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Morning Jay: In Defense of the Southern Republicans

6:00 AM, Sep 28, 2011 • By JAY COST
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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. 

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