Better Angels Talks With Michael Steele
By John Wood, Jr.
I met former Lt. Governor of the state of Maryland and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele at the 2017 Politicon event in Pasadena, California. For me Chairman Steele is a memorable figure, having become the first African-American Chairman of the Republican National Committee and having presided over the Republican’s most successful midterm election in 16 years when the Tea Party movement swept the GOP into overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives.
In spite of this, Chairman Steele was not reelected to the Party chairmanship. He has since then been a familiar figure as an analyst on MSNBC and typically an example of civility and collegiality in our politics. In an era of crass partisanship from the left and the right, these are values we seek to highlight here at Better Angels.
I was able to grab a few minutes one the phone with the former RNC Chairman to talk about partisanship, faith, justice and just how rare the quality of civility in our politics has become and why.
(Some quotes below have edited or slightly paraphrased for space, flow and consistency.)
JW: In the years since your chairmanship you’ve been a voice for civility and understanding in our politics. But that hasn’t been the trend in America. Has the decline in the collegiality of our political conversations come from Donald Trump, the Tea Party Movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement? Or is the shift from something more fundamental that.
MS: [This was] something that started in the post-Reagan era. Coming out of that time there was a slow subtle bend and breakdown in our political dialogue and our connection to each other. You look at Reagan and Tip O’Neil and Clinton and Gingrich operated, how Lyndon Johnson worked with Republican leaders worked with civil rights leaders in the 60’s, there was cooperation taking place for the greater good. Today there is no cooperation. [Now] the idea of the greater good is just what one person defines it to be…
…there was always a general consensus around where the country needed to go and how we would get there. I mean think about it: the last big bipartisan compromise on taxes was the tax reform bill of 1986. The last big [budget] compromise was in 1996. But overtime we’ve lost in translation how we communicate politically.
Elected officials have a tendency to say ‘the American people want this,’ or ‘the American people want that.’ But they’re not in touch with the American people in their own districts. They talk to two or three of their constituents that agree with them and they think that gives them a good read on what the American people want.
A big example of this was after the Sandy Hook incident. The American people said very clearly [after Sandy Hook] they wanted something done about the availability of weapons from people with mental health and criminal histories. You know what congress did about it? Nothing.
JW: Was there a particular point in recent history at which the polarization between the parties intensified that helps explains where we are today in your view?
MS: The country really became fixated on red vs. blue after the 2000 election.
JW: Was that simply a reflection of the controversy over the Florida recount and the Supreme Court verdict?
MS: It was more than that. Republicans made that a campaign about us versus them, red vs. blue. This redefined the tone of politics going forward. Before that you know the parties were represented by [the opposite] colors…Democrats were red and Republicans were blue. But that switched…Republicans embraced a red meat style of politics. [The shift in the psychology of the party] sort of matched this change.
JW: Have you paid a price professionally for being willing to engage so far beyond the party?
MS: Absolutely!…people always have a reaction when you try to open up the party doors to those who subscribe to the concept of a limited purpose government but who fall too far outside the traditional party tent…
…for instance, soon after becoming chairman I held a town hall with voters in Harlem. I was criticized for that as being a waste of time. But you have to go where people are if you want to get them to listen [to your point of view].
JW: Why does the GOP do more to reach out to African-Americans?
MS: One reason is simply interest. We tell ourselves that African-Americans are basically with us because they go to church on Sunday, are a bit more pro-life, against Gay marriage than other groups. But unfortunately that hasn’t translated [into the sustained effort it will take] to actually bring larger numbers into the fold.
JW: I know that you are a person of faith and that you have a traditional view of marriage. But you are also a person who has advocated for the rights of all people including gays. Was it ever difficult to work closely with people who were cultural conservatives of traditional faith while also being vocal about the need to be receptive of those who had a different cultural point of view?
MS: There is always a tension between your value system and the law and politics and you have to find a way to navigate that as an elected official. As Lt. Governor of the state of Maryland I worked with our Governor [on cases involving the death penalty].
As a devout Catholic I don’t believe in the death penalty. But as an elected official I had to confront myself and my faith system but also my obligation under the law. [When] you’ve sworn an oath to uphold the law that’s just what it is. You can’t use the law as an excuse to negate your faith, and you cannot use your faith as an excuse to negate the law.
John Wood, Jr. is a national leader for Better Angels, a former nominee for congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and author of the upcoming book Transcending Politics: Perspectives for a Divided Nation.