Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Denial like a river

We've been hearing for over a decade from conservatives that liberalism is the source of everything wrong with America. Indeed, attacking liberals as "evil" (see, e.g., the title of Sean Hannity's current screed) seems at times to be the entire raison d'etre of the conservative movement, at least insofar as it promotes its own ideology.

The corollary to this, of course, is that conservatism, by contrast, is the source of all that is good and right and pure about America. Most conservatives prefer the former tactic -- it's always easier, not to mention more emotionally satisfying for the conservative mindset, to tear your enemies down -- but of course, the Whatta Rush Limbaughs of the world are never shy about a little vacuous self-plumping.

That's why they really hate it when anyone brings up the little problem of racism.

Nearly everyone recognizes, of course, that racism is in fact one of the real things that is foul and wrong about America. And while the Democratic Party was for years the primary home of white supremacists, most people -- especially minorities -- are well aware that this all changed in the 1960s and '70s, thanks to the so-called "Southern Strategy."

That, of course, was Richard Nixon's tactic of drawing in white nationalists in the South to the Republican Party by making not-too-subtle appeals to their innate racism. It transformed the GOP from the party of Lincoln to the party of neo-Confederates it is today.

And most of us are similarly aware that the Southern Strategy remains alive and well in today's GOP.

One of the ways today's Republicans deal with this conundrum is not to try to actually confront these elements and eradicate the racist impulse from its ranks. Its preferred course is to play a PR game touting a phony "compassionate conservatism" by posing party leaders with as many minorities as they can find, even while it continues promulgating policies, such as attacking affirmative action, that clearly are counter to the interests of those same minorities. When someone like Trent Lott is caught revealing Southern Republicans' oft-camouflaged inner thoughts about segregation and civil rights, their initial impulse is to deny, obfuscate and counterattack, until the building PR nightmare finally forces them to slap his wrists.

Recently, we've seen a new tactic emerge, consonant with the movement's increasing dependence on Newspeak: Deploy up-is-down arguments that the Southern Strategy really doesn't have racism at its core, pretending that white supremacism is actually vanishing from the South.

Roger Ailes recently pointed us to a Jonah Goldberg entry at National Review's The Corner that made this argument by proxy, likewise directing us to an article by Gerard Alexander in the pseudo-academic conservative propaganda journal of the Claremont Institute:
The Myth of the Racist Republicans

Alexander examines four serious texts dealing with the Southern Strategy, and denounces them all as fundamentally deluded because, it seems, racism isn't really present as a significant political impulse in the South any longer.

Alexander introduces this thesis with a peculiar formulation of the argument against the GOP:
A myth about conservatism is circulating in academia and journalism and has spread to the 2004 presidential campaign. It goes something like this: the Republican Party assembled a national majority by winning over Southern white voters; Southern white voters are racist; therefore, the GOP is racist. Sometimes the conclusion is softened, and Republicans are convicted merely of base opportunism: the GOP is the party that became willing to pander to racists. Either way, today's Republican Party -- and by extension the conservative movement at its heart -- supposedly has revealed something terrible about itself.

There may be some critics of the GOP who use the first argument, but not many, at least not those who are serious about the matter. But there are many who clearly adopt the latter, including many former Republicans who abandoned the party precisely because of this strategy and the way it transformed the party.

I happen to be one of the latter. And my view -- like those of many others -- is actually somewhat more nuanced. What is clear to us is that the GOP, and the conservative movement generally, has been overtaken by people whose chief concerns have little to do with true conservatism and more with the Machivellian acquisition of power by any means. This is not mere opportunism, but a malignant metastasis that not only finds white supremacism an acceptable impulse but one fully consonant with its drive to power.

Alexander, however, denies this is the case. The old racism of the South, he argues, has been displaced by standard middle-class concerns about policy that are innocent of racism and are instead based on middle-of-the-road policy concerns:
The fact that these (and many other) books suggest otherwise shows that the myth is ultimately based on a demonization not of the GOP but of Southerners, who are indeed assumed to have Confederate flags in their hearts if not on their pickups. This view lends The Rise of Southern Republicans a schizophrenic nature: it charts numerous changes in the South, but its organizing categories are predicated on the unsustainable assumption that racial views remain intact.

