The tendency of liberals to define the Republican party, the conservative movement, and most recently the Tea Party movement as the latest iteration of the Old South has been persistent, if not always sane. It survived the failure to convince voters that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were political scions of Jefferson Davis, survived the appointment by George W. Bush of two black secretaries of state in succession (and the failure of his base to sulk or burn crosses), survived the Tea -Party’s electoral embrace of blacks, Latinos, and immigrants’ children. But will it survive the sight of the most right-wing branch of the right-wing party (no doubt clinging to God and to guns out of bitterness) not only adopting Col. Allen West as its favorite congressman but cheering itself hoarse for a black man running for president as the “anti-Obama” in 2012?
Since the rise of the conservative movement, it has been believed on the left that the movement’s secret raison d’être is fear of “the Other”—immigrants, blacks, browns, and the loss of American “whiteness”—for which other concerns were assumed to be cover, a conceit that allowed the left to think itself not only “right on the issues” (all people think they are right on the issues) but “right” on the grand scale of higher morality, as one with the forces of the good and the pure and the true. Whatever the flaws of Herman Cain as a man or as a candidate, he has had the effect of eroding this conceit. And in this context, the merits of Cain in himself are less important than who supports him and the liberals’ reaction to what he has done.
The pairing of the conservative movement with bias has a long history that over the years, as it has become less defensible, has only become more intense. Ronald Reagan, who voted four times for Roosevelt and supported Truman against Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats, was called a “danger” to blacks, a Ku Klux Klan enabler, and described thus in a hit piece Garry Wills wrote for Esquire: “Reagan croons, in love accents, his permission to indulge a functional hatred of poor people and blacks.” In 1988, George H.W. Bush was described as racist for making an issue of the bad judgment of Michael Dukakis in letting a killer run loose on a furlough from prison. Michael Lind, who in his book Made in Texas declared both Presidents Bush neo-Confederates because they once lived near places where race crimes took place long before they moved there, found the Tea Party to be more of the same: “It should be called the Fort Sumter movement,” he said in Salon this past August. “Today’s Tea Party movement is merely the latest in a series of attacks on American democracy by the white Southern minority, which for more than two centuries has not hesitated to paralyze, sabotage, or in the case of the Civil War, destroy American democracy to get their way.”
Thus, the battle over the debt ceiling was out of the pro-slavery playbook, and Bill Clinton’s impeachment was “an attempted coup-d’état by the Southern white minority”—against another white Southerner!—angry, because, as in 1860, it was failing to get its own way. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews told Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus in August that the Tea Party has “a bad attitude towards race, towards black people, towards immigrants.” He called mention of food stamps a “racist dog whistle.” He obsessed over the idea that Rick Perry wants to secede from the Union, and his colleague Howard Fineman called the Tea Party plan to cut back on entitlements a “slow-motion secession” from the rest of the country. On MSNBC and similar venues, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, two belles from the frostbelt, were portrayed as straight out of Tara, singing songs of racial resentment to lure angry white men. What is all this based on? A narrative that totters on three “facts” that upon closer inspection turn out to be not damning at all.
Fact number one is that, while Republican support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act was proportionally higher than that of Democrats in both the House and the Senate, the law was opposed by leading members of the emerging conservative movement—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr.—for reasons having to do with small-government principles that nonetheless permitted their theories and the interests of the segregationists for that moment in time to converge.
As he had made clear (but not clear enough), Gold-water, a member of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP who had helped desegregate his local Sierra Club chapter and for many years had practiced fair hiring in his family’s business, backed integration, voted for the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960, and was prepared to vote for this one, except for one thing: Title VII, mandating prosecution of discrimination by private employers, which he considered an unacceptable expansion of federal power. This provision was questioned by well-intentioned critics for two different reasons: Discrimination by private employers would be so hard to prove that it would necessitate a de facto quota system as proof of compliance, and it would involve an expansion of federal control and surveillance over private employers to a point never dreamed of before. To movement conservatives, this last point was key. “If my vote be misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer the consequences,” Goldwater said in explaining his no vote to the Senate. “I am unalterably opposed to discrimination of any sort and I believe that though the problem is fundamentally one of the heart, some law can help—but not law that embodies features like these, provisions which fly in the face of the Constitution and which require for their effective execution the creation of a police state.”
