Frank Rich: GOP Whitewash

tags: Republican Party, GOP, Frank Rich, Southern Strategy, New York Magazine



Frank Rich is Writer-at-Large for New York Magazine.

...In pursuit of higher office, the image-conscious [Rand] Paul took his own stab at outreach last month, giving a speech at Howard University. Facing a mostly young and African-American audience, he was determined to airbrush history—even very recent history of his own. He had “never wavered” in his “support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act,” he claimed, when in fact he had done exactly that in a Louisville Courier-Journal interview during his 2010 Senate campaign. Back then he’d argued that while it was “abhorrent” of Woolworth’s to refuse to serve Martin Luther King Jr. at its lunch counter, a private business still should retain the freedom to do what it wants. He espoused similar views in a contemporaneous prime-time appearance with Rachel Maddow, who replayed her interview with Paul the night of his Howard address.

But far more representative of the larger Republican effort to neutralize its racial history in the civil-rights era was another passage in Paul’s speech. “How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?” he asked rhetorically. “From the Civil War to the civil-rights movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?” After a meandering account of the party’s glorious record on black emancipation in the post–Civil War era, Paul arrived at the Great Depression and this answer: “The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible—the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.” In other words, African-Americans of the thirties were deadbeats bought off by FDR’s New Deal, much as those of the sixties (in the right’s eyes) were bought off by LBJ’s Great Society entitlements and those of the present day (along with the rest of America’s downtrodden “47 percent”) were seduced by Democrats brandishing still more of what Romney called “free stuff” and “gifts,” starting with Obamacare. In this telling, the GOP’s growing opposition to civil-rights laws in the past half-century (Rand’s opposition included) is blameless for black defections; the party was just too high-minded, too egalitarian, too devoted to freedom to compete with Democratic bribery....

It’s a leading plank among these revisionists that Goldwater and other conservative heroes opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 championed by that “low-rent” Johnson only because of constitutional objections (much like those Paul raised about the law in his 2010 Senate campaign). As Noemie Emery tried to make this case in 2011 in The Weekly Standard, “the law was opposed by leading members of the emerging conservative movement—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr.—for reasons having to do with small-government principles that nonetheless permitted their theories and the interests of the segregationists for that moment in time to converge.”

She and her fellow travelers in racial revisionism protest too much. To believe that the convergence between lofty conservative theory and expedient racial politics was innocent, you have to forget Buckley’s 1957 declaration that “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” You have to ignore Goldwater’s famous 1961 political dictum that the Republican Party “go hunting where the ducks are” and pander to southern white conservatives. You have to believe that it was a complete accident that Reagan chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the “Mississippi Burning” slaughter of three civil-rights workers, to deliver a speech on “states’ rights” in 1980. You also have to disregard the political game plan codified by Kevin Phillips, the Nixon political strategist whose book The Emerging Republican Majority helped cement the party’s “southern strategy” of mining white backlash to the civil-rights movement. Speaking to the Times in 1970, Phillips said, “The more Negros who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the ­Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.” Or, in Goldwater’s earlier parlance, the ducks....



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