Monday, November 19, 2007

It’s Their Legacy

Paul Krugman gets in what probably won’t be the last word on the discussion about race relations and the GOP.

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.


Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted. So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.

Why does this history matter now? Because it tells why the vision of a permanent conservative majority, so widely accepted a few years ago, is wrong.

The point is that we have become a more diverse and less racist country over time. The “macaca” incident, in which Senator George Allen’s use of a racial insult led to his election defeat, epitomized the way in which America has changed for the better.

And because conservative ascendancy has depended so crucially on the racial backlash — a close look at voting data shows that religion and “values” issues have been far less important — I believe that the declining power of that backlash changes everything.

I’ve read several rebuttals to this idea that the Republicans mastered the dog-whistle of the George Wallace-inclined voters and that Reagan used racial polarization. Most of the responses have boiled down to a non-denial denial along the lines of the juvenile rejoinder such as “the Democrats are just as racist, too,” and “the Democrats have kept the African Americans in their place by making them dependent on welfare and government programs like affirmative action.”

How then does that explain the fact that 90% of African Americans who are registered to vote are Democrats? Either they know the truth and can see through the Republican bamboozlement, or the Democrats have been able to pull off one of the biggest deceptions in the history of electoral politics for the last forty years. Anyone who’s paid any attention whatsoever to the political dynamics knows that when it comes to pulling the wool over the voters eyes, the Republicans win with flying colors; it’s like comparing a crack SWAT team to the Keystone Kops. The Democratic Party may have its flaws and its bad apples, but history has proved time and again that it has been the liberals who have supported civil rights, voting rights, fair housing, and racial equality, and they’ve done it for real. The Party of Lincoln no longer represents the goals of emancipation and Reconstruction any more than the Democrats represent the entrenched Southern middle class that they did a century ago.

The more insidious implication on the part of the Republicans is that they’re saying that African American voters and the other minorities are too stupid to figure out that they’re being used by the Democrats. I’ve heard that on more than one occasion from Republicans: the blacks haven’t figured out that they’re being played by the Democrats, but when they do… This kind of transference is common among people who are trying to defend the indefensible; they believe that in order to justify their own bad behavior, they must be convinced that everyone feels the same way they do. They honestly can’t believe that anyone else doesn’t agree with them. And now their sights have been turned on the Hispanics by ratcheting up the anti-immigration rhetoric. As Mr. Krugman notes, all this does is alienate the growing number of Latino voters, regardless of their ancestry, and they’re registering heavily Democratic.

It would be nice if the Democrats could earn the trust and the votes of these groups solely on the appeal of their vision for the country rather than by being turned off by the xenophobia and polarization of the GOP, but then, perhaps these new voices will help guide the party and show that there’s more to gained in voting for something rather than against someone else.

Or, as a cynical friend of mine once said, “Hey, we’ll take a vote for us no matter why. It’s still a vote the Republicans won’t get.”