Republican leadership at a crossroads: confrontation or collaboration?

A Republican Party Divided

On Thursday, Peter Wallsten of the Washington Post commented: “President Obama’s decisive victory over Mitt Romney served as a clinic in the 21st century politics.” Citing diversity of voters as the source of Democratic dominance, Wallstein describes “little consensus on how to regroup,” with party members divided between greater conservatism and minimizing “tea party” initiatives in favor of more moderate policies in touch with a broader electorate.

Handelsman cartoon from Newsday

The #1 Leadership question on my mind: will they choose transformation or entrenchment?

Transformational leadership is visionary, forward looking. Tea Party politics are backwards-looking, based in a nostalgia for a less diverse, more mono-cultural time in US history. Preserving core values is one thing; imagining that the way we live must look the same in order to preserve them is another. White majority, heterosexuality, conventional church-membership, 9-5 work schedules, suburban families — all of these outward were markers of what was considered “normal” in the dominant US culture pre-1960.

A core example of Republican leadership entrenchment is their advocacy of a federal and state constitutional amendments limiting civil marriage access to male-female couples. In the recent election, both Maine and Maryland ratified gay and lesbian civil marriage by popular vote. Among younger citizens, sexuality is more fluid. Labels like gay, straight or bi-sexual are less and less important in setting their identities. This shift is an example of the way diversity is becoming the new normal.

Transformational leaders would identify visionary strategies for awakening core values that build healthy (not necessarily heterosexual) relationships, creating a call for family values whatever the family structure might be. I recognize that anti-gay movements would not see this as visionary leadership. However, it is more sustainable than imagining that values cannot be expressed outside a certain translation of the Biblical box, or contained by only one interpretation of cultural roles and responsibilities.

Confrontation or Collaboration, Entrenchment or Visionary Inclusion?

Confrontation and entrenchment are limiting leadership strategies, common to leaders obsessed with past patterns, cornered by change, and caught in their own personal or cultural identities. Collaboration and visionary focus on adaptation and future possibility are more sustainable leadership practices, because they include relationship strategies: negotiation, inclusion, curiosity and authenticity.

The Republican Party, lately dominated by the Tea Party, has depended on a nostalgic and limited approach for leadership. In the last election, their dogma silenced the diversity in their own party. Yet their internal differences and the diverse voter constituencies created an impossible situation for Romney, who pandered to conservatives and moderates, upper class and lower, with different policies and promise that made him seem hypocritical.

Losing whatever authenticity he might have had before his candidacy, Romney slipped on the muddy ground of Republican contradictions. How could he succeed? Add that challenge to the irony of the whole campaign: Romney’s slick shapeshifter businessman strategies made his contradictory performance even more visible.

Although Romney and Obama ran a close race in many ways, I believe much of the Republican support came from fear and economic panic. These are difficult times and we want fast solutions. But the bottom line is that the Republican candidate couldn’t rally the majority votes he needed from independents and Obama-weary liberals because entrenchment and nostalgia deny diversity, and Romney’s promises rang false and contradictory in the context of the Republican platform.

In effect, the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner by refusing to have a meaningful conversation with multi-cultural Americans.

There are many kinds of Republican: it’s time to hear from the diversity within the GOP!

It’s important to note that there is diversity everywhere, not only in overall American demographics, but also in each sub-culture, including political parties.

The Tea Party is only a temporary public face of the Republican Party. Granted, it has been a powerful one. The GOP platform was shaped by the Tea Party, excluding more moderate Republican perspectives. It isn’t effective for Democrats to stereotype the GOP, just as it is unjust for the GOP to stereotype Democrats.

It’s time for moderate Republicans to step up and begin transforming their failing party. Values can be preserved in diverse ways and diverse communities. The center has to hold in this country if we want greater momentum for economic recovery. And the true center of our country is no longer dominated by white Christian landowners.

With the election over, the GOP re-evaluating itself, Obama negotiating new economic policy, and the fiscal cliff looming, it’s the perfect time for Americans to talk with each other — across the government aisle, within our parties, and across the Dem-Republican fence. Obama is not the only one who needs to build bridges. Each of us can begin a civil conversation about releasing the fear, nostalgia and stereotyping that keeps us from connecting as citizens facing the same challenges.

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