It may seem frivolous to consider two selfies of the interns in the Congress that recently rocketed around the social media. In fact, these two selfies alone tell a great deal of the tale of the last half-century or so of American life.
That includes explaining how a mentally unstable demagogue, Donald Trump, came to be the Republican Party’s nominee for president of the United States.
At first glance, the two selfies, which are readily available on the Internet, convey a simple scene: the smiling faces of bright, politically-inclined young people eagerly absorbing their first experience of national politics and the nation’s capital.
But what’s immediately striking is that the respective selfies of the dozens of interns of the Republican members of Congress and those of the Democratic members of Congress present radically different images – and visions – of American society.
One could be forgiven for mistaking the Republican selfie for a photograph from the 1950s, when American society was more than 80-percent White, the nation’s capital was a deeply racially-segregated city, and the Congress of the United States was in terms of its membership and higher-echelon staffing also deeply exclusionary. In the photo, fronted by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, there appear to be no Black Americans or other Americans of color at all.
The contrast with the selfie of the Democratic interns could not be greater. For starters, no Democratic officeholder appears in the photo. Instead, its “out-front” selfie-holder is one of the interns and those pictured represent the mosaic of what the American nation looks like now.
When I first saw the Republican selfie, I thought, “You have to work very hard to get a photo like that in the 21st century United States of America.” And that is the tale of American politics since the civil rights movement made America a democracy in fact, not just rhetoric.
The Republican Party, taking up the “Lost Cause” of White supremacy, has worked very hard to “reserve” opportunity and the resources of the country for Whites like them.
Its leadership has used the “Southern Strategy” of the Nixon years; and the “wedge politics” and “dog-whistle politics” of the Reagan-Bush 41 and Bush 43 presidencies; and finally, the overt race-war politics against the Obama administration to try to build the political equivalent of a “White fortress” against the demographic transformation of American society the selfie of the Democratic interns strikingly represents.
That’s why the selfie of the Republican interns virtually mirrors the demographic portrait of the just-concluded Republican National Convention. There, only 6 percent of the nearly 2,400 delegates were Black or of Hispanic descent. The 18 Black delegates – down from 167 in 2004, and 36 in 2008, and 28 in 2012 – were the lowest such representation at a Republican Convention since 1912. If there were other delegates of color at the Cleveland gathering, they were, literally, invisible.
In stark contrast, half of the 4,766 delegates to the Democratic National Convention were of color: 25 percent were Black, 16 percent were of Hispanic descent, and 9 percent were Asian American or Native-American. Further, more than 600 of the delegates self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.
Pool of capital
The Democratic Convention’s delegates represent what the pool of “human capital” of American society really looks like. The Republicans pretending otherwise has cost them dearly politically: two crushing presidential-election defeats by the man who, symbolically, represents a triumph of democracy and decency over bigotry; an ongoing vicious internal party fight among various factions of conservatives; and now, the prospect of another crushing presidential-election loss because its national ticket is led by the worst presidential candidate in American history.
And yet, a deeper consideration of these Democratic and Republican selfies does offer cause for hope. That hope is that behind the bright, somewhat self-conscious smiles of the young people in both is a commitment to the practice of politics as an honorable calling.
Lee A. Daniels is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the New York Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.