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Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele made headlines earlier this year when he said that “we want to convey that the modern-day GOP looks like the conservative party that stands on principles. But we want to apply them to urban-suburban hip-hop settings.”
Steele seems to be on the same vibe that Rep. Jack Kemp was on when he described himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative.” As we look back on Kemp’s life of service and vision in light of his passing away on May 2, we would do well to answer Steele with our own tune of hope and change to urban Americans.
The best hip-hop speaks to the downtrodden in our cities. 2Pac, Talib Kweli, and Common don’t sell millions of records and become urban legends because they are able to promote sociological theories for the difficulties of urban American life. They are popular because they offer a morally compelling message of struggle and hope to a people who long to hear it.
The Democrats have likewise done a great job speaking to people who suffer.
When they talk about welfare, they don’t talk about economic efficiency. They talk about single mothers who want a better life for their kids. Democrats don’t speak about good long-term financial practice when discussing housing policies. They call for hope for the forgotten poor of urban America. Beyond our borders, Democrats talk about foreign aid and trade policy in terms of setting up a more humane world, not promoting positive net monetary transfers.
In fact, capital flows seem to be the only flows that Republicans can rock. While we theorize about numerical outcomes, Democrats rap to the heart, striking the same chords as hip-hop for the disenfranchised and downtrodden. They have claimed a moral monopoly on the notion of economic uplift.
Republicans can do better than this, and Chairman Steele, originally from a single mother household in D.C. and a descendant of sharecroppers, knows it. So did Rep. Kemp, who championed the creation of “enterprise zones” to kick start inner-city business and pushed for tenant ownership as HUD secretary under the first President Bush. The GOP has much to offer people with little hope, but we have to get better at speaking to the soul. We have to start talking like people with a moral vision for helping the poor.
Free market conservatism can provide solutions to some of the problems that have held people back for far too long. Given a broken education system, for example, Republicans have called for reinstating merit vouchers for poor students in D.C. that Congressional Democrats recently repealed. Faced with a world where starvation and poverty are persistent realities, Republicans have advocated free trade over the objections of Democrats concerned with “buying American.” In a time of foreclosures around the country, municipal Republicans continue to push for Kemp’s legacy of inner-city economic renewal and pro-tenant housing reform. We have also supported labor policies that would maximize employment and deny privilege to any one set of workers.
If we really want to hip-hop-ify our platform, we’ll need to go further, though. Calling for drug policy changes could give us a better beat than urban Democrats. Marijuana may be harmful, but it is our prohibitionist policies that have broken up families, used up so many jail cells that we cannot hold violent offenders and bloated the federal government. A good dose of family, healing and market-focused reforms could restore community rights, restore police priorities and create badly needed jobs and tax revenue in America’s cities.
Real hip-hop-ification of the GOP platform would mean communicating how our policies can best help underprivileged students, broken neighborhoods, the global poor, the unemployed and the addicted.
If we can do that and really honor both Kemp’s memory and Steele’s leadership, we may yet have a shot at giving urban Americans the kind of hope they find in the lyrics and rhythms of hip-hop.
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