ANY DAY NOW, the Democrats may come to regret deeply the moment the Trent Lott disturbance caught media fire. It is now a great mess for the Republican party, but one that has the potential to turn into a great opportunity, and one the party should eagerly seize. It is a chance for the GOP to clean up its act and its household, haul tons of old rubbish out of the attic, and banish some shopworn old ghosts. Having begun by delighting the Democrats by seeming to highlight the links they believed existed between racism and the conservative agenda, the furor may end by finally snapping those links, along with a number of sinister theories. And that will be all to the good.
Myth number one has always been that the Republican moderates were the much-put-upon noble soul of the party, while conservatives were the dark, ugly fringe. So who were the people who jumped on Lott first? Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, and George Will, among others. Social conservatives (such as the Family Research Council) roared for his ouster. In no time at all, the entire machinery of the vast right-wing media monster--the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New York Post, National Review, and the American Prowler (the online arm of the American Spectator); all the people on whom Al Gore and Tom Daschle blame the woes of the country--had locked Trent in the parlor with a pistol beside him, and urged him to do the right thing. Charles Krauthammer spoke for all of them when he wrote in the Washington Post on December 12: "Trent Lott must resign as majority leader . . . The point is not just what King and his followers did for African Americans, but what they did--by validating America's original promise of freedom and legal equality--for the rest of America. How can Lott, speaking of 'all these problems over all these years,' not see this?" Indeed.
The point here is that all of these people--some of them former liberals, some of them young, and most of them northern--took the civil rights movement exceedingly seriously, especially the parts about individual rights and legal equality, and have put years of their lives and much of their energies into backing race-neutral ideas that expand opportunity. They are sick unto death of having liberals question not just their policies but their morals as well, of having their programs denounced as being not only wrong by the standards of liberals but as being morally tainted by association with what some people did or said forty or fifty years earlier. They are sick unto death of being told that people who cut taxes are KKK members in suits; that people who promote welfare reform are KKK members in suits (although it has greatly reduced black child poverty); that people disturbed by Bill Clinton's malfeasance are . . . KKK members in suits.
They are sick unto death of being told that their ideas are racist old wine in new, race-neutral bottles, that they are the heirs of the racist old south when in their hearts they believe that they are the sons of the civil rights movement, while liberals are drifting back into resegregation , often in the guise of "diversity." They hate what Lott said because it makes it harder for them to promote their agenda; and they hate it on principle, because they are wholly opposed to race-consciousness. Lott and the left may have different agendas, but they both support what the right sees as a very flawed doctrine. Lott has offended conservatives on a ground they defend very strongly. And so they insist Lott must go.
MYTH NUMBER TWO has it that the modern Republican party of Bush, Reagan, and Gingrich was corrupt from the start, having had its beginnings in the Dixiecrat bolt from the national Democrats that occurred in the 1948 campaign. And this is true; but to the same extent, the Democratic party of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy had its beginnings in the southern reaction against Reconstruction that took place following the Civil War. In each case, federal enforcement of civil rights statutes made the party that was out of power the natural home of racist resistance, creating a dynamic in which the remnants of the defeated Confederate nation created a small but rock-solid electoral base. This, however, was not a sure or good route towards national power.
Between Lincoln's election in 1860 and Herbert Hoover's defeat in the 1932 landslide, only Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson broke the long string of Republican presidents. Barry Goldwater, running on a straight states' rights platform, was able to carry six states. For the Democrats, it was Hoover's implosion that opened the floodgates, bringing in hordes of new voters. For the Republicans, the same sort of process took place in slow motion, as the Democrats' failures on a series of issues allowed them to move onto enemy turf. The split over the Vietnam war helped elect Richard Nixon; George McGovern's left turn led to a landslide for Nixon; Jimmy Carter's collapse on a whole range of issues led to Ronald Reagan's two terms. The great Democratic party of the mid-20th century, and the post-1980 Republican party, were not built on racial repression. They were both tainted by it, but each got its big break with the total collapse of the opposing party, and cemented its gains with solid successes on the foreign policy and war-making fronts. Southern voters--and, yes, some racist voters too--were in the coalitions assembled by Reagan and Roosevelt, but over time became smaller parts in them, overwhelmed by the influx of new kinds of voters, with different and other concerns. Eventually, each party reached the stage where its remnant had become so greatly outnumbered that it was able to move out from and beyond it. This happened to the Democrats in the mid-1960s. It is happening to the Republicans now.
For a long time now, the "Republican South" has been changing its face and its nature. It is still south, and it is still Republican, but these words now mean different things. This new South is high-tech, sub- and ex-urban, and very much more like the rest of the country. Southern states that moved into the Republican column in 1964 over civil rights legislation are Republican now because of defense, social issues, and taxes, driven there as the Democrats tended to migrate further to the left. "Republicans are long past the day when they need to manipulate white racial resentments . . . to win in the South," writes Ronald Brownstein in Los Angeles Times. "The ties that bind Republicans to the region are conservative views on taxes, national defense, and social issues such as guns and abortion, no nostalgia for Jim Crow."
Yet as this went on, Democrats made race the all-purpose excuse for their policy failures, dismissing real issues as "code." They could not see that there was a real difference between throwing a riot because your children had to go to a neighborhood school with children of different race from their neighborhood, and expressing concern because your child was taken from his neighborhood school to go to a bad school in a crime-ridden area. They could not see that there were real reasons to object to Michael Dukakis's views about crime beyond the fact that one of the criminals he released to do further harm had been black.
This old habit dies exceedingly hard, as critics still strain to find race-coded clues to Republican victories. Seeking such clues to the Republican sweep this past November, the ever-resourceful New York Times had to go all the way back to an ad attacking affirmative action run six years earlier by Jesse Helms. Another such charge was that the Confederate flag had played a key role in two Republican upsets in Georgia, driving up white voter turnout in the exurbs around the cities. The trouble with this is that the patterns in Georgia tracked exactly the patterns elsewhere in the country, where massive white turnouts in similar neighborhoods feuled the Senate wins of Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Wayne Allard in Colorado, Jim Talent in Missouri, and Bob Ehrlich's big win of the statehouse in Maryland, which had elected Democratic governors for the last thirty years. Nostalgia for the old days of Jefferson Davis must run very high in those states.
So then why, with all of this happening, did Lott win and hold his high office? Because this isn't the way these things work. Politicians, especially presidents, do not look for trouble and tend not to act unless pushed. Lincoln did not enact the Emancipation Proclamation upon reaching office. Four years after the Dixiecrats staged their national walk-out, Adlai Stevenson tapped the segregationist Senator John Sparkman of Alabama as his candidate for vice president. John Kennedy, who became the first American president to frame civil rights as a great moral challenge, was once greatly distrusted by civil rights leaders as being too good a friend to the South. Reagan and Roosevelt had racists within their own coalitions, and did little to make them unwelcome. If challenged, they would no doubt have told you that they were leading the nation in great global struggles, and could not risk losing part of the backing that gave them a mandate to do so. George W. Bush, who is fighting a war, would not have chosen this moment for this sort of battle. But it may, in the end, do him good.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.