David Brooks explains, twenty-seven years later, that Ronald Reagan really didn’t mean to come across like he was sucking up to white Southern racists when he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980 and said he was in favor of “states rights,” and that it’s really unfair to use that example as proof that “the Republican majority was built on racism.”
The truth is more complicated.
In reality, Reagan strategists decided to spend the week following the 1980 Republican convention courting African-American votes. Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.
Lou Cannon of The Washington Post reported at the time that this schedule reflected a shift in Republican strategy. Some inside the campaign wanted to move away from the Southern strategy used by Nixon, believing there were more votes available in the northern suburbs and among working-class urban voters.
But there was another event going on that week, the Neshoba County Fair, seven miles southwest of Philadelphia. The Neshoba County Fair was a major political rallying spot in Mississippi (Michael Dukakis would campaign there in 1988). Mississippi was a state that Republican strategists hoped to pick up. They’d recently done well in the upper South, but they still lagged in the Deep South, where racial tensions had been strongest. Jimmy Carter had carried Mississippi in 1976 by 14,000 votes.
So the decision was made to go to Neshoba. Exactly who made the decision is unclear. The campaign was famously disorganized, and Cannon reported: “The Reagan campaign’s hand had been forced to some degree by local announcement that he would go to the fair.” Reagan’s pollster Richard Wirthlin urged him not to go, but Reagan angrily countered that once the commitment had been made, he couldn’t back out.
Reagan’s speech at the fair was short and cheerful […] He told several jokes, and remarked: “I know speaking to this crowd, I’m speaking to a crowd that’s 90 percent Democrat.”
He spoke mostly about inflation and the economy, but in the middle of a section on schools, he said this: “Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.”
You can look back on this history in many ways. It’s callous, at least, to use the phrase “states’ rights” in any context in Philadelphia. Reagan could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn’t. And it’s obviously true that race played a role in the G.O.P.’s ascent.
Still, the agitprop version of this week — that Reagan opened his campaign with an appeal to racism — is a distortion, as honest investigators ranging from Bruce Bartlett, who worked for the Reagan administration and is the author of “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy,” to Kevin Drum, who writes for Washington Monthly, have concluded.
But still the slur spreads. It’s spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy. And, of course, in a partisan age there are always people eager to believe this stuff.
It might be a little easier to swallow Mr. Brooks’s self-righteous indignation if he didn’t hedge his own bets by saying that Mr. Reagan should have mentioned civil rights, and if he hadn’t admitted as well that “it’s obviously true that race played a role in the G.O.P.’s ascent.” And if the Republicans were so sensitive to racial issues and that any implication that they have exploited Southern sensibilities is a slur, why did Ken Mehlman, the former chairman of the RNC, find it necessary to go to the NAACP convention and apologize for the rotten way the his party has treated the African-American community and promise to do better? And why did it take President Bush more than five years into his presidency before he could clear his schedule to address the NAACP? (His excuse was that the NAACP was solidly Democratic. Gee, did it ever dawn on him as to why that is, or why about 90% of registered African-American voters are Democrats?)
The simple fact remains that for the last forty years the Republicans have exploited race as an issue, and no amount of fact-checking by David Brooks over a speech in 1980 is going to change that. And in spite of Mr. Mehlman’s promise to do better, the GOP still does use race as a wedge issue; it’s just against different people now. The Republican candidates are all campaigning against illegal immigration, using a range of rhetoric from the nuanced strategy of John McCain to the truly horrific xenophobia of Tom Tancredo, but it’s all focused on keeping brown people out of America, whether they’re Hispanics from Mexico or Arabs from Dubai (unless, of course, they have money). And instead of scaring the crap out of their audiences with tales of black children being bussed into the lily-white suburbs to achieve integration, they now threaten us with terrorists disguised as day-laborers and the housekeeping staff at the Las Vegas Hilton, and don’t get me started on what they’re doing against the LGBT community. If the Republicans have learned anything about diversity, it’s how to use it to spread their message of “us vs. them” to a larger variety of minorities.
If David Brooks feels that it’s such a calumny to label the Republicans in this manner, perhaps his indignation — and latent guilt — should be directed more at the party that did it — and still does it — rather than accuse others perpetuating this perception.