorizing the Voting Rights ACT (VRA), a pillar of our democracy recently threatened by conservative appointees to the Supreme Court.

Serious Republican presidential candidates increasingly understand their party cannot prosper while being seen as an opponent to the rights of Americans of color. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie have defied hardliners with support for the Dream Act and immigration reform. Rand Paul has shown real leadership in the fight to end mass incarceration.

These leaders are wise to take such positions at this early point in the 21st Century. They understand that in just a few decades the entire country will be majority people of color, and in many states, that reality has already arrived. In order to prosper throughout this century, the Republican party would be wise to affirmatively embrace that reality as well.

First, they will need to drop the Dixiecrats old dog whistle and re-embrace the sentiment captured in our nation's Pledge of Allegiance. Second, they must strip Representative Scalise of his leadership position. Third, and most importantly, they can stand together as they did a decade ago to vote as a block in the Senate to fully restore the powers of the Voting Rights Act.

Unless Republicans moderate their tone and temperament on issues of race and actively work to advance the civil liberties of every American, their influence throughout this century will ultimately prove to be limited.

Ben Jealous is partner at Kapor Capital and former president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. He currently serves as chairman of the Southern Elections Fund and as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His email is benjealous@kaporcenter.org.

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