Young, Gifted and Slack

Do your job.”

—Lt. Cedric Daniels, The Wire

Gov. Sarah Palin isn’t using the title “Reverend” yet, but that could be her next move. She’s well on her way to becoming a conservative Rev. Al Sharpton in whiteface. At least she’s not known as “Sarah the Fisherman.” (Unless she forgets to take down the “Gone Fishin’” sticky note on her office door in Juneau …)


Joe the Plumber isn’t looking to join the Nation of Islam any time soon. But since he’s already dumped his slave name, “Joe X” doesn’t really seem like that much of a reach.

And Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele might be surprised to learn that some of his closest associates think he’s Washington, D.C.’s real “Magic Negro.”


However, none of them is using their high-profile, public platform to actually do the hard work of consensus-building and shaping public policy. Instead, they’ve all opted for the steadily withering and oversubscribed role of unelected, unaccountable representatives.

New Jack Pity

A new generation of African-American elected officials, including D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Alabama Congressman Artur Davis and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are taking their cues from the Barack Obama school. They’ve accepted the hand-off of leadership from the civil rights generation by asking their constituencies to trust them to use the reins of government as a primary means for advancing the interests of their communities.

Meanwhile, Palin wants permission from her constituency to become more famous and less accountable. Just as mainstream black civic leadership is becoming fully invested in working within, rather than confronting, the political system, Palin is going in the other direction—trading the rigors of day-to-day governing for a 24/7/365 license to ill on behalf of presumably fed–up, “family-values” promoting conservatives.

But as the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, Palin’s self-conception as catch-all representative of these “real” Americans is a fantasy conjured up by conservative elites that only works “if you think that most of working-class America is as f***ing inept as Sarah Palin.”


In fact, Palin is a classic example of the “Peter Principle”—she’s actually benefitted over and over again from the slack she’s been cut, mostly because of her personal appeal.

So when Palin blames a media double standard for her inability to govern, it’s akin to Sharpton suggesting that the media’s coverage of Michael Jackson’s death has been a racist double standard—it only means anything if you factor in that the whole point is to generate more media attention. The difference is that Sharpton actually knows how to deliver a good sermon—“a genius that dealt with a freaky situation,” indeed.


Get Off the Bus

In another life, Joe could be the Republicans’ counterweight to Sen. Al Franken.

The plumber should be the perfect congressional candidate—a prototype citizen legislator as envisioned by the founding fathers.  If he put on a coat and tie, sharpened his focus on the tax issue that made him famous and started quietly making the rounds in his own community, he’d be a shoe-in to win a congressional seat in 2010.


Instead of working his way up the ladder of the House GOP caucus, he’s content to be a T-shirt wearing, tea-party keynoter. His political role model is really Minister Louis Farrakhan—a Minister-without-Portfolio standing in for an amalgamation of poorly defined grievances.

The Curious Case of Michael Steele

The Young Republican Federation meets in Indianapolis this weekend to choose a new leader, amid controversy surrounding Audra Shay, a contender for the top YRF post, for recent comments in postings on her Facebook page that contained racist jokes.


Some conservatives, like Hip Hop Republicans’ Lenny McAllister, came out unequivocally condemning the comments. But Steele, who campaigned for the RNC chairmanship against an opponent who distributed “Barack the Magic Negro” CDs, has been pretty quiet about the incident, raising the question: What is he even there for?

There are more seasoned political players, more stalwart conservatives and more prodigious fundraisers who could have been installed as GOP chair other than Steele. But he’s a jocular, semi-credible good soldier who’s also black. He really only brings value to his position if he takes a crack at changing the Republican culture from the inside out. He hasn’t done it yet, and if he can’t do it from the bully pulpit he has now, then he was a lame duck from the start.


Once upon a time, a few undemocratically self-anointed individuals spoke (and spoke, and spoke) for black America. Black participation in government and the elective political process was stunted, and Middle America nurtured a perception that African Americans were content to stay permanently outside of the political mainstream.

That’s finally changed in the Obama era. But while the old leadership model is rapidly declining in the black community, it’s being revived among the tribe of disaffected cultural conservatives whose most visible leaders now are young, gifted and slack.


David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter

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