Ross Douthat, I think, gets this wrong:
The GOP and the Race Issue: Southern whites were, and are, natural conservatives who happened to find themselves in the more liberal of the two parties; once Democrats associated themselves with the civil-rights movement, there wasn't anywhere else for white Mississippians and Alabamans to go except the GOP. Gerard Alexander's essay on "The Myth of the Racist Republicans" goes further than I would in downplaying Republican racism, but I think his point on this score is basically right:
Liberal commentators ... assume that if many former Wallace voters ended up voting Republican in the 1970s and beyond, it had to be because Republicans went to the segregationist mountain, rather than the mountain coming to them. There are two reasons to question this assumption. The first is the logic of electoral competition. Extremist voters usually have little choice but to vote for a major party which they consider at best the lesser of two evils, one that offers them little of what they truly desire. Segregationists were in this position after 1968, when Wallace won less than 9% of the electoral college and Nixon became president anyway, without their votes. Segregationists simply had very limited national bargaining power. In the end, not the Deep South but the GOP was the mountain.
Second, this was borne out in how little the GOP had to "offer," so to speak, segregationists for their support after 1968, even according to the myth's own terms. Segregationists wanted policies that privileged whites. In the GOP, they had to settle for relatively race-neutral policies: opposition to forced busing and reluctant coexistence with affirmative action. The reason these policies aren't plausible codes for real racism is that they aren't the equivalents of discrimination, much less of segregation.
... Kevin Phillips was hardly coy about this in his Emerging Republican Majority. He wrote in 1969 that Nixon did not "have to bid much ideologically" to get Wallace's electorate, given its limited power, and that moderation was far more promising for the GOP than anything even approaching a racialist strategy. While "the Republican Party cannot go to the Deep South"-—meaning the GOP simply would not offer the policies that whites there seemed to desire most—"the Deep South must soon go to the national GOP," regardless.
So the GOP ended up bidding race-neutrality - which a conservative party would have naturally favored anyway, and which is not racism - and symbolic gestures like Reagan's opposition to MLK Day, his support for Bob Jones University's tax exemption, and so forth. These code words and gestures were real and shameful, and contemporary apologies like Ken Mehlman's mea culpa are entirely appropriate. But more often than not, I would submit, pundits who harp on this shame tend to do so because it's an easy way to leap to Krugman's conclusion that race explains everything he doesn't like about contemporary American politics, when in fact an awful lot of it is explained by the fecklessness of his liberal forebears.
Paul Krugman has a very effective counter to this:
White male math - Paul Krugman - Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times Blog: In some correspondence with Larry Bartels, whose “What’s the matter with “What’s the matter with Kansas?”" is must reading for anyone trying to understand modern American political, economy, the issue of how the Democrats lost white males came up. Larry points out that you really need to separate out the South. Here’s what he had to say:
Unless you have a peculiar nostalgia for the racially coercive Democratic monopoly of the Jim Crow era, it makes sense to focus on the rest of the country. There, the Democratic share of the two-party presidential vote among white men was 40% in 1952 and 39% in 2004.
White men didn’t turn against the Democrats; Southern white men turned against the Democrats. End of story.
It's not that feckless liberals alienated their previous natural supporters--it's not the case that, as Ronald Reagan liked to claim, "the Democratic Party left me." It is the case that southern white males left the Democratic Party. Northern white males still seem to like the liberal Democratic Party just fine.
Once "feckless liberals" are off the table, Ross seems to want to make two arguments:
The Republicans didn't really play the race card ("the GOP ended up bidding race-neutrality... which is not racism - and symbolic gestures like Reagan's opposition to MLK Day, his support for Bob Jones University's tax exemption...").
It did not really matter that Republicans played the race card ("Southern whites were, and are, natural conservatives... once Democrats associated themselves with the civil-rights movement, there wasn't anywhere else for white Mississippians and Alabamans to go except the GOP...").
I think that there is a very good counter to Douthat's (1): if the Republican Party really were bidding race-neutrality--if there platform were one of market opportunity plus respect for the family plus respect for the church plus civil order plus race neutrality--they would get an enormous number of African-American votes. African-American voters are more often than not social conservative. African-American voters are extremely eager to support politicians who genuinely fight and reduce crime. Jack Kemp's Republican Party--one that is truly race-neutral, committed to equality of opportunity, and social conservative--is a natural home for most African-American voters. But we do not have that Republican Party, do we? African-American voters believe that the GOP bids racism, and few who have seen George Allen or Trent Lott on YouTube can disagree.
I think Douthat is wrong about (2) as well: it matters that the Republican Party played (and plays) the race card. A Republican Party that was socially conservative and economically classical liberal and retained its long-ago commitment to equality of opportunity--that remembered that it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves--would be a very different Republican Party than the one we see now: it would still have its soul.