Over the last few days, Joan Walsh of Salon and Melissa Harris-Perry of the Nation have been debating if and when a white liberal is being racist for souring on Barack Obama.

It's not my place to comment on an internecine battle on the left over the ontology of racism, but I do have to call a foul on this comment from Harris-Perry:

Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

To say that this is factually untrue would be a gross understatement. It's better to say that this assertion is not even in the same area code with what we commonly call “the truth.”

In 1960, Kennedy beat Nixon in the South by 5 points. In 1964, Johnson beat Goldwater by 3 points. In 1968, Nixon won just 35 percent of the Southern vote. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won 54 percent of the Southern vote, including a majority of Southern whites. Prior to 1980, the GOP only won a majority of the Southern vote once -- when Nixon swamped lefty peacenik George McGovern in 1972. As late as 1996, Bill Clinton lost the Southern white vote to Bob Dole by just 6 points.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans did not crack 40 percent of the Southern vote until 1978, and did not win a majority until 1994.

I think this comment speaks to a broader issue: the tendency of liberal Democrats to misrepresent the origins and nature of Southern Republicanism.

I offer three points to counter the crude charge that “GOP racism equals Southern votes:"

1. Southern Republicanism had little to do with Southern segregation.

The systematic repression of the constitutional rights of black citizens in the South was not due to mere racial enmity. Instead, it had as its origins the need of the elite doctor-lawyer-planter-merchant class that resided in the majority black counties of the deep South to retain its privileged position. If African Americans enjoyed the right to vote, this class would lose its power.

These elites had nothing to do with the Republican party. Indeed, they actively resisted the entreaties of Republican Rutherford Hayes, who thought that, as former Whigs, they might unite with the GOP on economic issues. But that never happened. In fact, these hard-core segregationists were so staunchly committed to the Democratic party that they backed Al Smith (an anti-prohibition Catholic) over Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Until roughly the 1980s, Southern Republicans were generally of two types. The first was the mountain Republicans of Eastern Tennessee, and Western Virginia and North Carolina, who were the descendants of former Whigs and Constitutional Unionists, and who had opposed secession. These mountain Republicans were not the friends of the elites, as they opposed the Crump machine in Tennessee and aligned with the populists in North Carolina and Virginia.

The second type of Southern Republican was not really found until after World War II, with the rise of the “New South” economy based on energy, shipping, defense, tourism, high-tech, and agribusiness. These sorts of people settled in cities like Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Tampa, and were often Northern transplants. They were conservative on economic and cultural issues, and they were actually an implicit threat to the segregationist regime; after all, bank managers in Tampa or insurance executives in Houston had no economic reason to keep blacks and poor whites in the deep South suppressed. We can see the power of these voters as early as 1952, when Eisenhower won all five of those cities (and this despite the fact that the Democrats nominated for vice president Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, a staunch segregationist).

Liberals like to point to the Goldwater campaign in 1964 as the origins of Southern Republicanism, but this is just not the case. It is a terrible shame that Goldwater – a principled conservative but an inept national politician – allowed his philosophical opposition to the Civil Rights Act to be appropriated by Southern segregationists. However, we have to remember that the Goldwater candidacy was a disaster that Republicans never repeated. If anything, Goldwater's lasting legacy was to show the Republicans what not to do.

Goldwater’s hardline stance on civil rights, as well as other issues, cost the GOP dearly. Some 20 percent of self-identified Republicans backed LBJ that year. What’s more, Goldwater did worse than any previous Republican candidate in the North, where he won just 36 percent of the vote. And in the South, he did worse than Eisenhower in 1956, especially in those rising New South cities. In other words, the Goldwater candidacy did not buy the Republicans any votes in the South, and lost them upwards of 10 million in the North. The Goldwater disaster was brutal for the GOP down the ballot as well, and Democrats finally had the outsized majority needed to implement the Great Society.

Little wonder that Nixon returned the Republican focus to the rising middle class of the peripheral states of Florida and Texas. In his 1968 convention address, he said:

Let us build bridges, my friends, build bridges to human dignity across that gulf that separates black America from white America.

