RAGS TO RICHES: After years of ugly Republican racism towards immigrant Latinos, Mel Martinez has been tapped to head the RNC--and pledges to make the hate go away. Fresh off their losses in the 2006 midterm elections, the Republican Party...
RAGS TO RICHES: After years of ugly Republican racism towards immigrant Latinos, Mel Martinez has been tapped to head the RNC--and pledges to make the hate go away.
President George W. Bush moved yesterday to renew the Republican courtship of Latino voters that had frayed over the past year amid conservative efforts to combat illegal immigration. But in backing Cuban-born Sen. Mel Martinez to lead the Republican Party, Bush drew fire from some conservatives who disdain Martinez's support for a guest worker program.The response to Martinez at the RNC is very revealing of the true color of today's Republican Party. A mere six months ago President Bush was framing Latino immigrants using the same words he used in his speeches about terrorism--a cynical attempt at the time to whip up racist hatred in the basest part of the Republican base.
But Karl Rove is convinced that the Republicans only lost by a few thousand votes in several key districts, and believes that the key to getting those districts back is strategic gains in the Latino vote. The appointment of Martinez is designed with that slim 2008 victory goal in mind. But can the Senator from Florida turn the racist RNC into something that embraces cultural diversity? Doubtful But progressives should beware: With Martinez at the helm, the RNC will try to get Latino votes by pushing the "Rags to Riches" frame.
Up From Nothing
After the appointment of Martinez, President Bush made the following remarks that foreshadow how the RNC will try to mask their racism and attract more Latino votes:
One of the things I like to tell my friends about the Republican Party is that we're a party that really believes in entrepreneurship and small businesses and good quality education and accountability. And Mel Martinez represents what I believe our party stands for, and that is his parents put him on a plane to come to the United States from Cuba because they love freedom. That was Mel's first taste for the beauty of liberty and freedom. And he worked hard, started with little, and ended up being here, the United States senator from Florida, and the honorary chairman of our party. He's going to be an excellent spokesman for the Republican Party. He'll be a person who'll be able to carry our message as we go into an important year in 2008.
This is a classic version of the Horatio Algers "Rags to Riches" frame. In the mid-19th century, Algers published dozens of books with titles like Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Bootblacks (1868). The stories were different, but the frame was always the same: a boy starts out with nothing, poor, on the streets, then through hard work alone becomes wealthy and influential.
"Rags to Riches" is not just any old frame. It is the quintessential American frame. It convinces us that if we work hard and play by the rules, then wealth and happiness are ours.
Is the frame true? For some. Hard work and playing by the rules is important. And yet, it is hardly a formulate for guaranteed success in America. It is, in fact, a version of the free market myth that pervades the "conservative" movement.
But it is a powerful myth and one that we will hear much more of from the Republican Party in the next two years.
The signature phrases of the RNC "Rags to Riches" frame look like this:
- Ownership Society
- Started with little
- Liberty and freedom
- Entrepreneurship and small business
And progressives can expect this old-new Republican frame to give rise to more phrases as new polling is done to see which sales pitch works best. My money is on "Ownership Society" because old habits die hard amongst the Republicans.
Progressive Response: Future, Building
Keep in mind that no matter how much the Republicans try to woo Latinos with talk of "Rags to Riches," their real goal is to overturn the broad vision of the New Deal that underpins American confidence and belief in the future.
And so the way to keep the debate on progressive terms is to frame the debate by talking about the role that responsible progressive government plays strengthening our confidence in the future. Here is an example of how that might look:
In America we succeed because of our confidence in the future.
We believe that when we work hard and play by the rules, we deserve a fair retirement and dependable healthcare for ourselves and for our families.
Americans believe succeed by building a better American future for everyone.
This basic script begins to build a progressive worldview where "success" is not just about hard work for oneself, but about "building" a better future.
In the end, the Republican attempt to spin their racism into a appeal to Latino voters is based on the mistaken belief that Americans are fundamentally selfish. In fact, American ingenuity always unfolds in two progressive directions at the same time: success for oneself and one's family, AND success for the future of everyone.
© 2006 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop