By Luke Brinker
In his column today, Charles Blow recites a litany of recent Republican race-baiting. He cites three particularly egregious examples:
On Sunday, Rick “The Rooster” Santorum, campaigning in Iowa, said what sounded like “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” At first, he offered a nondenial that suggested that the comment might have been out of context. Now he’s saying that he didn’t say “black people” at all but that he “started to say a word” and then “sort of mumbled it and changed my thought.”
(Pause as I look askance and hum an incredulous, “Uh huh.”)
Newton Leroy Gingrich has been calling President Obama “the best food stamp president” for months, but after plummeting in the polls and finishing fourth in Iowa, he must have decided that this approach was too subtle. So, on Thursday in New Hampshire, he sharpened the shiv and dug it in deeper, saying, “I’m prepared, if the N.A.A.C.P. invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” On Friday, Gingrich defended himself, as usual, by insisting that exactly what he said wasn’t exactly what he said. He was advocating for African-Americans, not disparaging them.
The comments from Santorum and Gingrich came after a renewed exploration of Ron Paul’s controversial newsletters, one of which said in June 1992 about the Los Angeles riots: “Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began.”
Paul has, of course, insisted that he didn’t write or reviewthe newsletters, although they were written under his name, he made money from them and he used to brag about them.
The ridiculousness of Santorum’s “blah” defense, Gingrich’s inaccurate and demeaning implication that more blacks use food stamps than earn wages, and the implausibility of Paul’s denial that he knew about the vile material published under his name are really beside the point. Santorum and Gingrich’s recent utterances can only be understood within the context of a Tea Party-dominated GOP base that holds outmoded racial views. I posted last week about how racism factors into the Tea Party’s selective opposition to government programs, and this excerpt from a Newsweek report pertains closely to our present topic:
So a new poll by researchers at the University of Washington caught my eye. The findings are sure to fan the flames further. “People who approve of the Tea Party, more than those who don’t approve, have more racist attitudes,” says Christopher Parker, a University of Washington professor who directed the survey. “And not only that, but more homophobic and xenophobic attitudes.” For instance, respondents were asked whether they agreed with various characterizations of different racial groups. Only 35 percent of those who strongly approve of the tea party agreed that blacks are hardworking, compared with 55 percent of those who strongly disapprove of the tea party. On whether blacks were intelligent, 45 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 59 percent of the tea-party opponents. And on the issue of whether blacks were trustworthy, 41 percent of the tea-party supporters agreed, compared with 57 percent of the tea-party opponents.
Santorum may deny he was referring to “black people” on welfare, Gingrich may self-righteously appoint himself a guardian of African-Americans’ best interests, and Paul may plead incompetence on his newsletters, but there is no denying that there is a substantial audience in the GOP for race-baiting. As Blow notes in his column, Republican appeals to racial animosity date back five decades:
Racial politics play well for Republicans. Santorum and Paul finished second and third in Iowa. Time will tell if Gingrich rebounds. Playing to racial anxiety and fear isn’t a fluke; it’s a strategy that energizes the Republican base.
Kevin Phillips, who popularized the right’s “Southern Strategy,” was quoted in The New York Times Magazine in May 1970 as saying that “the more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”
This is why it is either deeply dishonest or pitifully asinine for Republicans to boast of their heritage as the “party of Lincoln,” or to note that segregationist Southern Democrats stonewalled civil rights for decades. Until the late twentieth century, the two parties were not the mostly-ideologically-unified parties they have become. An individual’s geographic region said a great deal more about his political views than did his party affiliation. In his review of Geoffrey Kabservice’s new book on the decline of Republican moderates, Timothy Noah notes the pivotal role of liberal Republicans in securing civil rights:
The story begins at the Eisenhower era’s end. Writing in 1961 about the return of “action and political dialogue to the college campus,” the young activist Tom Hayden cited three examples. The first was the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (which Hayden helped found), remembered today as a primary vehicle for campus protest against the Vietnam War. The second was the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom (which Buckley helped found), remembered today for advancing the political careers of Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The third was Advance, a magazine published by two Harvard undergraduates, Bruce Chapman and George Gilder. Today no one remembers Advance. Gilder and, to a lesser extent, Chapman are familiar names, but they’re known mainly as right wingers. Back then they were Rockefeller Republicans who played a significant role in rallying Republican Congressional support for the civil rights movement. When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, Kabaservice reports, it had proportionally greater support among Republicans than among Democrats (who had to fend off opposition from Southern segregationists). But Goldwater, the party’s “presumptive presidential nominee,” voted against the bill.
When the two parties were not polarized, there was indeed no shortage of racist Democrats in the South. What happened to them? Almost all, including Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond, became Republicans. The Southern Strategy advocated by Phillips and implemented by Nixon worked. President Lyndon Johnson’s prediction that his signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would effectively concede the South to the GOP proved prescient.
Pundits may look to Santorum’s “black people” comment and see a “gaffe” or Freudian slip. The historically minded, however, cannot help but note the enduring legacy of Kevin Phillips.