Black Americans, no more than white Americans, they do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency.

They don't want to be a colony in a nation.

They want the pride, and the self-respect, and the dignity that can only come if they have an equal chance to own their own homes, to own their own businesses, to be managers and executives as well as workers, to have apiece of the action in the exciting ventures of private enterprise.

I pledge to you tonight that we shall have new programs which will provide that equal chance.

This has, more or less, been the GOP approach ever since – because this is how the Republicans intuited they could win a national majority. It was at its core a focus on economics to unite Northern conservatives in the Midwest with the rising middle class of the border South and the West.

2. Almost every national politician played a double game on civil rights for 100 years.

Often, liberals will invoke Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to indict the Republican party. A lot has been made of the supposed deal Nixon brokered with Strom Thurmond in Atlanta before the 1968 convention, but it never included repeal of the landmark civil rights acts. Instead, its focus was on integration (especially busing), and symbolic recognition of the South. Nixon took the task of school integration out of the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare (HEW) and sent it to the Department of Justice. Integration would continue apace through his term, but without the threat that HEW would withhold funds from local schools. He also tried to get Southerners Clement Haynesworth and Harrold Carswell appointed to the Supreme Court. On the other hand, he instituted the first affirmative action plan, signed an extension of the Voting Rights Act, and offered the "Family Assistance Plan," which was hardly neglectful of poor African Americans.

Liberals who get hot under the collar over this should remember that Lyndon Johnson intervened in the late 1960s when HEW threatened the Chicago public schools over de facto segregation. Mayor Richard J. Daley was an important client of the party, and LBJ could ill afford to anger him, so he told HEW to back off. They might also recall that JFK appointed judges to the Southern courts that even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. – a Kennedy hagiographer if ever there was one – called “unfortunate.” And they might recollect that Jimmy Carter won the Georgia governship in 1970 by actively courting the George Wallace vote.

That speaks to an important point about civil rights, one that is true for 100 years after Reconstruction. Almost every national leader played both sides of the issue at one point in their careers. I can really only think of two definite exceptions: Woodrow Wilson, who was an out-and-out racist and saw to it that African Americans were left genuinely worse off, and Benjamin Harrison, who was the last president to make an all-out effort for voting rights before the 1960s. (Dwight Eisenhower might belong with Harrison, as he passed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction, desegregated Washington, D.C., and finished desegregation of the military; however, it's fair to argue that he could have done more.) Pretty much everybody else tried to have it both ways, at one point or another – including the liberal Democrats. FDR refused to back the Wagner-Costigan Anti-Lynching Bill, Truman opposed the liberal civil rights plank in the 1948 platform and wrote in his diary that it was a “crackpot” idea, JFK voted to water down the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and LBJ led the charge to water it down.

3. The meaning of “civil rights” has changed. In the 1940s, a liberal on civil rights would have been in favor of anti-lynching legislation, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, federal legislation to outlaw discrimination in private establishments, and of course laws to ensure voting rights. In other words, the debate was whether and to what extent African Americans should be included in the judicial, political, and social life of the country.

But after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, those old issues were settled, and the debate shifted markedly. It transformed into a particular version of the general debate over distribution of the national wealth, and the extent to which the federal government should be involved. So, the same Republican party that had been professedly liberal on civil rights in 1944 would, twenty-eight years later, oppose school integration via busing. Why? Because the former is about civic pluralism and the latter is about federally-sponsored wealth redistribution, which if you read the 1936 GOP platform – you'll see the party opposed from the start of the New Deal.

The problem is that the terminology did not change – thus somebody who was "liberal" on civil rights in 1944 might also be "conservative" in 1972. This is a confusion that continues to this very day, as is evidenced by the above quotation from Harris-Perry. After all, Southern whites did not "shift parties" until more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act, and the GOP never promised them that it would roll back the gains of the mid-1960s. Today, the GOP is not "the party of civil rights” (Harris-Perry's phrase) -- not because it wants to repeal the Voting Rights Act, but because it advocates welfare reform and similar measures. This is a critically important distinction, yet it is so often overlooked.

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