Everyone’s favourite racist
The Republican Party has an image problem. It’s not a new thing, and it’s the same problem the Democrats struggled with for many years. Whereas the Democrats had officially abandoned it as policy by the early 1960s, continuing a trend that had started under FDR’s New Deal coalition and was cemented by Truman’s desegregation plank at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, some strands of Republicanism are still beating the war-drum loudly and clearly.
I’m talking, of course, about racism. Since Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon began espousing the Southern strategy of politically supporting Republican candidates in the Southern United States, by appealing to those white Southerners who had left the Democratic Party to form the Dixiecrats in order to defend states’ rights to oppose racial integration, the GOP have called – openly or from behind closed doors – the racist community their own.
The “loss” of the Solid South
Before those reading this from within the Republican community call “foul!” and say that the Democratic Party used to be the platform of racist bigots, let me say that you have just made your point clearly already. Yes, the Democrats used to be the party of white supremacy and disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and I don’t think any right-minded person can defend those intolerable beliefs. However, the coalescing of “radical” liberal free-thinkers, progressives, and supporters of universal equal rights into the Democratic Party allowed for an amelioration of some of the party’s more historically despicable attributes. The New Deal, the series of domestic policies enacted by the Roosevelt administrations during the 1930s, was one of the early key elements in moving political support towards the Democratic Party from amongst a wide coalition of voting blocs including, perversely, both African-Americans and white Southerners.
The true beginnings of the Democrats’ anti-racism stance comes from the 1948 Democratic National Convention. Hubert Humphrey, then-Mayor of Minneapolis, gave a keynote speech in which he said “the time has arrived in America for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights“; this was the year that Humphrey was first elected to the United States Senate and the year that his proposal to end racial segregation was officially added to the Democrat’s party platform by President Truman.
Many white Southerners, including all of the Mississippi and one-half of the Alabama delegates who walked out of the Convention in abject disgust, were so repulsed by the thought of giving African-Americans an equal-footing that they formed the Dixiecrat party with the goal of taking the Southern states away from Truman and causing his defeat. Whilst the civil rights plank adopted at the 1948 Convention cost Truman the support of the Dixiecrats, it gained him unprecedented numbers of votes from the black community, especially in large northern cities. Truman’s stunning (and surprise) victory over his Republican opponent Dewey showed decisively that Democrats could win presidential elections without the “Solid South”, and thus weakened Southern Democrats instead of strengthening their position.
The situation continued to deteriorate for white Southerners who fled the Democratic Party en masse during the 1960s, under LBJ’s support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the 1964 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Barry Goldwater ran a conservative campaign which broadly opposed strong action by the federal government including the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater’s position was rooted in his opinion that the Civil Rights Act was an unwarranted intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and, second, that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do business, or not, with whomever they chose, even if the choice is based on racial discrimination. All this appealed to white Southern Democrats, and Goldwater was the first Republican to win the electoral votes of the Deep South states since Reconstruction.
In the 1968 election, the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, saw this trend and capitalized on it with his “Southern strategy“. The new method of campaigning was designed to appeal to white Southerners who were more conservative than the leaders of the national Democratic Party. As a result of the strategy and conservative Southerners reactions against Democratic leaders, Hubert Humphrey was almost shut out in the South; he carried only Texas for the Democrats, the rest of the region being divided between Nixon and the American Independent Party candidate George C. Wallace, the governor of Alabama, who had gained fame for opposing integration. Nixon’s campaign in 1968 played on Southern whites’ anger over the success of civil rights, but since you couldn’t get away with supporting segregation by that point, his “Southern strategy” disguised an essentially racist policy through terms like “law and order” and the old “states’ rights” excuse.
We’ll look next time at what this “Republican problem” means in the context of the 21st-century, why racists like Cliven Bundy somehow seem to keep rearing their heads, and how it is all tied into “states’ rights” and the opposition to the federal government.