Saturday, November 01, 2003

Identity politics and the GOP

If there were any question that Republicans are openly playing white-based racial politics in Mississippi now, the cat should be out of the bag.

Unsurprisingly, though, the Democratic dogs are doing little more than rolling over and sniffing their crotches about it.

The trend has been manifesting itself increasingly over the past couple of months, embodied in the way former Republican National Committee chair Haley Barbour has played footsie with the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, as well as the use by both Barbour and the GOP's candidate for lieutenant governor of the Confederate flag as a symbol of their campaigns. As I've noted previously, that flag is not just a symbol of "Southern heritage" but of white supremacism and racial intimidation everywhere, and the use of the flag makes clear that the GOP is aligning itself politically in that direction.

Confederate banner back in Miss. politics

Barbour and the GOP are now openly embracing the symbol:
In a TV ad airing in recent days, GOP nominee Haley Barbour said Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove had "attacked" the state flag when he pushed for a flag design change in the 2001 referendum.

Barbour's campaign office in Yazoo City has also been distributing "Keep the Flag. Change the Governor" bumper stickers ahead of the Tuesday ballot.

"Our campaign is not paying for them, but our volunteers just love them," Barbour said in a recent interview.

Recall, if you will, that when the news first emerged that Republicans were dredging up the flag issue in the campaign, party officials denied they were doing anything other than identifying potential voters:
Jim Herring, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, said the telephone question about the state flag is being asked as part of a voter-identification effort.

"It is not unusual to ask people how they voted on various issues," Herring said. "That's pretty much it. That's what you call voter-identification calls."

Uh huh.

Republicans have been pretending, ever since Trent Lott was officially wrist-slapped and sent down to the second team on the Senate bench, that their days of courting white supremacists, a la the Southern Strategy, are now officially over. The GOP is the party of inclusiveness, they tell us. And in a way it's true; why, if the Republicans refused to pander to white supremacists, they'd really have no place to go. It's just too bad that no one with colored skin wants to share that Big Tent with them.

Of course, Democrats nationally have been notable for their silence on this matter, just as they were slow to pick up on the Trent Lott affair. One would think the GOP's open associations with neo-Confederates and their ilk would be worth pointing out. Evidently they are all listening to pollsters telling them that alienating those Southern voters who support the Dixie flag will hurt them in the 2004 election.

At least Derrick Jackson at The Boston Globe has been paying attention:
Barbour campaign shows GOP's racist side

As Jackson observes, it's not as though national Republicans have been distancing themselves from Barbour, as they did David Duke in Louisiana, though in reality Barbour's campaign has differed little in the nature of its appeal or its politics. Everyone from George W. Bush to Dick Cheney to Ari Fleischer to J.C. Watts has been coming to Mississippi to pat Barbour on the head. Indeed, Bush is touring there today, and his remarks were interesting:
"I'm proud to stand with this man ... He's proud of this state, and that's the kind of governor you need — somebody who relates to people from all walks of life."

This frankly seems like a coded reference to Barbour's wink-and-nudge refusal to take have his picture removed from the CofCC's Web site:
"Once you start down the slippery slope of saying 'That person can't be for me,' then where do you stop?" Barbour said. "Old segregationists? Former Ku Klux Klan like (Sen.) Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.? You know?

"Once you get into that, you spend your time doing nothing else," Barbour said. "I don't care who has my picture. My picture's in the public domain. It gets published in newspapers every day."

Derrick Jackson sizes it up about right:
Perhaps the problem is that it is unrealistic to expect Barbour to fully renounce the CCC if he has not fully renounced his own past. When he ran for the Senate in 1982, a New York Times report said:

"The racial sensitivity at Barbour headquarters was suggested by an exchange between the candidate and an aide who complained that there would be `coons' at a campaign stop at the state fair. Embarrassed that a reporter heard this, Mr. Barbour warned that if the aide persisted in racist remarks, he would be reincarnated as a watermelon and placed at the mercy of blacks."

Barbour's refusal to reject the CCC's use of his photo suddenly brings his own history back to life. It raises the question of how much he clings to it and how much he feels his white voters need to desperately hold on to a tragic past and a segregated future to feel good about themselves. If Barbour will not let go of the photo, it is up to the GOP to take it out of his hands. Otherwise it may win the Mississippi State House, but continue to lose the hearts of decent thinking Americans. The GOP will once again crush any hope or optimism that Americans can walk into a polling place without race being the silent lever in the voting booth.

What's remarkable about all this is the way it's taking place in the face of increasing attacks on the "identity politics" practiced by minority-interest groups, such politics being divisive and contrary to the notion that "we are all Americans." These attacks are especially favored by conservatives, of course, but are also popular with the "contrarian liberal" and the "libertarian" crowds, embodied by folks like Mickey Kaus and Glenn Reynolds.

What is clear is that "identity politics" is simply a code for "non-white interests," a symbol for attacking minorities when they try to assert themselves against white supremacism, and "we're all American" is just a code for the preeminence of white culture.

Atrios had an incisive post about this the other day:
[C]ritics seem to always blame the victims of bigoted identity politics for its existence. The biggest practioners of identity politics are white people, though one rarely hears it lablelled as such -- being the dominant power group, what whites do is simply "normal,"as opposed to "special interest politics"or "identity politics." ...

One day, perhaps, with a bit more pro-creative racial deconstruction, a bit more blurring of the clear lines between racial/and ethnic groups, and most importantly a bit more enlightenment and a bit less racial demagoguery by politicians wanting to exploit bigotry, "identity politics" as such may go away. Plenty of immigrant groups who were lumped together -- Poles, Hungarians, Irish, Italians -- have largely transcended their original status as downtrodden ethnic groups. But until it goes away we should stop pretending it emanates from minority groups. It doesn't.

"Identity politics," though it was not called that then, was an invention of 19th-century white supremacists who, along with their acolytes, continued to employ such divisions with abandon through most of the first half of the last century. Their heirs continue to do so, but in less nakedly racial terms.

Now we have attacks on affirmative action, the "welfare state," hate-crimes legislation, and various aspects of civil-rights law, all under the umbrella of combating "identity politics." And consistently, there has been one primary source for this resurgence of white supremacy camouflaged as "normal" politics: the conservative movement generally, and the Republican Party specifically.

Black leaders often criticize the Democratic Party for its abysmal lack of leadership at times like these, pointing to such failures as indicative of the party's tendency to take black voters for granted. Certainly, there's little doubt that Democratic silence on these issues not only empowers the bigots, it also saps the energy from the party's base.

Democrats really need to ask themselves whether they want to be courting the votes of people inspired by the Confederate flag, or the same minorities for whom that flag is a symbol of oppression and intimidation. And if the latter, it is well past time for them to speak up about what is happening in Mississippi.

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