The basic dishonesty of Alexander's argument is revealed in the fact that one of the books that he criticizes -- Joseph Aistrup's The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South -- is not particularly critical of the GOP. Indeed, it is in fact largely a strategic manual for Republicans, arguing that the top-down strategy (which is to say, an orientation toward top national offices as a way of leading a national Republican charge at state and local levels) inherent in the Southern Strategy should remain intact while shedding the old racism that was at its core.

However, Aistrup is both blunt and accurate in assessing the Southern Strategy's foundations and its continuing polity. I excerpted relevant parts of the text some time back:
The Southern Strategy was developed to take advantage of the upheavals of the southern structure (Bass and De Vries, 1976, 22-33). The major goal of the Southern Strategy was to transform the Republicans' reputation as the party of Lincoln, Yankees, and carpetbaggers into the party that protects white interests (Klinkner 1992; Bass and DeVries 1976; 22-23). Thus, subtle segregationist threads are sewn in to the tapestry of the Southern Strategy. As a response in part to the GOP's new image and the liberalizing changes in the national Democrats' party positions, the Southern Democrats evolved from a party that depended on race-baiting, white supremacists to a party that needs and depends on black support to win elections (Lamis 1988).

Significantly, the GOP began a conscious effort to recast their Southern image after Nixon's loss in 1960. Under the influence of Goldwater and his allies, the Republican National Committee's program "Operation Dixie" (Klinkner 1992) changed to openly promote a more conservative states' rights and segregationist policies and to recruit candidates of this ilk. Republican segregationist candidates made respectable showings in the 1962 South Carolina U.S. Senate elections, where William Workman received 43 percent of the vote, and in the 1962 Alabama U.S. Senate election, where James Martin was seven thousand votes shy of unseating Democratic Sen. Lister Hill.

Even with the subtle change toward accepting candidates who were more in tune with the predominant white Southern party at that time, it was not until the 1964 presidential campaign that the Republicans' new image became solidified. The key event that highlighted the Republicans' new strategy and led to the Democrats shedding their old segregationist image was the national Democrats' support of civil rights and Goldwater's and the Republican party's support of states' rights (Bass and De Vries 1976, 29). This election, more than any other (Carmines and Stinson 1989), drew clear lines of division and provided a glimpse of the future of party politics in the South and the rest of the nation. The battle was defined in the South as segregation versus desegregation. However, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who promoted segregational politics.

As Aistrup observes, these appeals were not as overt as the white supremacy of the old Dixiecrats like Theodore Bilbo, John Rankin and Strom Thurmond:
... In tandem with the Southern Strategy issue orientation, a number of Republicans attempted to use subtle segregationist suggestions to win elections. Southern Republicans developed a set of policy positions that reinforced their racially conservative policy orientations. Republicans opposed forced busing, employment quotas, affirmative action and welfare programs; at the same time, they favored local control and tax exemptions for segregated private schools (Lamis 1988, 24). Segregationist policies became more abstract, a Reagan official explained: "You're getting abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes ... [these policies] are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it" (Lamis 1988, 26).

...Undaunted by Wallace's potential usurpation of the states' rights mantle, Nixon cut a deal with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) to continue promoting policies consistent with a states' rights orientation. Murphy and Gulliver describe the meeting: "Richard Milhous Nixon ... sat in a motel room in Atlanta in the early spring of 1968 and made his political deal. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was there. There were others. The essential Nixon bargain was this: If I'm president of the United States, I'll find a way to ease up on the federal pressures forcing school desegregation or any other kind of desegregation. Whatever the exact words or phrasing, this was how the Nixon commitment was understood by Thurmond and other southern GOP strategists."

Since this time, the racially conservative issue appeal of the southern Strategy has evolved from advocating states' rights and opposing busing in the 1960s and 1970s to opposing large segments of the civil rights policy agenda, including affirmative action and quotas in the 1980s... The key to deciphering the Southern Strategy and understanding its evolution is found by revealing how its policy rhetoric appeals to its target audience, Southern whites. Many of the public words and deeds of the Southern Strategy have hidden meanings to adherents. Seemingly ambiguous political language has important, specific connotations for various groups in society.

And as Aistrup observes, the Southern Strategy has broader ramifications for voters well outside the South as well:
When a GOP presidential candidate's campaign strategy emphasizes racially conservative appeals, he identifies not only himself but his party as the one that protects white interests. The identification of the GOP, instead of the Southern Democrats, as the protector of white interests, combined with the large infusion of blacks into the Southern Democratic parties, opens the door for Southern whites to abandon their historic ties to the Democrats.

Indeed, it seems fairly clear that the GOP has largely followed the core ideas of Aistrup's thesis since the book was published in the mid-1990s -- with varying degrees of success. "Compassionate conservatism" represents a cosmetic attempt to appear to shed the old racism, even though the reality is that, in both the South and elsewhere, those old impulses are not so easily shed.

This is especially the case when it comes to the continuing, and sometimes overwhelming, presence of the far-right neo-Confederate movement within the ranks of the GOP. This movement, as I've discussed at length previously, is not merely arch-conservative but positively radical; it not only defends the Confederacy and slavery and denounces Lincoln, but it argues for outright secession.

Sean Wilentz discussed the neo-Confederate presence in the modern GOP a couple of years ago in detail at The American Prospect:
Neo-Confederate influence in the Bush White House is not, meanwhile, confined to Hines. Bush's first act as president was to nominate Ashcroft as attorney general. Ashcroft had just lost a Senate race in Missouri after deciding not to run against Bush in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has observed, Ashcroft -- as attorney general, governor of Missouri and a U.S. Senator -- "built a career out of opposing school desegregation in St. Louis and opposing African-Americans for public office." During the St. Louis integration crisis and after, Ashcroft maintained intimate links to the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the successor organization to the segregationist White Citizens Councils, which has its headquarters in St. Louis. Ashcroft even intervened at the behest of CCC leader Gordon Baum in a strange case involving a prominent CCC member accused of plotting the murder of an FBI agent. In his Southern Partisan interview, arranged by Hines, Ashcroft commended the magazine for helping to "set the record straight" and for "defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Thomas "Stonewall"] Jackson, and [Jefferson] Davis." As George W. Bush's attorney general, Ashcroft has used the Department of Justice to support Republican efforts at voter suppression, many of them aimed at black voters.

There are other ways that white supremacism has adopted new guises as well, and these likewise have become inextricably interwoven with the conservative movement. One of the most significant of these is through so-called "academic racist" organizations such as American Renaissance, which promotes the old supremacy by couching it in seemingly respectable language, even as a closer examination reveals not only specious logic but a foundation of truly vile racism. Yet mainstream conservatives treat AR and its leader, Jared Taylor, as a respected authority; Joe Scarborough's MSNBC talk show, for instance, has hosted Taylor on two occasions without even explaining to its audience that AR is designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.

AR also provides an important way of networking with other white supremacists, and helps to likewise plug them into mainstream conservatism, as this report points out:
In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve resurrected scientific racism. Now it was no longer culture and behaviour which caused unemployment and crime, but genes and biology. That year in Atlanta American Renaissance held its first conference. The mainstream conservative cloak came off revealing a different movement. Sam Dickson, John Tyndall's favourite Atlanta attorney, for example, was a featured speaker. Sam Francis gave an unvarnished appeal to resurrect white supremacy. In attendance was a gaggle from the Council of Conservative Citizens along with Ed Fields, the Truth At Last publisher who alternates between Klan and neo-nazi affiliations.

The above-mentioned Council of Conservative Citizens likewise has something of a notorious role in connecting mainstream conservatism with the racist far right. Trent Lott, before his meltdown of last year, had previously raised eyebrows by maintaining substantive connections to the group, and only half-heartedly distancing himself from the group when its core agenda was revealed.

But that was not the end of the CofCC's role in the Republican Party. It reappeared again last year during Haley Barbour's successful bid for the Mississippi governorship, which also featured overt appeals based on the Confederate flag debate (a significant code issue for Southern racists). Barbour, in keeping with the standard GOP approach to such issues, tried shrugging off his grip-and-grin appearance with the group's offiicals by suggesting that the CofCC was a constituency just like any other.

