For much of 20th-century politics, one of the dilemmas of
being a liberal was that vast swathes of America teemed with unsavory
and grossly illiberal characters who were fiercely loyal to the
Democratic Party. This is because -- despite its Northern, progressive
elements -- the Democratic Party was ironically the historic home of
Jim Crow. The party of FDR, Harry Truman and Julian Bond also harbored
America's staunchest segregationists. The breakaway "Dixiecrat"
movement of 1948 was led by a South Carolina Democrat named Strom
Thurmond said, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the
army cannot force... the southern people to break down segregation and
admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into
our homes and into our churches."
Strom changed parties after a turncoat southerner named Lyndon Johnson
signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. LBJ then said that
Democrats had lost the South for the next generation. He was right. In
a rush of bitter defections, southern voters and politicians fled the
Richard Nixon, campaigning in 1968, did his utmost to assure that
America's segregationist diehards, white supremacists and anti-Semites
would find a new political klavern. Nixon invented the "race card" and
transformed the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and the
wellspring of the Emancipation Proclamation, into the last bastion of
the Confederacy. The G.O.P. has been playing the same hand -- with
remarkable impunity -- in every election since.
As Robert Kuttner noted in a January 2003 issue of The American
Prospect, ever since Nixon devised his southern strategy, "the
Republican grand electoral design has been based on locking up the
white South while playing to the white backlash in the North. Often the
appeals to race are tacit, sometimes they are crude; but the stance is
unmistakable to anyone who bothered to notice."
Among the cruder of these appeals was the Willie Horton slander
fomented against Michael Dukakis on behalf of George H.W. Bush in 1988
by a campaign hatchetman named Roger Ailes, who is now CEO of Fox News.
Comparatively tacit among the G.O.P.'s racist efforts was the
suppression of black votes in Florida in 2000 (and again in Ohio in
2004). The winner both times, George W. Bush, insists that heís
"compassionate" about blacks, especially the type who reject
"affirmative action," "quotas," and other liberal stumbling blocks to a
"color-blind" America. And he loves getting his picture taken with
The Republicans deny that they are the electoral refuge for America's
bigots. But whenever an ex-Klansman, decrying the mongrelization of the
white race, enters a primary election somewhere in Louisiana or Texas,
it's always a Republican primary.
The Republicans insist they are "working hard" to win African-American
votes. But the G.O.P.'s chronic failure to crack even 10 percent among
black voters indicates that they're working harder to foster a
constituency they value much more dearly, commonly described as
"non-college-educated white males," which is pollster code for
"rednecks and yahoos."
The G.O.P. regularly trots out black appointees to showcase their
openmindedness. Trouble is, when these G.O.P. "house Negroes" are
allowed to speak, they avoid terms like "social justice" and "voting
rights." Examined closely, they tend to be non-partisan overachievers
like Colin Powell or -- at worst -- self-loathing Stepin Fetchits like
Clarence Thomas. Or they're just trying to pass for white, like
The "race card" works for the G.O.P., in a circular way. It validates
racists by giving them a place to go, thus perpetuating America's
historic traditions of bigotry and segregation, which nurtures the
Republicans as the party that's not prejudiced against the prejudiced.
Around and around...
Still, I gotta ask: Why aren't some (or any) Republicans embarrassed?
I can't believe that most white Republicans favor racial hatred. But
they must know that that their ranks include people who vote for white
candidates solely because theyíre white, and who would never vote for a
black candidate simply because he or she is black. Surely, they must
know that many of their fellow Republicans think it was a fine idea to
shoot Medger Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, James
Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner... Etcetera.
Democrats were embarrassed by George Wallace and Bull Connor. Why
aren't Republicans embarrassed by David Duke and Bob Jones?
Maybe it's just pragmatism. The G.O.P. tolerates its hordes of
red-state rednecks because, if not for all those straight-ticket
bigots, the Republicans don't think they could win.
Not long ago, Democrats certainly thought so. They stayed embarrassed
for a long time. But eventually, Democrats told their leaders we'd
rather lose a few votes in Tallahatchie County than be on the same side
as the monsters who lynched Emmett Till. They said, hey, letís try a
trade with the Republicans. They get electoral votes in Georgia,
Virginia, Carolina, Alabama, Texas, etc. In return we get the legacies
of Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks,
Judge James Horton, Justice Thurgood Marshall... Etcetera.
Maybe Republicans could do it, too -- tell their leaders they don't
want to be the party of voter intimidation and KKK nostalgia anymore.
Maybe then, the race card would finally become too risky to play, even
among campaign strategists.
Yes, I hear you, Dr. King. Itís just a dream.
David Benjamin, a novelist and journalist, is originally from
Wisconsin, but now lives and works in Paris. His latest book is The
Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.