Posted on 11-01-2010
Filed Under (Politics) by Rashtrakut

The revelation of Senator Harry Reid’s use of the “n” word while describing Barack Obama’s strengths as a candidate has set off the typical Washington fire storm.  While President Obama has accepted his apology and the Democratic caucus has rallied around Senator Reid the Republicans are crying foul.  They point to the double standard on race that forced them to jettison Trent Lott of Mississippi a few years back (though a lot of the pushing came from the White House in that one).  As others have pointed out,  the situations are not analogous.  Se here, here and here for a detailed explanation on the subject.

But the Republicans are right in that there is a double standard.  It seems unfair but they can look in the mirror for why Republicans (particularly southern Republicans) get so little leeway on race.

As the heirs to the Whigs, the Republican Party was born in its opposition to slavery.  After the civil war the Party of Lincoln could count on the support of the freed slaves.  However, things started to changed under FDR.  The New Deal created a blue collar coalition that included black voters.  By 1956 the Republican share of the black vote was 40% and has been heading down ever since.  However, the addition of Black voters to the Democratic coalition and the resulting push for civil rights fractured the Democratic Party

Southern Democrats who had reestablished control over the region after reconstruction and disenfranchised large portions of the African American population bristled when Northern liberals started preaching civil rights.  The breaking point came during the 1948 Democratic convention when Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey urged the Democratic Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”  Outraged Southern Democrats walked out and nominated Strom Thurmond as the presidential nominee of the States’ Rights Party (aka Dixiecrats).  Things got worse for them with the election of John F. Kennedy.  But the unkindest cut of all came when one of their own, former Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson rammed through the Civil Rights Act.  According to legend when Johnson signed the Act into law he remarked, “We have lost the South for a generation.”  He was right because the Republicans were waiting in the wings.

Richard Nixon made some clumsy attempts to court black voters in 1960.  After that Republican presidential tickets actively started courting the Southern white vote.  Barry Goldwater stumped against the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Richard Nixon deployed the Southern Strategy, or Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign kicked off in Philadelphia, Miss., site of the ”Mississippi Burning” murders with the message of “states rights” (though as noted in the link some have disputed whether Reagan’s appeal was targeted at Southern whites).  It worked.  By the 1990s the South had turned Republican.  On the flip side, by then the Republican share of the black vote had dropped to the low teens.  By 1992, the Party of Lincoln was the Party of Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms.

Next the Republican Party turned its attention to destroying its share of the Hispanic vote.  Pete Wilson eagerly embraced Proposition 187 to secure reelection in the 1994 California gubernatorial election.  He won  the battle but the Republican Party lost the war and the Hispanic vote in California.  The home state of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with its 54 electoral votes is now solidly Democratic.  Even though George W. Bush tried to win  (and in his own elections won) back the Hispanic vote, the racially tinged rhetoric unleashed by the opponents of immigration reform locked up the Hispanic vote for Barack Obama.  Had John McCain not been on the ticket, the Republicans would have lost Arizona in the 2008 Presidential Elections.

This is the current breakdown of minorities in the Republican Congressional caucus:

  • African Americans  – zero
  • Hispanics – 3 (three Cuban-Americans from South Florida, and even that once loyal Republican community is trending Democratic)
  • Asian Americans – 1 (Joseph Cao elected by fluke last year and who will almost certainly lose next year)

For a party that actively courts the Jewish vote, it has only one Jewish member in Congress (Eric Cantor).  The Republican Party support among minorities has hit its nadir.  Putting the buffoonish Michael Steele as its face will not erase over 50 years of self inflicted harm to its image.  As a result a Republican making a racially insensitive remark, particularly a Southern Republican (and there have been a bunch of them in the South Carolina Republican Party in the last year) starts out with a very low base of support and suspicions from minority voters to begin with.

Harry Reid use of terminology was indefensible.  However as even George Will has noted the substance of his comments was not.  Republicans howling in outrage are being disingenuous when they pretend that the comments themselves (as opposed to the epithet used in the terminology) were racist.  The fact is that race is still an issue that affects politics.  If it did not, the Republican National Committee would not have played on miscegenation fears  in the 2006 Tennessee Senate Election against Harold Ford, Jr.

America’s different identity groups did not know what to make of Barack Obama when he ran.  There were some in the African American community who questioned if he was black enough, part of an undercurrent of tension between new immigrants from Africa and the descendants of slaves.  There were certainly many white voters who liked the fact that he was not a candidate in  the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who kept harping on race.  As Peter Beinart at the Daily Beast notes skin tone and speech patterns do seem to matter with black candidates for office.

The problem is that the Republican Party as a whole is generally uncomfortable discussing the issue of race and racial disparities in America.  Racism in America today is not as overt as the 1960s (already by the Nixon years code words like state rights were being used) and as a result is much harder to combat.  But stuck in its monochromatic bubble (take a look at the last few Republican conventions or any of the recent tea parties), the Republican establishment does not understand why it does not get minority support.  The sheer cluelessness displayed by Texas Senator John Cornyn regarding Lott’s comments (See link) is another example of this problem.

It is not enough to put up tokens like Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal (who faces a lot of derision in the Indian American community for his dismissive attitude towards his ancestry) and pretend that this will be sufficient to rebrand the party with minorities.  It requires actual engagement with practical solutions that solve the problems facing these communities.  There are few Jack Kemps in todays Republican Party willing to take the thankless task of addressing issues that the birther, bircher and Know-Nothing rump of the Republican Party do not care about.

And that is a shame.  Minorities are not helped when they are essentially excluded from the marketplace of ideas and solutions and become the vote bank of a party.  The United States needs a serious conservative opposition that is not fixated on tax cuts as the be all and end all of fiscal policy and that is willing to propose solutions rooted in practicality.  It may help the Republicans to look across the pond at how Britain’s Conservative Party has reemerged after a similar nihilistic phase following John Major’s electoral defeat.  But while the Republican Party tailors its appeal to its nativist core (the master plan in Michael Steele’s new book), its decline will continue.  Maybe it is time for the Republicans to go the way of the Whigs to trigger a realignment of political forces in this country.

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(1) Comment   


Ross Molho on 12 January, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

A very comprehensive and erudite post on the history of American politics vis-a-vis race. One might also add GH Bush’s Willie Horton advertisement as a significant devolution in the Republican party’s relationship with African-Americans.

The most salient point here, however, is Blacks being denied access to the marketplace of ideas. Welfare reform, tough stances on immigration, charter schools, might all be issues that Republicans champion and yet, in the long run, would be in African Americans’ best interests. Since they are pedaled by the Republican party, however, Blacks may be reluctant to consider these policies.

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