Rudnik > The Teachable Moment of the Steve Scalise “Scandal”

| January 8, 2015

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Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Recently, damning allegations have surfaced that incoming-House Majority Whip and Louisiana Republican Congressman Steve Scalise spoke at a 2002 white supremacist conference. The group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) and its leader, David Duke, invited Rep. Scalise to speak before their members while he was serving in the State Legislature in Baton Rouge. Further reports have noted that Scalise was speaking at scores of events around the same time, with only one staff member to manage his calendar and legislative affairs. Scalise’s communications outfit posits that he attended the EURO meeting to speak to the attendees about a tax reform proposal.

Further, Scalise’s communications director is adamant the then-state representative did not know that EURO was a white supremacist group with ties to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Does all this make Scalise a racist? Hardly. The twenty-four hour cable news cycle and the constant congressional campaign have inaugurated a precarious new era of partisan combat: where everything is fair game. Make a single mistake, expect demands for your resignation.

Frankly, if before the recent Scalise revelations, I were asked to compile a list of potential “white supremacists” currently serving in Congress, Rep. Scalise wouldn’t have been on it. Now, like most Louisiana politicians, Scalise should’ve know who David Duke was. Duke was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, ran for the U.S. Senate, nearly became Louisiana’s governor, and, of course, was a Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard.” In brief, Duke should’ve been on Scalise’s radar.

Even so, politicians speak to a variety of groups and attend countless “rubber chicken dinners.” Radical, racist groups have been undergoing major “rebranding” efforts since the early-1990s. EURO, sounds innocuous, without looking into the group few would know of its racist origins. Perhaps Scalise thought along the lines, “Duke is a known racist, but maybe he’s involved in a number of organizations—not solely the KKK.”

Most importantly, Scalise, like many Louisianans, is Catholic. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization that tracks American hate groups, reminds us that the vast majority of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and racist skinhead groups detest Catholics—along with African Americans, immigrants, homosexuals, Jews, and others. Nevertheless, the notion of Scalise being a longtime racist doesn’t fit the overbearing, albeit deeply misguided, racist narrative of the past several decades.

French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, posits that political scandals have a positive efficacy in liberal democratic government. In short, scandals reaffirm social norms. When a scandal presents itself in the political field, it shocks the conscience of the body politic—and it reminds the electorate that what transpired was wrong. Americans, generally, detest racist hate groups. So, when a politician is seen anywhere near their pow-wows, the mere optics are acutely problematic.

The teachable moment for politicians—particularly those hailing from the Deep South—is to do your homework before you speak before a group; before you accept a campaign contribution; before you send a piece of correspondence. The European-American Unity and Rights Organization sounds as if it could be an ordinary civic organization. Certainly, the media industrial complex of the twenty-first century will find any and all dirt on you—and use it against you.

The Steve Scalise “scandal,” if it can even be called such, is disparate from the Mississippi Senator Trent Lott scandal of 2002—which forced Sen. Lott’s premature resignation from Senate leadership. In recent days, many in the media have compared the two scandals because of their staunch similarities, transpiring around the same time. Sen. Lott, the would be-incoming Senate majority leader, spoke at then-Sen. Strom Thurmond’s one-hundredth birthday party. Thurmond, a longtime and steadfast segregationist, ran for president on the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket in 1948. Lott noted to the crowd, on video, that “when Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”

The difference between Lott and Scalise? Lott gave tacit affirmation to the philosophy of Thurmond—that is, a pro-segregation, pro-racist position. Further, a position squarely outside the mainstream of American politics. The public outcry reminded Lott and the incoming Senate Republican majority that racism is a severely misguided worldview. And, the Senate Republican Conference responded accordingly: forcing Lott to remove his name from consideration of becoming majority leader.

Indeed, Scalise is also in a leadership position in the House. But nevertheless, short of hard evidence, if Scalise is to be found guilty in the court of public opinion, simply by association at a single, isolated event: then we are entering an even more aggressive age of partisan combat. And, that is something to be profoundly concerned about. Because even more politics, means even more gridlock, even more acrimony, and less solutions for the American people from our Congress. Something that is deeply, deeply troubling, indeed.


rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

 

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