Indeed, the CofCC regularly insists that it is not a racist organization, even though the evidence is substantial that it is indeed. Perhaps the most stark case of this came when Earl Holt, one of the CofCC's founders, based in St. Louis, decided to respond to criticism from ArchPundit:
Being the shallow, nigger-loving dilettante that you are, you probably DO consider niggers to be your equal (who am I to question this?): Yet, unlike you and your allies, I have an I.Q. in excess of 130, which grants me the ability to objectively evaluate the Great American Nigro (Africanus Criminalis.)

The nigro is 11.5 % of the U.S. population, yet he commits in excess of 55% of all felonies (although felonies are UNDER-represented in the nigro community, where observing the law is considered "acting White!") Moreover, he (or should I say she?)accounts for 48% of all ADC recipients in the U.S. We have spent over $7 TRILLION on "Urban Welfare Spending" since the mid-1960s, (black economists Thomas Sowell & Walter Williams) and the nigro is still as criminal, surly, lazy , violent and stupid as he/she ever was, while his illegitimacy rate is 80% nationwide, and over 90% in the "large urban areas."

... Some day, You sanctimonious nigger-lovers will either have to live amongst them ("nothing cures an enthusiasm for integration like a good dose of niggers") or else defend yourselves against them. My guess is that you are such a cowardly and pusillanimous lot of girly-boys, they will kill fuck, kill and eat you just as they do young White males in every prison system in the U.S. That's right: When defending this savage and brutish lot, you must also consider their natural ( or should I say UN-natural) enthusiasm for buggery!

I honestly pray to God that some nigger fucks, kills and eats you and everyone you claim to love!

Holt, who hosts a St. Louis radio talk show touting conservative issues, is still a key figure in Republican politics in St. Louis, as this report explains.

Similar comments cropped up recently during the debate over erecting a statue of Lincoln in Virginia, as Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest recently observed. The petition complained that placing the statue in Richmond -- the capital of the Confederacy -- would be like "one glorifying the evil Third Reich to Hitler in Tel Aviv." Comments against the plan ran like this:
"Absolutely Not ! I'll accept a statue of Ape Lingum in Richmond when Karl Marx and Vlad Lenin are placed in Washington, D.C. along with a statue of Bin Laden in New York City.....

Why not put up a statue of Osama bin Laden at Ground Zero?....

The only way that I would support a statue of Lincoln in Richmond would be to have him depicted in CHAINS in a kneeling position!....

Based on years of monitoring the growing interconnection between the racist right and mainstream conservatism, Mark Potok of the SPLC offered the following assessment:
In fact, the ideas of the radical right are thriving in a number of venues. On hugely popular talk shows like "The O'Reilly Factor," conspiracy theories about non-white immigration that originated on the extreme right are now bandied about as fact. A number of major foundations are pushing the notion that a tiny group of German Jews are behind the destruction of "American culture." In much of the South, the idea of Abraham Lincoln as a racial emancipator is under attack by right-wing academics. Extremists have seized control of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a purportedly mainstream Southern heritage group with 32,000 members, a $5 million bank account, and an increasingly far-right political agenda.

... Sam Francis, perhaps the leading intellectual of the radical right, recently wrote that the future of the movement lies with the softer-line hate groups like American Renaissance, a journal and allied foundation focusing on the "science" of race, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which sees non-white immigration as a threat to the nation.

"Both have succeeded in learning how to discuss ... the scientific, social, and political realities of race without reliance on the old rhetoric of what was called 'white supremacy' and 'hate,'" Francis wrote.

The sad reality is that Francis is mostly right. Trent Lott is no longer Senate majority leader and white supremacist groups across the board have taken a serious body blow. But the ideas they represent are alive and doing surprisingly well.

Make no mistake: There are thousands if not millions of conservative Republicans who are free of racist taint. These tend to be genuine conservatives of principle who, as Alexander suggests, base their beliefs on serious policy concerns that have nothing to do with racism or white supremacism.

But pretending that the racist element has little influence -- or, even more absurdly, that it doesn't exist -- does not raise any hope that conservatives will be serious about eradicating its presence in their ranks anytime soon.

Which is all the more the tragedy. The sooner that racism is deprived of any political power in America, the sooner it will be eradicated. Conservatives like Alexander only give it the kind of cover it needs to keep eating away at the nation's soul.

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