Is the Republican Party Racist?

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 8 2012 3:50 AM

Is the Republican Party Racist?

It depends on race-baiting tactics and the votes of former Confederate states.

The Confederate flag atop the capitol building in South Carolina
The U.S. flag (top), the state flag of South Carolina (middle) and the Confederate flag (bottom) fly atop the capitol building in April 2000 in Columbia, S.C.

Photograph by Erik Perel/Getty Images.

Now that Romney supporters have sought to make race, once again, an issue against Obama with an "explosive" five-year-old video reminding voters that Obama (yes, it's true!) consorts with black people, perhaps it's time to remind people of the real reason Romney deserves rejection at the polls in November: He is the candidate of the neo-racist Republican Party.

“Neo-racist” seem a little pointed? OK, how about “structurally racist”? I bring up the matter in part because it relates to the discussion lately about how journalism must do more than present false equivalency, treating the two sides of any debate as though they are equally valid. Journalism-watchers have been indulging in a fair bit of self-congratulatory rhetoric about how now journalism is all about the TRUTH behind any debate, as if discovering the truth was always something easy to do on deadline, often without sufficient expertise.

Those who dismiss “he said, she said” journalism—the tendency to present both sides of any story without judgment—make the arrogant assumption that they can do better, present the truth, the absolute truth on any given contested issue.

But is this true? Is this always possible?

I present, as a test case, the issue of whether the Republican Party should be identified as a “neo-racist” entity. Could the press present this judgment as a fact? Let’s conduct a kind of thought experiment about how far the press should go in declaring that a matter’s factuality has been decided.

I remember being seated next to Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, at some dinner and discussing J-school attitudes toward the question of truth. (I’d taught a few writing seminars at Columbia.) And hearing Lemann saying something important that the bold journalism truthers neglect: that the hardest thing to teach J-school students was to “report the debates.”

Report the debates! Not to declare truths as if bearing them down on stone tablets from Sinai, but to clarify and sharpen the questions, investigate the hidden agendas, the underlying theories, the potential consequences of each side of a contested issue. Without necessarily declaring a winner.

And thus the real task, ignored by the anti-“he said/she said” crowd, is to decide which issues are valid debates. Because I agree there are some truths that are beyond debate, though not as many as established and obvious as the anti-“he/said she said”-types seem to think. I think most would agree that the 9/11 “truthers” and the Obama “birthers” do not merit any further debate; the facts are in. We can declare the believers deluded.

On the other hand, take drone strikes. I’ve argued here that because of the risk they pose to civilians they are, in most cases, by most interpretations of the internationally recognized Laws of Armed Conflict, war crimes. But I can see there are arguments against this, even from liberals, and I don’t think the question is so settled that journalists should be required to identify the president, the secretary of defense and the director of the CIA as war criminals every time they’re mentioned.

I’ve spent some time putting “truth” claims and false equivalencies in perspective because I want to test the theory that there is one truth in political discourse that the media has almost entirely failed to recognize or fears to utter, one at the heart of presidential campaign reporting: The Republican Party is an institutionally, structurally racist entity. It’s the veritable elephant in the room of campaign coverage.

No, I’m not saying all Republicans are racist. I’m saying that as a party, ever since Goldwater and Nixon concocted the benighted, openly racist “Southern Strategy” in the ’60s, the Republican Party has profited from overt and covert racism.

The Southern Strategy was designed to capitalize on Southern white resentment of court-enforced busing to end school desegregation, of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination in interstate commerce, of enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent historically racist Southern counties and states from discriminating against blacks who sought to exercise their right to vote where once they'd been effectively barred. By playing on these issues, Nixon and other Republicans of this era won many traditionally Democratic votes in the South. Later, GOP opposition to affirmative action, race-based hiring "quotas" and all other methods of compensating for the debilitating legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation fed into what was one of the momentous shifts, a total turnaround in just more than a decade (1970 to 1984) from a solidly Democratic South to a solidly Republican one.

A new book about Strom Thurmond, the openly racist senator from South Carolina (he ran as a "Dixiecrat" against Truman in 1948) details how Thurmond's switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 1964 was the harbinger and instigator for that shift to a solidly Republican South. Eventually the party became somewhat less overt in its public statements but not in its appeal at the voting booth.

Which means in practice that the GOP starts out every presidential election with (depending on census changes in electoral vote numbers) some 100 electoral votes, more than a third of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.

Is it an accident that these 100 votes come from the core states of the Old Confederacy—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina?

Looked at another way, as things stand, there would be no presidential "race" at the moment if it weren't for those ex-confederate states—even if they split their votes. Mitt Romney would have little or no chance of winning and might as well quit the race now. Nor would the GOP have much chance of re-taking the Senate or even winning the House again. They would be dead as a political party if not for the legacy of racism. I think that's a fact. Do you think it's "he said/she said"?

