Fundamental to the marketing of any brand is the establishment of trust: A brand builds trust when promises are met and destroys that trust when promises are broken. It's a fact of life in retail and true in the world of retail politics. Barack Obama has been busy trying to improve the Democratic Party brand. His Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, has much more work to do, even after his relatively successful nominating convention in St. Paul.
And the task is especially daunting in regard to African Americans.
Watching the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, even through the narrow lens of a pool camera, it was inescapable: Black Republican delegates were a rare breed, indeed. Here and there a black face amid a sea of the older, white conservatives who have been the bedrock of the GOP for more than 40 years.
The black Republicans at the Xcel Energy Center likely felt more isolated than usual. Not just by virtue of their numbers, which pale in comparison to those of black Democratic delegates in Denver last week, but also because they have been abandoned by some of the former colleagues. This year, a significant number of black conservatives, conflicted by McCain, are surprisingly open to the idea of voting for Obama (apparently without the obligatory reflex of holding their noses). And so there were fewer of them in St. Paul.
In June, black conservative talk-show host Armstrong Williams, once an ardent supporter of Bush Republicanism, said of Obama: "I don't necessarily like his policies; I don't like much of what he advocates, but for the first time in my life, history thrusts me to really think seriously about it…
"Among black conservatives," Williams told The Associated Press, "they tell me privately it would be very hard to vote against him in November."
For Williams, and probably other black conservatives, it must have been hard to ignore the striking demographic populism built into this year's Democratic convention: 24 percent of the delegates were African American, a record; 12 percent were Latino. Nine percent were Asian, Native American and Pacific Islanders. At least inside the Pepsi Center and Invesco Field in Denver, the Democratic Party sure looked like America.
In 2004, the Republican Party began to make a move in the right direction. There were 167 black delegates at the GOP convention in 2004—7 percent of the total number, and the largest such percentage since the convention of 1912.
Fast forward to St. Paul, where a bad representation got worse. There are just 36 black delegates at the Republican Convention this year, 1.5 percent of the total delegates, according to a Aug. 29 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "The 36 black delegates in 2008 represent a 78.4 percent decline from the 167 black delegates at the 2004 GOP convention," the Joint Center reported.
While the singular appeal of Obama to black voters is certainly a factor in the decrease in black delegates and the black Republican voters they represent, this is nothing new. The consistent challenge for the Republicans in trying to woo African Americans has always come from their own limited perception of black Americans; contemporary Republicanism has repeatedly mis-branded black and continues to cast African Americans in the context of "the other."
The result is a party that cannot market itself successfully to black voters.
· Ronald Reagan's invocation of the phrase "states' rights" in the 1980 campaign (red meat to many Southern rural voters).
· The toxic insinuations of the Willie Horton ad used by George H. W. Bush in 1988.
· The Rovian politics of division used during the Bush administration.
· Or the Republican National Committee's shrill race/sex dog-whistle ad used against Rep. Harold Ford in the 2006 senate race in Tennessee.
Racial distinctions and the fears they arouse have often been just another weapon in the arsenal for Republicans, just another tool in the box instead of the poisonous appeal to our worst impulses.
Some black conservatives understand this, and their willingness to bolt from the GOP suggests a coming to grips with deeper allegiances, not with the transitory nature of a party but with the bedrock relationship with a people. Those recalcitrant GOP conservatives are seeking a party that recognizes, at least, some of the principles they embrace and the heritage they embody.
Kentucky sent two black delegates to the 2004 Republican Convention. This year, Kentucky sent none.
Al Brown, who in 1992 became the first black chairman of the Republican Party in Jefferson County, Ky., told the Louisville Courier-Journal on Wednesday: "When you march into St. Paul without one African-American delegate, then you are saying, 'we don't have anything to offer African Americans.' "
Earlier in the campaign, the Republicans made much of the idea of rebranding McCain. Fact is, it never went beyond the idea stage. Rebranding is a reframing of expectations. For two generations, black Americans have been waiting for the Republican Party to rethink its branding of them, to correct its misperceptions of black America, to not see African Americans collectively as a convenient, monolithic, election-year punching bag and boogeyman, not as the tolerated American problem.
The nomination of Barack Obama for the presidency of the United States does nothing less than reset the baseline of American possibility. From now on, whenever black and minority parents tell their kids that they could be president someday, that pledge will bear a Democratic signature. But for now, American possibility looks more like the Democrats than the Republicans.
Until the Republican Party is ready to renounce the politics of division—opening the door to the lives and views of people whose histories and ethnicities don't mesh with the traditions of modern Republicanism—the GOP brand will remain damaged goods in much of black America, damaged by the brand managers themselves.
Michael E. Ross is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at Culchavox. A periodic contributor to PopMatters, his writing has appeared in msnbc.com, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.