Goldwater was misconstrued, and he suffered the consequences, and the five states he won in the Deep South as a result in the 1964 election were not worth the trouble they caused later on. Ironically, John Kennedy seems to have considered Title VII equally troubling, for it was not in the civil rights bill he drafted, but was added by a House subcommittee after his assassination. Had Kennedy lived, Goldwater would have supported the bill, and the issue would never have tainted the movement. As it was, the civil rights movement, which depended on federal power to break the back of entrenched local laws and traditions, emerged just in time to crack heads with the conservative movement, with its belief that unrestrained federal power would in time prove a threat to the sort of individual liberty that the civil rights movement sought. Conservative leaders were not adept enough at the time to finesse the issue, which would have been to vote for the bill with caveats and with reservations, making it clear that this was a one-off. It was an error of judgment, for which the conservative movement has never stopped paying. It was the wrong vote taken without wrong intentions and not a mistake of the heart.
Fact number two is the undisputed contention that all conservatives and most Republicans opposed and tried to dismantle the elaborate systems of quotas and preference that grew up after the first civil rights laws had been codified, reflecting not a desire to reassert racism, but a disagreement over what “racism” and “civil rights” actually meant. Liberals thought rights applied to groups, conservatives to individuals; conservatives believed in equality of opportunity, liberals thought this was empty unless outcomes were equal; conservatives thought that if doors were held and stayed open, people would tend over time to find their own levels, liberals tried, with an elaborate system of racial quotas and preferences, to create the sort of outcome in which the balance of races and genders fit their ideal.
These were two different concepts of “rights” and of “justice,” in which each side thought it held the high ground. As Reagan’s biographer Steven F. Hayward quotes Reagan Justice official William Bradford Reynolds, “The idea of equal opportunity got changed in the minds of some to a concept of equal results, and individual rights were translated into group entitlements.” Hayward goes on to explain, “The Reagan administration’s aim was not to roll back genuine civil rights protections, but to draw the line against the egregious use of explicit race-conscious quotas, and the legitimization of group rights that racial quotas represent.”
By defining racial preferences as “civil rights measures,” the left tried to present a unified theory of conservative racism stretching from Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act into an unending future. But this never convinced the American people, who consistently opposed all unequal treatment and voted against it when given the chance. On the side of the right were also the facts that Frederick Douglass had opposed quotas, members of the NAACP had at one time been doubtful about them, John Kennedy had voiced doubts about them, and Hubert Humphrey had responded to doubts raised by JFK’s friend George Smathers by saying, “If the Senator can find . . . any language which provides that an employer will have to hire on the basis of percentage or quota . . . I will start eating the pages [of the Civil Rights Act] . . . because it is not there.”
The explicit language may not have been there, but if results counted, Humphrey would have dined on the bill many times over. “Do you want a society that is nothing but an endless power struggle among organized groups?” Humphrey asked later, which is a perfect description of what his party turned into. Reagan was maligned as a racist for doing no more than trying to return to the vision of Humphrey, which makes sense as they were Democrats in the same era. Reagan was still a Democrat in 1948, when Humphrey made his name with his speech at the convention, urging his party to step from the shadows of segregation into the bright sunshine of civil rights.
Fact number three is that the South moved into the Republican column for the first time in the election of 1964 and has stayed there since, leading to the belief in the minds of some that it stayed there for exactly that reason, and that time has stood still. In real life, though, time has brought wondrous changes to the GOP and to Dixie alike. With desegregation and air conditioning the Old South took off like a rocket, becoming the country’s fastest-growing region, drawing immigrants and industries from all over the world. Some of the biggest states are in the South, some of the busiest technical corridors, some of the best schools and hospitals; and some of the best GOP minority leaders, about which much more below.
At the same time, the GOP would make itself over, embracing new issues and new blocs of voters, becoming the party of free market forces, traditional values, and a pro-active stance on defense. Reagan brought into his coalition Democratic hawks, neoconservatives who were civil rights backers, and a new generation of activists, mainly enthused by free market ideas. It became more Jack Kemp’s party and less that of Strom Thurmond, who himself had undergone changes: Within a few years of crossing the aisle, he would be backing black nominees for federal office, wooing black voters, and hiring black staff. In 1964, there was one main reason white Southerners would prefer the Republican party; by 1968, when riots emerged, there were more of them; by 1972, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern, there were a great many more. As racism started to fade, new issues rose to anchor the South to the party of Reagan, for which the party of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” was a very bad fit. The transition was fixed when Southern conservatives began electing nonwhites and women who shared their values. The conservative governor of Louisiana is the child of Indian immigrants. Conservatives in Florida elected a black and Hispanic who are favorites of conservatives everywhere. South Carolina—home of John C. Calhoun, interposition, secession, Fort Sumter, Strom Thurmond, and of the flap over the Confederate flag at the grounds of the state capitol that has gone on forever—has a Republican governor who is female and also the child of Indian immigrants, and a black Republican congressman who defeated the son of Strom Thurmond in the election last year.
