Michael Steele Shared His Perspective on the State of American Politics

The former Maryland lieutenant governor and Republican National Committee chair spoke about citizen engagement, bipartisanship and servant leadership at a GSPM MasterClass Series event.

June 17, 2021

GSPM MasterClass Michael Steele

GSPM adjunct professor Mark Meissner (left) moderated a discussion with Michael Steele about his perspective on the current state of American politics as part of a GSPM MasterClass Series event. (Photo by: William Atkins/GW Today)

By Tatyana Hopkins

It is unlikely that the Republican Party will turn the page on Donald Trump and move back to its more mainstream, conservative principles any time soon, said Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and chair of the Republican National Committee. 

“We need to rid ourselves of the notion that that’s going to happen anytime soon in the foreseeable future,” he said. “You’re looking at three, four, five, maybe six [election] cycles down the road. So... a minimum of 12 years to possibly 24.”

Having fundamentally shifted away from its former axis of conservative and libertarian ideals, Mr. Steele said the Republican Party has been left without “any logical orientation or ideological anchor” to shape the modern party movement. 

“What you are left with is a party with no platform, a party with a central figure, not just as its figurehead, but as a demanding figurehead, and you have not leaders, but sycophants, around him who are afraid to push back on the further distortion of [the party’s] axis,” he said. “People tried to patchwork conservatism as a band-aid around republicanism or republicanism as a band-aid around conservatism, and what that tells me is that regardless, it's a wounded puppy party in any case.”

Mr. Steele shared his thoughts Tuesday evening during the most recent Graduate School of Political Management MasterClass. Hosted virtually, the event was moderated by Mark Meissner, GSPM adjunct professor and vice president and global head of public relations for the PCI Security Standards Council.

“I'm not going to hold out hope that Kevin McCarthy is going to wake up tomorrow and go, “...what am I doing following Donald Trump,’” Mr. Steele said. “It's just not going to happen.”

Mr. Steele said although the nation’s current political landscape has become extremely polarized, average citizens must engage to hold elected officials accountable because they have the real power to “dictate the terms” of American politics.

He said citizen engagement is particularly important now more than ever, noting Republican efforts to systematically      rollback voting access for minorities in states following Democratic victories in the 2020 election.

“We can't trust these politicians to do this on their own,” Mr. Steele said. “You don’t get to check out this...unless you want every election from now going forward for the party in power to change the rules because they didn't like the outcome and to claim a victory where there was none. Trust me, my Republican friends out there, there are a lot of Democrats who are taking notes, and that's not good for democracy, and that's not good for those of us, regardless of our political walk, who are in the trenches trying to create greater access for folks to vote.”

Noting Republican success in defending a Prince George’s County property tax cap, where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 10 to 1, he said while he appreciated the “long odds” of a Democrat in a red state or a Republican in a blue state “fir[ing]” politicians who “change the rules” to suit their party, by making the right case they can “still change the game.”

Another way Mr. Steele said American citizens and parties can repair the country’s polarized political landscape is by supporting candidates who want to work on big issues and are willing to cross the aisle to do it rather than those focused on “taking out” their opponent.

“We encounter a lot of times when we have members who will say, ‘Well, I can't [work across the aisle] because I’ll get in trouble inside my caucus,’” he said. “Really. I mean, why... did we send you to Congress?”

He said while he “can be partisan with the best of them,” when it is time to “do the nation’s business,” working across the aisle is not optional. Further, at the heart of politics, he said, should be public service.

While attending law school at Georgetown University, he said he got more involved in politics because he saw it as a way to make “real change” and encouraged other aspiring and budding politicians to keep the idea of servant leadership and the aspiration of benefiting others in a “genuine way” at the core of what they do. 

“I didn’t start off wanting to be in politics; I wanted to be a priest,” Mr. Steele said. “But the core of what I [wanted to do], whether a priest, or something else, for me, was service.”