Ross Douthat wrote:
Ross Douthat: 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:
...Segregationists simply had very limited national bargaining power.... 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.... Kevin Phillips was hardly coy about this in his Emerging Republican Majority. He wrote in 1969 that... "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"...
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.
Douthat's claim that it is inappropriate to "harp of this shame" of Republican "symbolic gestures" reminds me of Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell and of William Safire. William Safire wrote in his obituary for John Mitchell:
William Safire: "Watch what we do, not what we say." Coming from the law-and-order campaign manager with the visage of a bloodhound, that epigram was interpreted as the epitome of political deceptiveness. But his intent was to reassure blacks that, foot-dragging poses aside, the Nixon Justice Department would accomplish desegregation. Mitchell knew that the appearance of a tilt toward white Southerners would ease the way for acceptance of steady civil rights progress for blacks...
Safire and Mitchell thus go further than Douthat. Douthat says that the symbols were unimportant and did no harm because they were not policy substance. Mitchell and Safire say that the symbols were more than smoke-and-mirrors--that the anti-Black posturing was actually a source of faster progress on civil rights.
I have heard Douthat's or Safire and Mitchell's argument a lot of times, applied to:
- Fiscal policy
- Race relations
The "these Republicans are really good people--they just talk like thugs" or "these Republicans are really especially good people because they sound like thugs" is just not very convincing at any level.