Wednesday, July 09, 2008

About Republicans and Race

The scene at a rally for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.
[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]
So it seems that Jonah Goldberg is upset at those nasty liberals again — this time for having the audacity to say that racism, embodied in the tenure of the recently deceased Jesse Helms, is a significant cog in the Republican Party machinery.

I think I see another book in the works: "Liberal Racism: In Which I Continue To Project The Right’s Own Worst Propensities Onto My Opponents." Or something like that. At least, that’s what happened the last time he got on one of these jags.

He’s already off to a great start:
For the last several years preening liberals have argued that conservatism and "Dixiecrat-ism" are symbiotic, if not one and the same. These liberals, in the words of Bill Voegeli:
"… believe—or avail themselves of the political advantages of professing to believe—that the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism. This is not a point of antiquarian interest; the clear implication is that everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state…everything—is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree."
This is akin to what Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism: create three big fat strawmen and then oooh and aaah as they go up in flames. The first is a "modern liberal" who is a caricature with only a vague resemblance to anything any known or representative liberal actually is like. The second is a liberal’s description of conservatism that similarly has only a superficial resemblance to what any serious liberal actually says. And the third is a version of conservatism that is so narrow and self-serving that it effectively obliterates a substantial portion of the Americans who, historically, have actually been considered "conservatives" at the time.

You can see this as he trundles onward:
The line peddled by Paul Krugman and countless others, that the GOP majorities and victories of the last thirty years are all the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree of Dixie is simply untrue. Whatever Helms’ personal druthers, his political maneuvering room was constrained by the fact that the GOP is not a racist party.

… Now, a word about the South. I’m no expert, but the story of the South’s sloughing off of racism and its movement into the GOP fold, is one of the most egregiously under-told and distorted tales of modern political history. (John O’Sullivan points to one aspect of it here.) The bigotry aimed at the South never ceases to amaze me. Indeed, it is astounding to me how the left tells us we need to understand the nuance of, say, the Jihadi mind in all of its shades of gray, but when it comes to the voting habits of law-abiding white North Carolinians all you need to know is that if a white hand pulls a lever for a Republican politician, that hand must be attached to a racist, and that racism guided the hand to vote for a Republican. The South is a complicated place. Racism was certainly its central shortcoming, but it was hardly its only feature. That so many people can only see the racism, even as its half-life accelerates, says more about their myopia than it does about the region it casts its gaze on.
So, a brief reality check: Goldberg does not cite any liberals who actually say that "the essence of conservatism is and always has been Dixiecrat-ism" because, frankly, there aren’t very many of them.

Most liberals and other critics of the American right take a much more nuanced and realistic view — essentially, that not every conservative is a racist, but rather that every actively practicing racist is a conservative; and that this is the case in today’s context not just because racists always have been conservatives, but because the conservative movement has made constant accommodations and appeals to them.

This has been so for a long time, but has become even more self-evident as the Republican Party became the party of the Dixiecrats. The Southern Strategy (note that Goldberg evades any mention of this whatsoever) not only was designed to provide wink-and-nudge acknowledgment to racists that the GOP was on their side but to blunt the advancement of minority interests.

Functionally, this not only pulled the GOP farther to the right, but it also had the effect of continuing to empower racists and enable them to translate their beliefs into law. Indeed, the GOP at one time was not a racist party. But as it reached for power, it empowered and recruited racist elements to the extent that it became functionally racist. It was not a mere coincidence that David Duke was attracted to the GOP. It may have couched policy choices in non-racist terms throughout, but in adamantly defending white privilege and attacking programs to help minorities, it undertook the agenda of racists. Goldberg can deny that this is distinct from actual racism all he likes, but in the real world it becomes a distinction without a difference.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the racist and non-racist elements of conservatism, but that also implies that they are not identical; rather, what’s clear is that the GOP has pandered to racists as a means to obtaining electoral strength enough to win power, and the racists have accepted the muting of their old-fashioned bigotry in exchange for gaining political power. Were it not for the ministrations of the GOP to their withering corpse of an ideology, white supremacy would have vanished from the political scene many years ago.

Moreover, the argument that racism is dying on the vine in the South is absurd and laughable on its face, because the legacy and influence of racism remains pervasive there and not only persists, but does so precisely because the GOP has given it power foothold within its own ranks. The most painfully obvious example of this is the continuing outsize influence of the neo-Confederate movement within the party: 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 has written at some length about it, among others.

And then there has been the more recent surge in racist nativism emanating from Republican ranks, particularly from the more "arch conservative" faction of the party. One suspects that Goldberg would simply like to define them away as not being "real conservatives" (that was how he handled the matter in his book), but rest assured they would do the same to him. To the rest of us, well, if it walks like a Klansman …

Of course, "libertarian" Republicans like Goldberg are in steadfast denial about the significance of these strains, but the heat of those denials can’t dissipate the ongoing hard reality.

The overarching narrative that Goldberg is trying to construct here is the same one he deployed in Liberal Fascism, to wit, one in which conservatism is narrowly and conveniently redefined to include only the libertarian/free-market component while denying that other components — particularly the racist, anti-gay, and generally xenophobic blocs — don’t really represent conservatism.

This, put nicely, is a gargantuan pile of horseshit. Conservatism as we have known it in America is not just Russell Kirk and William Buckley but also John J. Calhoun, Theodore Bilbo, and Strom Thurmond. There are indeed libertarian and anti-centralized-government strands to conservatism, but there have also always been reactionary, bellicose, jingoistic and simply racist strands to it as well; the Southern Strategy, in fact, had the effect of wrapping those strands together and bringing them to real political power.

This was embodied in Jesse Helms, an unrepentant racist and homophobe whose Bircherite worldview poisoned the nation’s political climate for three decades and more. A lot of people have reminisced about Helms this week, but my favorite Helms story — because it illustrates his core nature, as well as that of his fellow conservatives, brilliantly — comes from a Sept. 12, 1995 Reuters news report:
Helms (R-N.C.) seemed somewhat shocked when the caller from Alabama said, "Mr. Helms, I know this might not be politically correct to say these days, but I think you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers."

"Oh, dear," guest host Robert Novak said.

"Whoops," said Helms. "Well, thank you, I think."

"That was the bad word," Novak said. "That was politically incorrect. We really don’t condone that kind of language, do we?"

"No. No," said Helms, a vocal opponent of affirmative action.

Helms went to say the slur is not part of his lexicon.

"My father didn’t condone it when I was a little boy," the 73-year-old senator said. "One of the worst spankings I ever got was when I used that word, and I don’t think I’ve ever used it since."
What was noteworthy about both Novak’s and Helms’ responses, of course, was that they were flustered over the use of "the n-word". Neither bothered to even address, let alone repudiate, the content of the man’s remarks — you know, the part about "keeping the niggers down." Indeed, Helms seemed to thank him for them.

There may have been much more to Jesse Helms — but his bigoted approach to race revealed a narrow, pinched, and mean-spirited mind dedicated ultimately to primitive racial nationalism and willing to inflict injustice and harm on those he considered his lessers, and that manifested itself in a broad array of policy choices. And that, in the end, is exactly what we can say about the Republican Party, too.

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