Lots to unpack in Deb Bucknam’s Orwellian commentary, “When it comes to racism, Democrats lead the charge,” Aug. 19, 2021.
Can’t cover everything — clean energy racist? OMG! —but here goes.
The subject is voter suppression, particularly Black Americans. Bucknam would shift the focus. But Republicans are now less the Party of Lincoln than they are the party of his successor, Andrew Johnson, a staunch racist who opposed Reconstruction, and they share this shameful history.
Theodore Roosevelt, so lionized he’s on Mount Rushmore, opposed voting rights legislation: “The great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage” and voting rights could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.” He believed, “As a race and in the mass, they are altogether inferior to the whites.”
Immigrants, then as now, were also targeted. Calvin Coolidge, in 1921, published “Whose Country Is This?” which included:
“There are racial considerations too grave to be pushed aside … Biological laws tell us certain divergent people will not mix or blend. The Nordics propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides.”
Fast-forward to 1963. Arch-conservative columnists, Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, published a prescient column, “The White Man’s Party,” fretting at some Republicans’ catering to racists: “These Republicans want to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party.”
In 1964, Goldwater roused “these Republicans” against moderates, particularly Nelson Rockefeller, a strong civil rights supporter. Goldwater got crushed, but he laid the groundwork.
Bucknam writes, “Elected Democrats fought tooth and nail” against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She leaves out that it was southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond, who switched parties in 1964 and opposed the Voting Rights Act as a Republican. Check the Senate vote on either bill and try to find a Democrat outside the South who voted “nay.”
Republicans have been increasingly willing to admit voter suppression helps them win. In 1980, religious right activist Paul Weyrich said, “I don’t want everybody to vote … our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
More recently, Republican party officials, electeds and their attorneys have been clear that denying voters the franchise ups their odds on Election Day. Last I checked, Republicans in 14 states had enacted 22 laws restricting voting this year alone. Republican Senators are blocking federal voting rights legislation.
Contrary to what Bucknam writes, it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who are pushing Critical Race Theory, a relatively obscure area of academic study the Rs have hyped as a threat to the Republic.
This is not about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It’s not about Truth, Justice and the American Way. It’s about holding power.
Republican strategist Lee Atwater laid it out in a 1981 interview: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N_____, n_____, n_____.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n_____,’ that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N_____, n_____.’”
Tanya Melich, another senior Republican strategist who worked on several presidential campaigns, likewise noted the deliberate shift in strategy — which included a 180-degree turnaround on the issue of a woman’s right-to-choose — that aimed to pull in evangelicals, who resented the fact their segregated private schools lost tax-exempt status, and white Southerners:
“It was a movement that said we were going to win the presidency through bigotry, but we are not going to come right out and say it … They set out to change the dynamic in the Republican Party … and they succeeded.”
In 1968, Nixon claimed he would “Bring Us Together” while a campaign staff memo argued the fulcrum of the conservative re-alignment was the “law-and-order/Negro socio-economic revolution syndrome.”
Translation: make white people angry and resentful of Blacks.
Reagan in 1980 proclaimed his support for states’ rights at his first campaign stop in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. He spat on their sacrifice, and that was no accident.
In 1988, guiding George Bush’s campaign, Atwater dropped abstractions and made Willie Horton a household name. Younger George Bush didn’t have Atwater, but he had Karl Rove, who pushed the voter fraud myth and voter suppression.
Trump revived attacks on immigrants in 2016, saying they were diseased criminals flooding America, a message that’s still running. Newt Gingrich went on FOX saying, “the radical left” uses immigration “to get rid of the rest of us.”
Trump advisor Stephen Miller railed against our accepting Afghan refugees: “Resettling in America is not about a humanitarian crisis. It’s about accomplishing an ideological objective — to change America.”
Tucker Carlson picked that up the other day, saying Democrats welcome Afghan immigrants “to change our country. They’ll never lose another election. That’s the point, as you know.”
There’s lots of research on this. A recent American Political Science Review piece described animus — such a polite term — toward “marginalized groups” associated with Democrats driving Trump’s support.
Trump wasn’t new — just louder, cruder, angrier. Mainstream Republicans recoiled when they saw that coming in 2016 yet fell into line.
Since Lincoln’s death — Would John Wilkes Booth be a MAGA voter today? — racism has tainted both parties. More recently, one party repudiated it; the other, as conscious political strategy, embraced it.
John Fairbanks is a former Vermont journalist currently living and working in Washington, D.C.