Liberals may believe geography is destiny and is eternal, but events have proven otherwise. The Dixiecrats like Thurmond are long gone, and in their place are armies of younger conservatives, raised long after the civil rights struggle, whose hackles rise skyward on being told they are and will be racist forever because before they were conscious of anything a senator from Arizona cast a bad vote for good reasons a long time ago.
Those watching returns from the 2010 midterms were not surprised when Tea Party conservatives raised Cain, West, and others, but time-worn mental habits die hard. Roger Simon of Politico told Howard Kurtz on Reliable Sources that Rick Perry’s reference to Obama’s birth certificate was meant to stir the bigots up. “Why would Perry use that in the primaries instead of saving it for the general?” he asked. “It’s because being extreme perhaps, and a little bit racist, perhaps, gives you good bona fides in a Republican primary. It shows them that you are on the same side.” But Herman Cain was already leading in most polls of Republican primary voters, and when Perry was fading, his supporters went to . . . Cain.
“You think about white Republicans who don’t like black folks,” said Ed Schultz on his MSNBC program. “It’s almost as if this guy [Cain] is trying to warm up to them and tell them what they want to hear.” His guest, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, agreed, and directed our eyes to “post-intentional racism,” which would be “racism that people don’t intend to have or to act upon,” as explained in the book More Beautiful and More Terrible by Imani Perry, described by its publisher as meaning “a new and distinct form of racism that is ‘post intentional,’ neither drawing on the intentional discrimination of the past nor drawing on biological concepts of race.” That’s helpful. Then you have the usual run of Democrats saying it’s racist when black conservatives tell white conservatives that blacks don’t need Democrats “helping” them. As the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has explained it, “These white Republicans are so racist that they’re willing to elect a black man president just to keep black people down.”
As the ruminations on race and Republicans get more and more silly, the question arises as to why liberals still bother, and the reasons appear to be three. First, it serves their purpose politically to have large blocs of voters think that the opposite party is biased against them. Second, it serves their emotional need to feel more enlightened and virtuous. Third, it appears that they really believe it. As they see it, race is the center of everyone’s universe, and comes in two forms: the malevolent racism practiced by their political enemies and the benevolent race-conscious public policy adopted by themselves. Malevolent racists burn crosses, discriminate, try to make life as hellish as possible for those they see as “the Other.” Benevolent racists, on the other hand, are ridden with guilt, torture the rules to ensure racially just outcomes in hiring, promotions, college admissions, etc., cherish diversity (except of opinion), and regard as unjust any system in which the best professions and places do not reflect or exceed the minority representation of the country in general—except in their neighborhoods, and in the places where they work.
What they do not accept is the possibility that there is any position between these two poles, in which people are neither hostile to nor solicitous of others; bear no ill will, yet do no favors; take people as they are on a one-by-one basis, or leave them alone. To the benevolent racist, those who aspire to color-blindness are lying, victims of subconscious or post-intentional racism, or blind to nothing more than their evil, malevolent hearts.
This view was expressed best in 1998 in a speech by Al Gore to a group of black ministers, when in a clunky and maladroit metaphor—this is, after all, Al Gore we’re discussing—he said people who claimed to be color blind were in reality hiding in duck blinds, ready to gun down their prey. This view is what for the past 40 years has been keeping them from registering the evidence that since Reagan’s election conservatism has been ideology driven, as it, along with most of the rest of the country, has reached the conclusion that race by and large does not and should not count. The last piece of evidence fell into place with a clunk when Herman Cain was accused of assault and harassment—by an assortment of blondes. The most right of the right wing stood up for the black man. Rush Limbaugh called it a media hit job. Laura Ingraham mocked the white “floozies.” The “third rail” of race has been touched, and is plumb out of voltage. As John Cleese might say, it is an “ex-issue.” It is, and now ought to be, dead.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.