The Magazine

Greed, Oppression, Patriarchy

What unites the Democrats? A cartoonish view of Republicans.

Jan 20, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 18 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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THE DEPICTION of the Republicans as Closet Confederates is based on some dubious claims: That nothing has changed since 1964 in the Republican party; that nothing has changed since 1964 in the South; and that everything has changed in the definition of racism, the content of which expands daily. The Goldwater campaign in 1964 was the first time that the Republicans cracked the once-solid South, winning five southern states on a platform that promised resistance to the civil rights measures then being pushed through Congress. This was truly a segregationist exodus, and had the Democrats' profile stayed as it was, the claims of today's liberals that their courage on the civil rights issue consigned them to minority status might be more credible. But four years later, the party started its crackup, and by 1972 the South and its issues were all but drowned out in the thundering din of other ex-Democrats fleeing their party for other reasons. Union members and blue-collar voters departed over cultural issues (summarized by Hunter S. Thompson as "acid, amnesty, and abortion"). Scoop Jackson Democrats left over defense. By 1980, the Republican party had become a grand coalition much as the Democrats had been in mid-century--a party with racists in it, but their presence was swamped by others who were indifferent to race-tinged issues, or wholly opposed. The party reformed itself around race-neutral issues: a strong defense, an assertive approach to world leadership, entrepreneurship, and devotion to the ideal of a common culture transcending race. If modern Republicans are not eager to recall what occurred in 1964 (or the Nixon years, for that matter), Democrats seem unable to recall what came after, or to admit that it mattered. It did.

The idea of a Republican party anxious to make racist appeals supposes an audience eager to hear them, a market that may not exist. It is now 40 years since Bull Connor turned his hoses and dogs on civil rights marchers. Most voters--most Republicans--are too young to imagine a world before integration and have no longing to see one. The Clintons and friends may pretend the backroads are teeming with bigots, but rational people know better. "The decisive voters of the future are not nostalgic, Dixie-whistling former Democrats," noted David Von Drehle and Dan Balz in the Washington Post. "They are generic, migratory moderates." In a similar vein, the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein observed that the "ties that bind Republicans to most whites in the region are conservative views on taxes, national defense and social issues such as guns and abortion, not nostalgia for Jim Crow." There are still white racists in the South and outside it who will vote for Republicans, as there are black anti-Semites who will vote for the Democrats, but these are fringe elements in what is becoming a post-ethnic country, in which Colin Powell and Joe Lieberman are both seen as possible presidents. The Republicans and the South have come a long way since the mid-1960s. Only the left is still living in the past.

Insisting the present is just like the past is one way to attack Republicans. Another is defining racism down. Among the evidence recently adduced to prove the racism of Republicans has been the fact that Bill Frist made political hay in the early 1990s mocking the ties of his Democratic opponent to the famously corrupt ex-mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry, who had recently been caught by undercover cops lighting a crack pipe. Should Barry rather have been off limits from criticism because of the color of his skin? Similarly put forth as an occasion of Republican sin was Jeb Bush's reference to the big guns deployed last fall in the Democrats' fruitless effort to defeat his reelection as governor of Florida. "Bill Clinton is in the state. Al Gore is in the state. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are in the state," said Jeb. Again, it is hard to see anything resembling racism here (unless it is the implication of Bush's critics that one should not lump Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton together with Clinton and Gore). And when all else fails, there is always the charge that one is "insensitive," a charge whose beauty is that it is utterly indefinable and can be deployed at will.

The need for such inventive tactics becomes all the more pressing as the Republicans move further away from the past. The more the party changes, and is seen to be changing, the greater the need to insist that these changes are an elaborate and diabolical charade. But after a time, as the disguise tends to outweigh the supposed bad intentions, common sense suggests that the "disguises" may be the reality--and that Republicans may really mean what they say.

"With one stupid and thoughtless attempt at humor, Lott stripped away the carefully constructed façade the Bush team erected at the GOP convention . . . and revealed the party's true colors," said Eleanor Clift. "When Lott stepped out of the polite way of speakingabout racehe exposed the GOP's double game: the lip service the party gives to reaching out to blacks and the winks and nods to whites assuring them that nothing fundamental will change." That nothing will change? The nation's foreign policy is in the capable hands of two black members of the president's cabinet. You could call that a change. Much is made by the left of Bush's trip in 2000 to Bob Jones University, which at the time still had a ban on cross-racial dating. Much less is made of the fact that several icons of the modern conservative movement are in cross-racial marriages to the apparent discomfort of no one. Everyone knew at the time that the Republicans' diversity display at their 2000 convention did not reflect the party as it was at that moment. It was a sign, as a disgruntled Pat Buchanan noted, of where the party intended to go. What George W. Bush has in mind is a party of compassionate conservatives like himself. They can be argued with but not labeled or libeled or demonized. And as such, they scare Democrats sick.

