Lee Eric Smith

Let’s dive right in: It’s time more African Americans join the Republican Party.

No, seriously.

And I’m not talking about being that lone speck of pepper in a sea of salt, either. We need to show up and we need to show up in numbers. We need to participate. We need to field candidates. And if there’s heat, we need to take it like we’ve been in a kitchen before.

Now, I know I’ve already lost some people, and that’s fine. And to be clear, I’m not calling for black folks to abandon the Democratic Party.

But for those who are ready to play some chess instead of checkers in this game called politics, read on.

If you lost faith in what a bloc of motivated African American voters can do, you need look no further than this week’s Alabama Senate race. Buoyed by a massive turnout of black voters, Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a senate seat in ruby red Alabama in a quarter of a century. And I know what you’re thinking: “Lee, that was a Democrat! With Democratic voters!” And, you would be right. But remember, this is chess we’re playing now.

Honestly, we should have learned our lesson by now. I can think of at least THREE times in my lifetime where the Republican Party has controlled the White House and both houses of Congress: The Reagan Years, the George W. Bush years, and now under President Donald Trump. We’re typically happy when a Democrat is in the Oval, but are screaming bloody murder when we feel that the GOP isn’t representing our interests.

But since when has anything changed by NOT getting involved?

When black folks were told they couldn’t sit at a lunch counter, they didn’t stop going to lunch. They didn’t dine ONLY at black-owned restaurants. They organized and got involved.

When James Meredith was told he couldn’t attend Ole Miss (my alma mater), he didn’t skip college or flee to the relative safety of an HBCU. He put the U.S. government in a position where they HAD to protect his Constitutional rights, and he took the fight right up to the steps of the Lyceum.

Checkers is thinking you can change the policies of the GOP by complaining about them from the outside. Chess is realizing that to influence and shape policy, you need to be in the room when policy is being made.

Can’t win if you’re not even in the game.

You can’t change the GOP from the outside. If you hate what the Republican Party stands for, that’s exactly why you need to join.

And for all his foibles, Trump has created massive opportunity to do just that. Trump’s populism has dragged the GOP so far to the extreme that even many lifelong Republicans are concerned about the party’s survival and relevance.

But by staking out such extreme positions, there is an opening in the GOP for reasonable, thoughtful people to step in and start making sense. It’s almost a dirty word in politics these days, but there’s nothing wrong with being a “moderate Republican.”

To win elections — especially at the state and local levels — the GOP will need to attract more diverse voters, more women voters, more LGBTQ voters. I would never expect them to dominate those demographics, but they can’t afford to be dominated in them either. Which means there are seats at the table to help shape policy that can win those voters over.

I’m sure you have a few questions. Go.

“Do I have to watch Fox News and read Breitbart.com?” Well, you should be doing that anyway, at least some of the time, just so you know what’s being said. It’s always wise to get info from multiple and diverse sources — it’s an antidote for “fake news.”

“Do I have to agree with every policy decision?” Of course not, but what’s different about that? I was mad that “the public option” had to be sacrificed for President Obama to get the Affordable Care Act done.

“But what about the racists?” First off, check your own prejudices. Just like wearing a hoodie doesn’t make a black man a thug, being Republican doesn’t make a white person racist. More importantly, why bring up the divisive issue of race anyway? In conversation, stick to “common ground” issues: jobs, fiscal responsibility, etc.   

“Do I have to vote Republican?” Vote your conscience, regarless of party. But yeah, sometimes you’ll need to vote GOP, just so the party feels our presence at the polls in a positive way. If we learn exactly ONE lesson from the election of Donald Trump, let it be this: Vote. No matter what. When voters stay home, Trump happens.

But none of it means anything if we’re not engaged outside of Election Day. When U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (R. – Collierville) has a town hall meeting, we need to be there. When Senators Lamar Alexander or Bob Corker are in town, they need to hear from us. When the Republican Party of Shelby County has an event, we need to be in the room.

I’m not naïve and I won’t lie: This is a long game — because in essence we are talking about transforming the very definition of what the “Republican base” is. That won’t happen quickly or easily. There will be resistance. Succeeding at the long  game will take discipline, focus and consistency.

But at least we won’t be playing checkers  — and wondering why we can’t win.