Sunday, April 11, 2010

When did the Republican Party become the party of racism?

There's a post up this morning at a Republican blog arguing that the Democratic Party is the party of racism in this country, so I thought maybe a little history lesson was in order. Fifty years ago, that might have been true. Then the Democratic Party under Lyndon Johnson forced through Civil Rights legislation in the early 1960s. Racists and segregationists in the Democratic Party read the writing on the wall: they were no longer welcome in the Democratic Party.

The current Republican worldview regarding race and racism dates from the presidential elections of 1964 and 1968. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for President of the United States. From Wikipedia:
In the 1964 presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater ran a conservative campaign, part of which emphasized "states' rights." Goldwater's 1964 campaign was a magnet for conservatives. Goldwater broadly opposed strong action by the federal government. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and, second, that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do business, or not, with whomever they chose. In addition, Goldwater's primary delegate slate from the South had no blacks, but was filled instead with white segregationists.

All this appealed to white Southern Democrats, and Goldwater was the first Republican to win the electoral votes of the Deep South states (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina) since Reconstruction. However, Goldwater's vote on the Civil Rights Act proved devastating to Goldwater’s campaign everywhere outside the South (besides Dixie, Goldwater won only in Arizona, his home state), contributing to his landslide defeat in 1964. A Lyndon B. Johnson ad called "Confessions of a Republican," which ran in the North, associated Goldwater with the Ku Klux Klan. At the same time, Johnson’s campaign in the Deep South publicized Goldwater’s full history on civil rights. In the end, Johnson swept the election.
Goldwater's campaign was a naked appeal to Southern white racists to bolt the Democratic Party and support the Republican Party. In return for the support of Southern white racists, Goldwater implicitly pledged to oppose civil rights for African-Americans. And Republicans wonder why African-Americans seem to bear a grudge. In 1968, Richard Nixon ran an enhanced version of Goldwater's "Southern Strategy" and beat a Democratic Party badly divided over the Vietnam War. Four years later, in the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon won more than 70% of the popular vote in the "Deep South" states and Florida, and over 60% in all the other states of the former Confederate States of America.

Nixon would later resign as the result of the Watergate scandal, but Republicans had found--in the explicitly racist "Southern Strategy"--the strategy they would use to win all Republican presidential victories since: 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004. Whether it was Ronald Reagan speaking in Philadelphia, Mississippi sixteen years after the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner or George H.W. Bush's invocation of Willie Horton, the Southern Strategy has always been at the center of the Republican Party's strategy.

In Virginia, the coming death of the Southern Strategy was heralded by the victory of Democrat Jim Webb over Republican George Allen in the 2006 U.S. Senate race. Allen was a long time practitioner of the kind of "dog-whistle" racism that was the Southern Strategy's stock in trade. But then Allen went a bit too far and an overtly racist remark by Allen cost him the election when it was caught on tape by a Webb volunteer. Overnight, it seemed, racism had stopped working as an electoral strategy. Then came 2008, and Barack Obama carried Virginia and it wasn't even close. This despite the fact that Republican activists in Virginia did their best to get the word out that Barack Obama was, you know, a Negro. The Southern Strategy failed in Virgina and North Carolina in 2008.

Bob McDonnell abandoned the Southern Strategy in 2009. He ran a straightforward, well-organized conservative campaign and won convincingly. McDonnell asked for--and got--the support of more than one prominent African-American. McDonnell's campaign appeared to mark a large step forward for Southern Republicans in terms of how they dealt with race in elections. It isn't clear why McDonnell felt the need to reopen old wounds this year with "Confederate History Month." If Republicans like Bob McDonnell choose to associate themselves with racists, well, that's their choice, but as a long-term strategy for victory it doesn't appear too promising.

Republicans have some serious questions they need to address if they are to move their party forward. Let me repeat them again here:
  1. What does it mean to be a Republican?
  2. What do Republicans believe?
  3. Do you have to be a racist to be a Republican? Or do you merely have to tolerate racism among some of your fellow Republicans?
  4. Is racism implicitly or explicitly part of the Republican worldview, and if so, is that a good or bad thing?
  5. Will racism help Republicans get elected, or will racism hurt Republicans at the polls?


r.b. said...

This fall's elections will be the test. I'm not looking forward to it.

GregR said...

Funny how the "non-racist" example (and his wife) was found guilty of political corruption earlier this month.