Racists do not like to discuss the influence of race in politics. When the subject arises, they respond by denying its influence or claiming that its influence pervades both sides equally. Their claim pretends that race in politics does not matter or the historical record is wrong. Whatever stance racists take, their racism, because it is a prejudice, judgment in advance of facts and arguments, is the denial of them. I begin with history.
Republicans respond to charges that their party is racist in one of two ways. Either they simply deny it—whom do they think they can con with this denial?—or they claim that they are no different from Democrats. The latter response adduces the racism of Southern Democrats since Reconstruction ended in 1877 through the passage of major civil rights legislation in the mid 1960s. During those years, when most Americans were more or less racist, Southern Republicans were less so than Southern Democrats, who favored segregation and Jim Crow laws. Although Southern Democrats fought civil rights legislation, most Democrats elsewhere, joined by many Eastern liberal and moderate, and a few Midwestern and Western conservative, Republicans, favored it.
As integration proceeded, those more racist Southern Democrats switched parties. Truman’s initiative integrating the armed forces prompted Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond’s 1948 States Rights Party run for the presidency. Opposition to school desegregation (“massive resistance”) and civil rights legislation (integration—“never”) reversed party affiliations along racial lines. State Republican parties attracted white Democrats by promoting states rights to protect the Southern way of life and, of course, white women; in response, black Republicans became Democrats. Resistance to civil rights legislation fueled Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican run for the presidency. This “white flight” empowered Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in his 1968 Republican run for the presidency. Reagan continued these Southern and Western conservative Republican leaders’ attacks on Eastern Republicans because of their liberal views on civil rights and anti-poverty legislation.
Obama’s campaign for the presidency raised the issue of race to unprecedented levels. Pre-election commentary analyzed the relative strengths of racism and economic self-interest especially in conservative populations in northern industrial “swing” states. Obama won because the electorate wanted a change from Republicans, whom it held responsible for the worst recession since the Great Depression, not because race had disappeared as an issue. Although economic self-interest won, Republicans demonized Obama as someone non- or un-American—foreign-born, Muslim-bred, socialist, radical—code-words covering the un-PC racism and xenophobia underlying them—and then, by association, smeared traditional Democratic approaches and policies as also foreign and socialist—non- or un-American.
Understandably so. Obama’s blackness—black being whites’ color symbolizing evil—has a fearsome aspect for Republicans. Reflecting that fear is their steady stream of insults and indignities directed at Obama, which would be inconceivable if he were other than black and if he did not represent the emerging majority of a non-white minorities. His face—that is, its color—represents the growing numbers of minorities, soon to be a majority, of the American populace. Within decades, whites will have become merely the largest minority in America. By then, Republicans will be unable to win elections by racist appeals unless their current efforts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning cohorts of voters—minorities, young adults, and seniors—not only succeed in the 2012 election, but also suppress these voters in subsequent elections. Republican legislation using fraudulent claims of voter fraud and disempowering public unions signifies an anti-democratic insurgency by Republican bigots first, ideologues second.
Past Republican appeals to racism continue not only unabated, but possibly more desperate today, as the campaign oratory of its leading rivals suggest. Newt Gingrich, a former Representative from Georgia, is a man raised in the nuances of code-word racism. His derogatory remarks that blacks should seek jobs, not welfare checks, and that Obama is the nation’s greatest “food-stamps president” play to the stereotypes that blacks are lazy and dependent on welfare. Republicans applauded their approval. Despite his racist appeals, Gingrich knows the facts: a larger proportion of blacks than of whites are poor and jobless, and need welfare, but a far larger number of whites than of blacks are poor and jobless, and need welfare. One question for analysis in the 2012 election repeats the question in the last election: will racism trump economic self-interest?
A digression. In dark moments, I almost, but not quite, hope that Republican racism trumps self-interest. Rough justice would be served if bigots have federal welfare spigots to them, their family, or their friends shut off, and have someone tell them that they or their children should get jobs scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets in public schools or other public buildings. When they fail to find work and cannot get unemployment benefits and food stamps, perhaps they will realize that the national color is green.
Mitt Romney cannot compete with Gingrich as a racist, but he can compete with him with a despicable policy both implicitly racist and explicitly xenophobic. Romney recently opined that a suitable policy to deal with the country’s eleven million or so illegal Hispanic immigrants is “self-deportation.” Invented as a satirical joke opposing an anti-immigrant initiative in California—Republicans then and there, and Romney now, have no ear for satire or irony—“self-deportation” is a euphemism for something truly ugly. Question: why would millions who wanted to be here, came here, and established themselves with families and in jobs here, some for decades; why would their children, born, raised, and also established here—why would they “self-deport” to lands long since left or unknown? Answer: Republicans or other “real Americans,” by law or vigilantism, would harass them until they left. Anywhere else in the world such state-supported or -sanctioned “self-deportation” would be called “ethnic cleansing.” What the Nazis tried before they settled on their “final solution,” Romney wants to imitate.
Another digression. Ironically, this devout, practicing Mormon advocates a policy which would lead to practices resembling those experienced by his earlier co-religionists, who were harried, hounded from homes and communities, and hurried off to remote territories. Republicans support this or other policies calling for expelling established ethnic populations on legal technicalities of little consequence; indeed, of low cost and high benefit to the country. So another question for analysis is whether Republican racism and xenophobia portends purges, pogroms, and expulsions.
But a greater justice than the fulfillment of my half-hopes and unkind thoughts is grinding the Republicans to ground. All by themselves, they are once again resorting to racism and xenophobia as engines to political power. Their primal-scream hatred of Obama, reflected in their 3-years’ reflexive efforts to oppose anything and everything advocated by, or associated with, him, has become the only plank of their platform which is not merely a repetition of rotten wood about smaller government and less regulation, and, above all, lower taxes and free markets as solutions to all problems.
For Republican racism along with xenophobia is having baleful effects on the party. By regarding this black president as evil incarnate, Republicans have made Obama’s defeat their first priority and opposition to his proposals, even those which they once initiated, an obligatory means to that partisan end. By making their campaigns about a person, not policy, their candidates for the presidency have let their racism contaminate, or create confusion about, their positions and cause conflict among their candidates.
Obama-hatred is driving Republicans to the right, as if extreme ideological purity, which can enhance prospects for primary victories, can also increase chances of his defeat. Yet the quest for purity is forcing Republican candidates to adopt rigid stances which increase conflict within the party between materialists on economic issues and moralists on social issues, and which move them farther from mainstream views on both kinds of issues. Obama-hatred is also driving Republicans to exploit the rhetoric of personal attacks, which they use in on each other in preparation for the winner’s attacks on Obama. Thus, Republican candidates have let their campaigns for the presidency degenerate into compulsive contentiousness and ideological incoherence.
Racism is a potent influence in politics, but it is not omnipotent. Yes, in many quarters, racism trumps democratic or Christian values; but, no, in most quarters, it does not trump homes and jobs. For the past 3 years, Republicans have pursued a strategy of race-based obstruction to impede an economic recovery which, they rightly believe, would redound to Obama’s and the Democrats’ credit. Their reflexive opposition shows Republicans putting party politics above the national interest and refusing to make a constructive contribution to government. In difficult economic times, Republicans have let racism along with xenophobia distract them from, or ignore, the daily concerns of most Americans. Republicans are thus enabling their own defeat, Obama’s re-election, and Democratic gains. Racism, it turns out, is strong enough to hoist Republicans on their own petard.