“Nixon, for political reasons, wooed the white South…but he did not…exchange civil rights for white Southern votes.” –Dean Kotlowski
Given that we have a black president, and some of his supporters conveniently discovered that criticizing him is tantamount to racism, it’s hardly surprising that I’m responding to an article—in a mainstream publication, no less—entitled “Is the Republican Party Racist?”
Why is it that the Left is so obsessed with the spectacle of Republican racism? Is it unease with a dark racial history, from the social tensions and racial violence in the North to the governmental Jim Crow activism of Progressive Democrats in the Wilson Administration? Is it the compulsion to rationalize the atrophic effects of welfare and other leftist policy on black families, or that minorities are more likely to have jobs, live in better-off neighborhoods and attend better-performing schools in the Sun Belt than the Frost Belt? Or does this obsession spring from simple, unbridled contempt for the dissidents who give the lie to the Left’s hallowed illusions? Whatever the reasons, the accusation is worth addressing head-on.
So let’s talk about history.
The tale of Republicans and Democrats swapping philosophies or constituencies immediately after the Civil Rights Movement is, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, more mythology than fact. Ike captured four states from the former Confederacy (six, if you include bellwether Missouri and reliably conservative Oklahoma) in 1952—before Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board, or the Southern Strategy. The 1952 GOP platform for Eisenhower-Nixon included a Civil Rights plank that condemned “bigots who inject class, racial and religious prejudice into public and political matters”; opposed “discrimination against race, religion or national origin”; and supported federal “action toward the elimination of” lynching, poll taxes, and segregation in D.C. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10479, creating the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, to enforce equal employment opportunity against discrimination within the federal government. He won half of Dixie in 1956.
For all the talk of Richard Nixon’s racist strategy (some of which was probably warranted), the 1968 Republican platform specifically mentions “the black community, the Mexican-American, the American Indian [who] suffer disproportionately” in inner cities (this being the era of “white flight”) and then goes on to list proposals for cleaning up those cities. (All of which may have contributed to his losing much of the then-recalcitrant Deep South to Wallace.) Granted, none of this helped him win the black or Hispanic vote in the face of the Democratic Party championing civil rights legislation (overwhelming Republican support, notwithstanding) and having put Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. But it’s worth remembering that the only black U.S. senator at the time was a Republican.
In office, President Nixon’s conservative approach to integration brought the percentage of Southern blacks in all-black schools down from 70% to 18%, as he strengthened anti-discriminatory laws, increased funding for civil rights enforcement, and developed minority business initiatives. (I should note that some liberals are curiously inclined to see this as some sort of closet progressivism in the Nixon Administration, but that’s another discussion.) Perhaps most noticeably, Nixon enacted “the most far-reaching federal expansion of affirmative action” in 1969 and 1970. Thus he won Dixie, and most of the country, in 1972.
On the subject of racial antagonisms and regional realignments, Democrat Jimmy “the time for racial discrimination is over” Carter nearly swept the South in 1976 (he narrowly lost Virginia), while losing most of New England and the bulk of the West en route to a narrow victory overall. Likewise, Republican presidents weren’t shut out in the Northeast and California until 1992. Presumably, all those yankees weren’t just palling around with racists until Bill Clinton (and another bad economy) came along with his charming liberal drawl.
To be sure, there was plenty of active racism in the South (and elsewhere in America) in the 60s and 70s, and varying degrees of subtle racism persisted afterward. Moreover, there are racist Republicans today, some of whom get elected to public office. There are also racist Democrats today. Some of them get elected to public office. But the question here is whether racial dynamics meaningfully define Republican policy or electoral success.
As ingrained as the racial narrative may be in certain quarters, the evidence admits of greater nuance. At the risk of inviting neo-Confederate aspersions, let’s consider economics (which usually factor so strongly in liberal worldviews):
[T]he shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth. In the postwar era, they note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the G.O.P. Working-class whites, however — and here’s the surprise — even those in areas with large black populations, stayed loyal to the Democrats. (This was true until the 90s, when the nation as a whole turned rightward in Congressional voting. [My emphasis])
The two scholars support their claim with an extensive survey of election returns and voter surveys. To give just one example: in the 50s, among Southerners in the low-income tercile, 43 percent voted for Republican Presidential candidates, while in the high-income tercile, 53 percent voted Republican; by the 80s, those figures were 51 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Wealthy Southerners shifted rightward in droves but poorer ones didn’t.
To be sure, Shafer says, many whites in the South aggressively opposed liberal Democrats on race issues. “But when folks went to the polling booths,” he says, “they didn’t shoot off their own toes. They voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.”
Racists, just like everyone else, vote their interests. If Woodrow Wilson could find time in his Progressive agenda of segregating the federal government to wage a Great War, promote human rights, and launch the precursors to the U.N., then presumably more modern racists can walk and chew gum. Thus it is unsurprising that racists do not, in fact, strongly favor any one party. There may be reason to suspect negative impressions of minorities might correlate somewhat with Republican voting habits (we will ignore, for simplicity’s sake, the question of racial friction from and between minorities), but that is a far cry from demonstrating the persistence of a “Grand Racist Party” that owes its electoral success and philosophical direction to ethnic antagonisms.
What does all this mean for more recent and current politics, from welfare reform to the rise of the Tea Party to conservative opposition to President Barack Obama? We’ll get into that in Part Two. Stay tuned.