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The Boston Globe

The Polarization Card

In his 1969 book, political analyst Kevin Phillips envisioned Richard Nixon's Southern strategy becoming an "Emerging Republican Majority.'' A New York Times review said, "Full racial polarization is an essential ingredient of Phillips' political pragmatism. He wants to seek a black Democratic party, particularly in the South, because this will drive into the Republican party precisely the kind of anti-Negro whites who will help constitute the emerging majority.''

While a distressing amount of what Phillips foretold came to pass for many years, the poison of polarization finally faded enough to see the election of Barack Obama. Today the Republicans are the shrinking minority, who, with no strategy to improve the country, have only the polarization card to play.

The most noteworthy evidence of late is, of course, the "You lie!'' from South Carolina's Joe Wilson as Obama delivered his national address to Congress on health care. It was a double-barreled blast. One was a shout out for white Americans who somewhere in their psyche cannot respect a black president. The other, since it came as Obama said undocumented people would not be covered under his health care proposals, was a political bullet aimed at immigrants south of our borders, who mostly happen to be brown.

Having no strategy always compounds the mistakes. Minutes after Wilson forever became part of joint session lore and Obama closed with Senator Ted Kennedy's appeal to the better part of our historical character, the Republicans trotted out Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana to deliver their party response. They did so thinking that Boustany, a heart surgeon, would lend the gravitas against "government-run'' health insurance to make Obama's proposals seem all the more grave.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called Boustany the "perfect guy to give our response.'' You do not have to wonder why, when Louisiana was one of the most polarized states in the presidential election. Eighty-four percent of white voters voted for Republican John McCain, despite the disastrous economy and two wars handed them by McCain's standard-bearer, President Bush. Boustany has also been one of those "birthers,'' floating with his scalpel in right-wing wacko space, harping that Obama is not an American citizen. Boustany has said, "I think there are questions. We'll have to see.''

Even without race as an issue, Boustany was as imperfect a choice the Republicans could have made to demonstrate they know how to fix health care. The United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association, and the Partnership for Prevention ranked Louisiana dead last in 2008 among the 50 states for the overall health of its people, hugely because of its high percentages of people without health insurance, preventable hospitalization, infant mortality, cancer deaths, cardiovascular deaths, and overall premature deaths. The Trust for America's Health had similar findings in its 2008 rankings. The infant mortality rate in Louisiana, according to the United Health Foundation report, is more than triple that of Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

A week before that, Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer threw out the red meat of Red Scares to the talk shows by saying that Obama's planned back-to-school address would spread "socialist ideology'' to schoolchildren. This is the same state where Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin worked up the crowd into such a lather about Obama that a supporter shouted "Kill him.'' Palin said about Obama, "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.''

The danger in this is obvious. It is one thing to disagree with the president. It is another to disrespect the office and delegitimize his citizenship. America still has too many gun-toting crazies for the Republicans to yell "You lie!'' in a crowded theater. Despite all of the actual falsehoods that got us into Iraq and cost us thousands of lives of American soldiers, President Bush did not endure in his entire eight years what Obama is undergoing in his first eight months. Too many Republicans are still trying to drive anti-Negro whites into the fold. The question is whether America can fold this chapter of politics for good.

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Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson

Journalist Derrick Z. Jackson, a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, a 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is co-author of Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock (2015). He can be reached at

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