Friday, December 3, 2010

The Origins of Republican Racism

Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President - 1960" is more than just a chronicle of the legendary Kennedy-Nixon campaign; it is also, as virtually any American historian will tell you, a book that singlehandedly revolutionized the way in which journalists report and scholars chronicle American elections. To argue that this book is a Must Read for students of presidential politics is a gross understatement.

That said, I'm not here to tout the merits of White's magnum opus. Instead I merely want to cite a section of that book that discusses the tactical and ideological thinking that caused the Republican Party to abandon its century-long allegiance to civil rights and move to the dark side of racism.

Please bear in mind that this was written in 1962.

The problem of civil rights in America - which is another way of speaking of the relations of Negro Americans with white Americans - poses, for political strategists, the sharpest choices in national planning. Since the northward migration of the Negro from the South (see Chapter Eight for a fuller treatment), the Negro vote, in any close election, has become critical in carrying six of the eight most populous states of the union. To ignore the Negro vote and Negro insistence on civil rights must be either an act of absolute folly - or one of absolute calculation.

For twelve years now this problem of Negro vote and Negro rights has roweled the Democratic Party. Northern Democrats and Northern Negroes have agreed that in the area of civil rights the federal government should supersede state authority and intervene in state affairs. But Southern whites wish to deal with their race problem on their own; and the support of Northern Democrats for federal intervention in Southern race problems has shaken, perhaps permanently, the Democratic grip on its old Southern base. Concurrently has come the phenomenal growth of the Republican Party in the South, resting in large part on the recognition of growing millions of Southerners that the Regular Republicans, who seek to curb the powers of the federal government in general, are their natural allies in preserving state sovereignty in race relations, too.

The prospect for the Republican high command is thus tantalizing in the extreme. If they adopt a civil rights program only moderately more restrained than the Democrats', the South can be theirs for the asking; and with the South, if it comes permanently to Republican loyalties, could come such solid addition of electoral strength as would make Republicans again, as they were for half a century, the majority party of the nation and the semipermanent stewards of the national executive power. Furthermore, since the Northern Negro now votes habitually for the Democrats, by overwhelming margins (of 3 to 1 to 8 to 1), why seek to outbid the Democrats where they cannot be outbid? So argue conservative Republicans, and their philosophy can be summarized as one of trade; let us give the Northern Negro vote to the Democrats, and we shall take the Old South for ourselves.

While this plan existed only in its nascent stages during the 1960 election, it was brought to fruition in the following presidential contest, when the Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater - distinguished, among other things, for his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that his opponent, President Lyndon Johnson, had spent most of his political capital pushing through - and thus swept the Deep South for the first time in its history (this was also the year when the vast majority of Dixiecrats, led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, switched partisan allegiances from Democrat to Republican). Four years later the South was split between segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace and Republican Richard Nixon, who tried to use a coded version of Wallace's racist red meat to win a Southern bloc that he knew was lost to the Democrats that year (in part because of the anti-war movement and in part because of dissatisfaction with the racial liberalism of their nominee, Hubert Humphrey, who only picked up Lyndon Johnson's Texas among Southern states). By 1972, with Wallace out of the picture, Nixon was able to win every Southern state using his famous "Southern Strategy" of euphemistic racist politicking (such as focusing on issues like busing and inner-city crime); that strategy was solidified by Ronald Reagan eight years later in 1980 (only with welfare and states' right being used as the code words of choice), and as a result, racist rhetoric has been a keystone of the conservative movement ever since.

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