That doesn’t mean that all Southern whites vote GOP only because of race. But when I checked in with the careful historian of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Rick Perlstein, author of books on the Goldwater and Nixon phenomena, he suggested that recent research has demonstrated that racial attitudes—as opposed to mere conservatism on other policy issues—determine Republican votes in the South.

He referred me to a book by Thomas Schaller, called Whistling Past Dixie, in which Schaller cites sophisticated polling studies of Southern voters. Perlstein has explained his regard for Schaller’s book:

Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South," by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a "conservative," controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely—again controlling for racial attitudes—than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees "If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites," or choosing whether blacks are "lazy" or "hardworking"), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller writes: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters … the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."

At the very least these patterns make Southern voters susceptible to what some observers have called "dog whistle" appeals to racism, such as Mitt Romney's false claim in campaign ads that Obama had "gutted" welfare reform work requirements, reminding many of Reagan-era attacks on "welfare queens" in Cadillacs.

Really, just about everybody knows this—that the new solid GOP South is a gift from the legacy of racism—but few say it outright anymore, except a scattering of opinion columnists. It's been "priced in" you might say, taken for granted, or avoided for fear of offense—i.e., telling the truth.

Even The Nation, which recently devoted a cover story to attacking the GOP, focused on the party’s greed (as opposed to the non-greedy groveling to Wall Street by Democrats, of course). The issue did not focus on overt, structural racism as the GOP’s distinguishing—and delegitimizing—sin.

In one of the rare mainstream media recognitions of the issue, which appeared only on an opinion blog, the TimesThomas Edsall called out Mitt Romney’s “Southern Strategy”—in particular his dog-whistle “welfare-gutting” ploy:

The Romney campaign is willing to disregard criticism concerning accuracy and veracity [of the welfare slur] in favor of “blowing the dog whistle of racism”—resorting to a campaign appealing to racial symbols, images and issues. ... On television and the Internet ... the Romney campaign is clearly determined ‘to make this about’ race, in the tradition of the notorious 1988 Republican Willie Horton ad, which described the rape of a white woman by a convicted African-American murderer released on furlough from a Massachusetts prison during the gubernatorial administration of Michael Dukakis and Jesse Helms’s equally infamous “White Hands” commercial, which depicted a white job applicant who ‘needed that job’ but was rejected because “they had to give it to a minority.”

Edsall’s honesty is welcome, and would be more welcome (in the new age of no more he said/she said) on the main news pages of the Times, right? Tell it like it is. But even he argues that Romney is using racial tactics as a response to Obama’s poll lead. He does not feel the need to acknowledge that racism has been a built-in structural foundation for Republican Party politics for nearly a half a century.

It’s not that he doesn’t realize this; it’s almost as if he assumes everyone knows it—that it’s, you know, a fact. But if it’s a fact, isn’t it time we attribute this tendency not just to this candidate or that, but to the party itself? In this age of truth in journalism, shouldn’t we make it clear in reporting that this is a neo-racist party that doesn’t deserve false equivalency with the non-racist party? However flawed the Democratic Party was—and is—it’s anti-racist now.

(I'm not calling Romney a racist, I should stipulate, though there's no indication he actively objected to his church's policy of excluding blacks from priesthood until it was ended in 1978.)

And all those poll-analysis geek websites that continuously report vast majorities for the GOP in the South among white voters (far greater than those in the North) somehow can’t see their way to be forthright about why this is.

I’m not saying that the vast majority of Southern whites vote GOP only because of race. But I think Rick Perlstein’s argument, based on careful polling data, suggests that it is a crucial factor that makes an electoral difference.

Let me put it this way. Is it just an accident, a coincidence, that with few exceptions (for sons of the South, Carter and Clinton), in the 10 presidential elections since 1968, the core states of the Confederacy—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina—and their hundred or so electoral votes have been a Republican bulwark?*

Is it any accident that they fly Confederate flags from their statehouse, as in South Carolina, or incorporate Confederate flag symbols into their state flags as in Mississippi and Alabama, or allow them to be flaunted on state-issued license places, even passing laws that declare they must be respected. If you’ve traveled much in the South (as I have), you see them flying too from courthouses, municipal buildings, and other private establishments. If it’s not unconstitutional, it is, frankly, disgusting.

It’s disgusting as well that the Republican Party in the Confederate-flag-flying states recurrently wins elections against opponents who vacillate on the flag issue. Does anyone believe the lie that the display of the slaveholders’ banner is just about “tradition” and “nostalgia”?

Let me make a comparison some might think inflammatory but I believe is entirely justified.

If a conservative government in the German state of Bavaria decided it was going to allow the flying of the SS death’s-head flag, would we find it a touchingly nostalgic tribute to “tradition”? We would not. And yet, as I’ve said before, slavery was a slow-motion genocide that murdered, over three centuries, as many or more human beings than Hitler did. And after a brief reconstruction period, people in the slaveholding states continued to murder, rape, and otherwise oppress the freed slaves and their descendants for another hundred years until they were forced by Federal laws and courts against their will to exercise their racism in less obvious ways, voting being just one.