So look for the left to keep whistling Dixie, insisting that people are not what they look and act like, but are really like people who 40 and 60 and 140 years ago said and did terrible things. As Elizabeth Dole and Lindsey Graham replace Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond as the face of the South in the Senate, they have to insist the white South still is regressive and menacing. The more Bush transforms his party, the more desperately they have to insist that it's all a charade, that Bush is Trent Lott. But of course he is different, as sane people know. "Lott and Bush symbolize the two wings of the southern GOP," write Balz and Von Drehle, "the first emerging from the segregationist past, the second the son of a Yankee migrant who moved to the Sunbelt to make his fortune, and stayed to build a Republican party." As Earl Black, who with his brother Merle is the country's premier historian of southern electoral politics, told U.S. News & World Report, "President Bush is leading a Republican party that does not have any stake in the racial politics of the '60s and '70s....He may get Republicans a second look among middle-class and conservative blacks." This is exactly what frightens the Democrats. Knock just 10 points off their staggering 9-to-1 lead among blacks, and they are a party in very deep trouble. Knock another five points off that, and they may cease to function on a national level. And so they must crank up the fear.

And so we see things like Bill and Hillary Clinton coming out with the theory that modern Republicans surround themselves now and then with black people, only to hide their dark hearts. "I think what they are really upset about is that he [Lott] made public their strategy," said our most former ex-president. "They try to suppress black voting, they ran on the Confederate flag, . . . and from top to bottom the Republicans supported it. . . . He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads everyday." This is really hot stuff on that part of the left that still believes Bush is a moron who stole the election. "Now that Lott has bathed them in their own filth, the rage of the non-southern right-wingers is boundless," raved Harold Meyerson in the Los Angeles Times. And what a conspiracy! For a generation, thousands of conservative pundits, essayists, activists, and elected officials, not to mention 49 million Republican voters, have toiled day and night to hide from the rest of the country and from each other the fact that under a glossy veneer they are all really a collection of church-bombing bigots. How very exhausting, and utterly pointless. If they are all like this and so are the voters, then why bother dissembling at all?

Actually the Trent Lott affair blew up at just the right moment to save the left from a serious case of the blues. For the first time in years, it had no great causes to get its juices flowing, no terrible wrongs to avenge. In 1998 there had been the impeachment embarrassment, and the need to defend our first "black president" from being lynched by the vast right-wing menace. Then came the Florida recount, with its own set of villains: Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, the five conservative members of the United States Supreme Court. But impeachment had ended in sort of a draw, and the Florida mess in a belated Republican victory: Jeb Bush is safe for another four years, Katherine Harris is now in Congress, and no one, it turns out, was mad. So the same pundits and people who were beating the drums in 1998 and 2000 are now defending the country from Jefferson Davis. Here are the Nation, the American Prospect, the New York Times, and most of their columnists. Here is Sean Wilentz, veteran of a thousand public letters, calling Strom Thurmond the "father of the modern Republican party," and weaving together Thurmond, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace (a Democrat!), Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush (for opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and George W. Bush (a neo-Confederate by virtue of having campaigned at Bob Jones University) in a giant cabal to uphold Confederate values, at the center of which is Trent Lott.

Memo to Wilentz: (1) Albert Gore Sr. voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (2) In 1967, George H.W. Bush put his House seat at risk by voting for fair housing measures. (3) The father of the modern Republican party is not Strom Thurmond but Ronald Reagan, who when Thurmond ran for president was a union leader and liberal activist. He decidedly did not think Thurmond should have been elected in 1948.

Democrats could get by without this hysteria if they were able to draw more white voters, something Lyndon Johnson had no trouble doing in the last presidential election before his party took leave of its senses. Democrats then stood for an assertive defense and a great pride in the nation. Nixon's narrative was that he wasn't a Democrat, and was not George McGovern; Jimmy Carter's was that he was not Richard Nixon; Ronald Reagan restored the grand themes to his party, and carried it through three landslides, until the victory in the Cold War robbed the elder Bush of his raison d'être. In this themeless world, Clinton was able to win on charm and small issues. But September 11 gave George W. Bush his chance to frame his own narrative around a national mission that the Democrats were too splintered to share in completely.

So almost four decades after the mid-'60s disruptions, the Republicans have done better at exorcising their demons than the Democrats have done with theirs. The last vestiges of racism are leaching out of the South and of the Republican party. But the nihilism that seeped into the Democrats is still hanging in there, the small rock-hard core at the heart of the party that time has not softened. Yes, there is a reason the Democrats keep losing elections, but it isn't "code words" or Jim Crow. Democrats delude themselves if they believe the Confederate flag played a key role in the 2002 defeat of Roy Barnes and Max Cleland in Georgia, by turning out a huge white vote in exurban areas. The trouble with this theory is that the voting patterns in Georgia tracked exactly the patterns elsewhere in the country, where massive white turnout fueled the Senate wins of Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Wayne Allard in Colorado, along with Bob Ehrlich's big win of the statehouse in Maryland. Does nostalgia for the days of Jefferson Davis run high in those states, too?

There was one big wedge issue that did work in Georgia, and perhaps in some other states. In late September, three Democratic House members (including Jim McDermott and outgoing whip David Bonior) took a trip to Iraq, where they criticized Bush and blamed the United States for killing small children. It was then that the numbers for Roy Barnes and Max Cleland started tanking in Georgia. For weeks, the Baghdad Democrats were all over the airwaves. No chagrined fellow Democrats stood up to say "this isn't our party," as Bush and some others did about Lott. The nostalgia for segregation of politicians like Lott may have been the reason the South first moved into the Republican column, but the bitter leftism of Democrats like McDermott and Bonior is high on the list of reasons it stays there. It is the reason many Democrats are running a seemingly permanent deficit among non-minority voters, a deficit that makes race-baiting essential, even as they run out of racists to criticize. They have seen the enemy, and it is Stonewall Jackson. Too bad he's still dead.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.