New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall has a piece up today that defames the entire Republican party as racist and xenophobic. Edsall had sent me some questions as he was preparing his piece. I responded, but none of my comments made it into his piece. That’s his right, of course. But I thought I’d share those reflections here. Here is what I said in my email to Edsall:
There’s a narrative that is promulgated by Democrats – and taught as history in schools for that matter – that on racial matters the Democrats and Republicans changed partners in the 1960s. The Democrats became the party of civil rights (which until 1964 had been the province of Republicans), and the Republicans became the party of white racism.
This is not accurate, at least, not the part about Republicans. Yes, Goldwater voted against the 1964 act. A mistake, in my judgment. But he was no racist. He was a member of the NAACP in Arizona. But he was a small government guy, and let’s face it, the ’64 act gave vast powers to the federal government.
While Goldwater voted against the ‘64 bill, the majority (79%) of House Republicans supported it, versus only 63 percent of Democrats. In the Senate, 21 Democrats voted no, versus only 6 Republicans. One of those who voted no was Senator Albert Gore Sr, (though Al Gore Jr later claimed the opposite).
Ok. Were Republicans all holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome? No. There were always racists in the party (though many fewer than in the Democratic Party), and doubtless there still are some (in both parties).
The Democrats, who cannot win elections without overwhelming majorities of black votes, have made accusing Republicans of racism a cottage industry for the past several decades. I have a whole chapter about it in one of my books. The overwhelming majority of these accusations are pure libel – and we take it hard.
You say: “There are many more examples of partisan splits over issues that pitted whites against minorities in which Republicans stood with whites.” Perhaps, but without knowing which issues you’re talking about, it isn’t fair to assume that Republicans were choosing identity politics – which they’ve usually tried to stay away from. Also, there are many examples – doubtless there should be more, but still — of Republicans attempting to appeal to black voters without success. The No Child Left Behind Law was a clear attempt to help poor children stuck in bad schools, a disproportionate number of whom are blacks and other minorities. The big money and intellectual heft behind school choice has come largely from conservatives.
When Republicans appoint blacks to high government posts – Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, etc – it’s overlooked. When Democrats do it, it’s a breakthrough. George W. Bush went to so many black churches looking for votes that his staff wondered if he’d even recognize a church that didn’t have AME on its sign. It did him no good, because the NAACP ran scurrilous ads suggesting that he was ok with a terrible lynching in Texas. Every single election features Democrats suggesting that Republicans are going “put ya’ll back in chains” (Joe Biden) or some such thing.
Immigration is a different story.
For a significant part of the Republican base, immigration, especially illegal immigration, is a symbol of the country’s decline. I think they’re wrong for many reasons, but I won’t go into that here.
Republicans who voted against the Bush immigration bills did not believe that the enforcement would ever materialize, whereas the grant of legal status was immediate. Maybe they were wrong.
The main issue is this: However strongly you feel about immigration, shouldn’t you take into account that pushing for deportation is poison to the image of the Republican Party? When I raise this, some agree, but a surprising number of others seem to feel that all is lost anyway, and they might as well get their thrill by seeing a strong fella really take it to the other side. (Even if Trump really IS from the other side. That doesn’t seem to give them pause.)
The “make America great again” slogan resonates with people who perceive, rightly in my judgment, that we are in decline. My view is that the path to Republican success is to pitch a message to everyone of economic growth, a revived military, and a return to the rule of law.