Race: Still the Base in American Politics

The recent endorsement of Rudy Giuliani by Pat Robertson is called “unlikely” by some—but, and make no doubt about this, it is not. For all the talk of “family values,” “protecting America,” abortion, and whatever else, the real dividing line in American politics falls along questions of race. It has been so throughout my lifetime (I was born in 1951), the only change being in alliances. Giuliani became mayor of New York City through race (David Dinkins, the black mayor he replaced, probably did more than Giuliani to redirect NYC, but he was black—and a nice guy, but that’s another story). He is so popular in much of America not simply because of 9/11 (what exactly did he do to stop terrorism, anyway?) but because he “tamed” New York. He put the blacks and other non-whites in their places, that’s what he did.

Look at Robertson’s career: though rarely making African-Americans the focus of his attacks, his ministry parallels the rise of the “southern strategy” used by Republicans in the wake of Democrat-led successes in civil rights in the mid-1960s. Before that time, southern Democrats were reliably racist and it was a coalition of liberal Republicans and northern Democrats that made the civil-rights legislation possible. The result of the “southern strategy” was a shift that saw the disappearance of liberal Republicans and a move of southern Democrats to the Republican party—and the rise of what is seen as a newly vigorous conservative movement. It should be no surprise that Robertson feels comfortable with Giuliani, for their differences are ultimately peripheral. Robertson, using the coded terms of the “southern strategy,” was a part of the movement to use race to bring the Republican power to dominance—just as Giuliani will prove to be, if his campaign succeeds.

As was Ronald Reagan. In fact, he was probably its ablest practitioner.

There has been a bit of a donnybrook recently on the op-ed page of The New York Times. It started with another of those attempts to pretend that the whole “southern stategy” is simply a “slur” on the Republicans and, in the instance under consideration, on Ronald Reagan. The columnist, David Brooks, writes:

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Like many contemporary apologists for Reagan, Brooks attempts to move the blame to his “strategists” but then tries to exonerate them as well. The wink and nod used by Reagan by appearing at the Neshoba County Fair and using the term “states rights” were, in the vision Brooks tries to build, purely accidental. He fails to mention (though he surely knows this) that such coded references to the side of the race-issue divide one falls on was a major part of a strategy that, by 1980, was already a decade-and-a-half old.

Four days after Brooks’ November 9 attempt at revisionist history, fellow columnist Bob Herbert took him to task, though without naming him. He wrote:

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”
Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.
That won’t wash.

Unfortunately, it does wash—in the eyes of the millions of racist Americans who have subsumed their hatred under a patina of coded red-herrings and internal misdirection. Whether Herbert (or I) like it or not, the justifications and explanations those like Brooks provide allow people to hide their racism while continuing to support essentially racist policies—which, I suspect, is what led Paul Krugman to jump into the fray today.

Krugman took Herbert’s column, which dealt with the murders that made Philadelphia,Mississippi iconic to the American racial debate, and brought the issue smack into the current political climate:

More than 40 years have passed since the Voting Rights Act, which Reagan described in 1980 as “humiliating to the South.” Yet Southern white voting behavior remains distinctive. Democrats decisively won the popular vote in last year’s House elections, but Southern whites voted Republican by almost two to one.
The G.O.P.’s own leaders admit that the great Southern white shift was the result of a deliberate political strategy. “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization.” So declared Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, speaking in 2005.
And Ronald Reagan was among the “some” who tried to benefit from racial polarization.

Krugman, who must have been feeling rather optimistic when he wrote this column, sees in the fact of a racist base to the rise of conservative political power as containing its own destruction: the power of racism is receding in America, he believes, though slowly (receding, principally, through demographic changes that will soon reduce the white majority to a plurality).

Make no mistake about it: the rise of conservative power in American politics is tied inextricably to race, as any honest examination of Reagan’s appearance at that 1980 county fair (among thousands of similar incidents) makes clear. The continuing potential of appealing to the racial divide will be obvious as the 2008 presidential election continues to make what seem to be strange bedfellows—such as Pat Robertson and Rudy Giuliani.

For it’s really not so strange. Robertson and Giuliani are both appealing to a racist base that will come out to vote in response to their coded appeals—just as it did for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. Whether or not this strategy can still succeed remains to be seen.

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