When is the last time a Republican in the South denounced the blatantly racist disgustingly immoral brandishing of the genocidal slaveholders’ flag?

Do you want some numbers? Edsall was good on Romney’s use of dog-whistle code words and phrases like “gutting welfare,” but the best numerical analysis of the state of affairs I found was by Earl Ofari Hutchinson in an opinion blog.

Speaking of the core old Confederacy he says,

These states hold more than one-third of the electoral votes needed to bag the White House. ... Despite much talk that the white conservative vote has shrunk to the point of being marginalized, it isn’t. Whites make up three quarters of America’s electorate. That’s a drop of slightly more than 10 percent from what they represented in the 1980 presidential election. These numbers belie another stark political reality and that’s that in every election since Nixon’s win in 1968 whites have voted consistently by either sizeable or comfortable margins for GOP presidential candidates. Whites favored Reagan in 1984 by a 64-35 margin. They favored George Bush Sr. in 1988 by a 59-40 margin. ...

The final presidential tally in 2008 gave ample warning of the potency of the GOP’s conservative white constituency. Obama made a major breakthrough by winning a significant percent of votes from white independents and young white voters. Among Southern and Heartland America white male voters, Obama made almost no impact. In South Carolina and other Deep South states the vote was even more lopsided among white voters against Obama. The only thing that even made Obama’s showing respectable in those states was the record turnout and percentage of black votes that he got. ...

Romney’s Southern Strategy is anchored in another political reality. He ... crunched the voter numbers and the stats and those numbers have shown that his only path to the White House is getting an overwhelming number of white voters in the South, the Heartland States, and the swing states. Romney’s neo Southern Strategy with Ryan as point man is simply a repeat of what GOP presidential candidates have routinely done for the past five decades.

Let’s face it. If you ask me, there’s no he said/she said here. The Republican Party is only a viable entity because of Southern racism.  

I'd say that to call this—or past Southern electoral history—an accident devoid of racism is to be blind to American political history and culture. I don't think you can find a single political scientist who would tell you Mitt Romney's GOP has a path to victory without the old Confederate South's electoral votes. As things stand now, the loss of 100 sure electoral votes would put him hopelessly in a hole.

And yet let’s return to the Bavaria analogy. A party that supported the flying of the SS flag would be called neo-Nazi. I believe Republicans who depend on shameless Confederate flag-flying, white-dominated electorates, nostalgic for their antebellum genocidal “tradition,” should be called neo-racist in the news pages and network broadcasts. I think it’s a fact, not a he said/she said matter. I know, it’s shocking when you think about it, isn’t it? But I believe it’s the truth.

In a way mainstream media outlets who promote a false equivalency between the two parties by failing to note at the very least the neo-racist supporters of the Republican Party are themselves complicit in the charade that the GOP is a morally legitimate entity. Not that racists don’t vote Democratic, and yes I know the GOP was, was, the party of Lincoln, but that was long ago in another country.

I would hope that before the election comes there are at least some discussions in some newsrooms about how to make this clear. How to avoid false equivalency.

Why is it that we have to be reminded that the Civil War was not a war of moral equivalence? Just blue and grey, both sides brave and good. Sorry, no way. The issue is likely going to come up again later this year if, as is expected, the Supreme Court reviews the Voting Rights Act, one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress, because it put the spotlight on the rancid racist history of Southern states that sought to continue the shameful legacy of the Confederacy through a history of racist voter denial. Is this a matter of moral equivalence too? In other words, should historically racist states be treated as equal to states that did not legally institute racism by the courts when it comes to voter discrimination? I don’t think so.

It’s not just an intellectual exercise deciding whether Southern racism is still a factor. The current Supreme Court could rule the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional this term, on the grounds that all states are morally equivalent and history should play no role in assessing their behavior.  They would be wrong to do so. That’s a fact.

Speaking of reminders of why we need to end the false equivalency. Consider this one, a thrilling comment from someone who was once at the forefront but who hasn’t spoken out on the subject for some time. Obviously he felt it was something people needed to think about anew.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan said:

This country is just too fucked up about color. ... People at each other’s throats because they are of a different color. It’s the height of insanity, and it will hold any nation back—or any neighborhood back. ... It’s a country founded on the backs of slaves. ... If slavery had been given up in a more peaceful way, America would be far ahead today.

Yes: “A country founded on the backs of slaves.” And a party cravenly unashamed to base its existence on the backs of slaveholder states. Journalists, start telling the truth about the GOP.

Correction, Oct. 8, 2012: This piece incorrectly stated that the core states of the Confederacy had voted solidly Republican in presidential elections since 1964. With a few exceptions, the core states have been a Republican bulwark in the 10 presidential elections since 1968.