Affirmative Action, Republican Style

Published in Z Magazine, February, 1995

Affirmative action: two words that conservatives consider as obscene as any Madonna tell-all book or Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit funded by the beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts. For thirty years, they have claimed that attempts to rectify past and present discrimination by giving “preferential treatment” in employment to minorities and women amounted to “reverse discrimination,” and that objective indicators of “merit,” like IQ, grades, test scores, or past job performance should be the only factors determining who gets society’s goodies. Meritocracy they call it; a concept to which, if you believe all the rhetoric, the Republican Party should be deeply committed.

So it’s a good thing I never believed the rhetoric, given the reports from Washington this month that the new GOP majority will be selecting their staff, not by scrutinizing the SAT scores or resumes of hopeful applicants; but rather, by way of an extensive 152-question ideological purity exam, designed to weed out potential liberals or moderates, and guarantee that their assistants will tow the right-wing line on every conceivable issue.

Referred to joyously as a “litmus test” by Cal Thomas, this modern-day version of a McCarthyite loyalty oath, asks applicants their opinions of Rush Limbaugh, Operation Rescue, busing, and even tabloid TV shows, as if any of these were remotely related to a potential staffer’s qualifications. So much for merit as the sole determiner of a person’s job prospects.

Apparently it’s wrong to increase the number of Black, Latino, or female employees (of whatever race) at a business, or strive to make the Presidential cabinet “look more like America,” but perfectly okay to give a helping hand to upwardly-mobile members of Young Americans for Freedom, and strive to make Capitol Hill look more like a convention of the Christian Coalition. I didn’t realize conservatives had been such an oppressed minority that they now required special preference.

Supporters of the questionnaire respond that a staffer’s ideology is germane to their qualifications, since legislators need assistants who agree with them on policy initiatives. As Thomas notes: “The questionnaire will keep a pro-life member from hiring a pro-choice staffer or prevent a member who believes in a strong national defense from hiring a pacifist who believes in unilateral disarmament. But if Cal Thomas really thinks a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League or Communist Revolutionary Youth Brigade is going to apply for, let alone be offered, a job with a Jesse Helms think-alike, then he must believe the left is not only ideologically off-base, but masochistic as well.

The attempt to flush out every aspect of a potential staffer’s beliefs is unnecessary, counter to the right’s bombast about merit, and perhaps even dangerous. With staffers totally committed to a member’s views, the “group think” phenomenon so common among the like-minded, whereby critical evaluation of potential legislation is foregone for the sake of remaining “pure” and unargumentative, may be increasingly common. Such unreflective, knee-jerk activism is not what America needs, and isn’t what the electorate voted for November 8.

Apparently, folks like Thomas don’t mind Republicans ramming through legislation with the help of pliant sidekicks; indeed, in the conclusion to his nationally-syndicated piece on the matter, he tipped his hat to the real reason for his exuberance: hiring dogma will allow “rapid advances” in the Republican agenda. “So rapid,” says Thomas, “that the Democratic minority may not be able to keep pace.” So that’s the bottom line: Congressional staffers should be hired based on their ability to circumvent democratic deliberation, rather than their competence, experience, or professional recommendations. Such disdain for bipartisan democracy is standard for folks on the right, whose drug of choice is power, and who have clearly suffered an overdose this past month.

Of course, that conservatives don’t believe their own hype about how jobs should go to the “most qualified,” should come as no surprise to observers of GOP history. Political loyalty and membership in the old boy’s network has always meant more to Republican big-shots than objective merit.

Consider some of George Bush’s Ambassadorial appointments while President. First, there was C. Howard Wilkins, appointee to the Netherlands. Wilkins had no foreign service experience, but made a contribution to the GOP of $100,000 during the 1988 election, so off he went. Or Frederick M. Bush, chosen for Luxembourg. He didn’t speak any of the primary languages in the country — French, German, or Letzerburgish — but he was a top Bush fundraiser, and according to his own list of “qualifications” for the post, he was “an avid squash and tennis player.” Or Chic Hecht, who justified his appointment to the Bahamas on the grounds that he “loves golf and they have lots of nice golf courses.” Or Peter Secchia, Ambassador to Italy, who, when asked what he hoped to accomplish there, quipped: “I’m looking for a big-titted woman.” Finer credentials would indeed be hard to find.

So perhaps now with the Republican admission that ideology counts more than ability when it comes to hiring decisions, we can finally put aside the rhetoric about how conservatives stand for pure and noble meritocracy, while liberals threaten the same with their zealous pursuit of equality. If the choice is, as it seems to be, merely one between who gets preferential treatment — historically marginalized persons of color, or reactionary robots — I, for one, will choose the former every time.

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