Writing at National Review, conservative journalist John Fund promises to “set the record straight on Jim Crow.” And what does he offer? A column’s worth of warmed-over partisan pablum that begins and ends with the idea that, as far as civil rights are concerned, Democrats are the real racists. Some choice passages:
Even as the nation celebrates the passage of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, some liberals are using the occasion to bash Republicans as inheriting the legacy of Jim Crow—ignoring the fact that a higher percentage of Republicans in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act than did Democrats. …
[T]he political enforcement of Jim Crow was entirely in Democratic hands. The Ku Klux Klan functioned as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party, and it was used to drive Republicans out of the South after the Civil War. Before he took up the cause of civil rights as president, Lyndon Johnson acting as Senate majority leader blocked the GOP’s 1956 civil-rights bill, and gutted Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act. Democratic senators filibustered the GOP’s 1960 Civil Rights Act.
First, an observation: It would be nice if Fund had reckoned with National Review’s early defense of segregation, including William F. Buckley’s assertion that “the cultural superiority of White over Negro” is a “fact that obtrudes” and that “National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. … It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” But to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, you engage with the pundits you have, not the ones you want.
In any case, none of this is inaccurate. As Geoffrey Kabaservice shows in Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Republicans were a driving force behind the civil rights bills of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, and supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act at a much higher rate than Democrats in either chamber of Congress. What’s more, Democrats were the political beneficiaries of Jim Crow governance, dominating federal elections on the strength of a Solid South. And Fund is right: The defenders of Jim Crow—from Woodrow Wilson to Theodore Bilbo—were Democratic politicians.
The problem with Fund’s argument is that he takes these facts, divorces them from historical context, and spins them into an unconvincing indictment of the modern Democratic Party and a disingenuous exoneration of its conservative counterpart.
The simple fact is that, despite surface similarities, the Republican and Democratic parties of midcentury were vastly different beasts than their contemporary counterparts. Unlike the ideologically coherent parties of today (i.e., most Democrats are liberals and most Republicans are conservatives), the Republicans and Democrats of the immediate postwar period were heterodox coalitions of interest and historical circumstance. Liberal Northeastern Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton shared influence and power with “stalwarts” like Gerald Ford and Everett Dirksen and hard-right conservatives like Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy. And on the other end, New Deal liberals in the mid-Atlantic and industrial Midwest were yoked to a huge faction of Southern segregationists.
It’s not too reductionist to say that civil rights—and more broadly, the Civil War and Reconstruction—were responsible for the general outline of this alignment. Even as the parties expanded westward in the 19th century, Republicans remained the party of the Union (and thus black Americans) and Democrats maintained their allegiance to the South.
Indeed, the basic sectionalism of American politics would endure through most of the 20th century, even surviving Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented New Deal coalition of white ethnics, Northern blacks, Southern segregationists, and liberal reformers.
To go back to Fund, this is why it’s silly to say, “The Ku Klux Klan functioned as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party”—as if it means something for modern politics. Yes, in the 1870s, the Klan was a near-surrogate for a Democratic Party that was fundamentally different in terms of its constituency and ideology than the one we’ve had for the last half-century. Likewise, you can’t understand President Lyndon Johnson’s weakening of the 1957 Civil Rights Act—and later embrace of the full-throated 1964 Civil Rights Act—without grasping his position in the party as a Southern New Dealer. And it’s downright dishonest to say that “Democratic senators filibustered the GOP’s 1960 Civil Rights Act” without noting that these were white supremacists like Mississippi’s James Eastland, who once called segregation “the law of God.”
The 1964 Civil Rights Act falls along these lines as well. If you break up the vote by geography, the picture is clear: Ninety percent of lawmakers from the former Union supported the law, while 93 percent of lawmakers from the former Confederacy opposed it.
I should be clear: None of this is a defense of Democratic Party history. For most of its history, the Democratic Party was on the wrong side of civil rights, and it’s more than fair to point that out. At the same time, we shouldn’t treat this as especially relevant for the present era, nor should we pretend that the GOP was as virtuous as the Democrats were wicked; from the late 19th century until World War II, both parties were largely silent in the face of Jim Crow terror, seeking white unity rather than equal rights.
And today, if liberals (including black activists, who might have an insight or two) don’t give Republicans the benefit of the doubt on race, it’s because of a recent history of racial insensitivity, from Reagan’s “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to the “food stamp president” and the right-wing media attack on Trayvon Martin.
At the end of his column, Fund claims that Democrats distract attention from their allegedly failed policies by “waving the racial bloody flag.” Nonsense. If black voters reject Republicans, it’s not because they’ve been fooled by nefarious Democrats—a depressingly common position on the right, it seems—but because they’ve been alienated by 50 years of revanchist right-wing populism and see the modern Democratic Party as the best vehicle for their interests. The sooner conservatives understand this—and take responsibility for their part in the story—the sooner they can do something to change it.