Conservatism does not equal racism. So why do many liberals assume it does?

By Gerard Alexander
Sunday, September 12, 2010

From an immigration law in Arizona to a planned mosque near Ground Zero to Glenn Beck emoting at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the controversies roiling American politics in recent weeks and months have featured an ugly undertone, suggesting meanness, prejudice and, in the eyes of some, outright racism. And it is conservatives -- whether Republican politicians, Fox News commentators or members of the "tea party" movement -- who are invariably painted with that brush.

There is power in the accusation of racism against conservatives, one that liberals understand well. In an April 2008 post on Journolist, a private online community for liberal journalists, academics and activists, one writer proposed a way to distract conservatives from the campaign controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor. "If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us," Spencer Ackerman wrote. "Instead, take one of them -- Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares -- and call them racists."

No doubt, such accusations stick to conservatives more than to liberals. It was then-Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, after all, who described presidential candidate Obama as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." If a conservative politician had offered such an opinion, his or her career might have ended; Biden was rewarded with a spot on Obama's ticket. Liberal missteps on race and ethnicity are explained away, forgiven and often forgotten; conservative ones are cast as part of a sinister, decades-long story of intolerance and political calculation, in which conservative ideology and strategy are conflated with bigotry.

That larger story is well-known and oft-repeated -- and, I would argue, vastly oversimplified and simply wrong in its key underlying assumptions. But its endurance explains why the party of Lincoln is so easily dubbed the party of Strom Thurmond or Jefferson Davis, and why many critics believe that an identity politics of white America now tilts conservatives against not just blacks but also Hispanics, Muslims and anyone else outside a nostalgic and monochromatic description of the American way of life.

The narrative usually begins with Barry Goldwater opposing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and with Richard Nixon scheming to win the presidency through a "Southern strategy" -- appealing to the racial prejudice of working-class whites in the South to pry them away from the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. In this telling, bigoted Southerners were the electoral mountain to which the Republican Moses had to come, the key to the GOP winning the White House. Wooing them entailed much more than shifting the party slightly away from Democrats on racial issues; in return for political power, Republicans had to move their politics and policies to where bigots wanted them to be. This alliance supposedly laid the foundation for a new American politics.

As Dan Carter, George Wallace's biographer, put it, "The Wallace music played on" in "Barry Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon's subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan's genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush's use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich's demonization of welfare mothers." More recently, it continues through inflammatory campaign ads ("Harold, call me!"), offensive tea party signs, Rand Paul's unusual-because-explicit skepticism about the Civil Rights Act -- all the way to calls to end birthright citizenship for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and to keep Muslim worship well away from the nation's hallowed ground in Lower Manhattan. In this interpretation, core conservative principles -- limited government, tax cuts, welfare reform and toughness on crime -- actually have race at their heart.

This reading of the conservative movement presents problems of logic and history, relying on assumptions that fall apart on close examination. First, it assumes that Republicans depended on white Southerners to become politically competitive in the 1960s. Second, it assumes that Republican presidents from Nixon forward swayed these voters by giving them the policies they wanted. Third, it assumes that the modern conservative policy agenda is best seen as racially motivated. Finally, it assumes that conservative positions on recent controversies are just new forms of that same white-heartland bigotry.

These assumptions are badly flawed.

First, Republicans did not decisively depend on white Southerners to create their modern presidential majorities when the race issue was at its most polarizing. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP had little choice in the 1960s but to seek out Southern white voters and tacked hard to the right on civil rights to do it. But Republican presidential candidates pried apart the New Deal coalition in the 1950s, with the performance of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1960. This chronology has big implications. From 1952 through the 1980s, GOP presidential candidates consistently beat or nearly matched their Democratic opponents, with the clear exceptions only of 1964 and 1976. Republicans did this mostly by crafting majority coalitions in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, in the industrial Midwest and mid-Atlantic, and ultimately in California -- and only partially by realigning several Southern states. Moreover, these were the least "Southern" states, such as Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

This means that the GOP presidential majority and much of the party's modern policy agenda were forged not in the racial heat of the 1960s South, but first in the 1950s and across the country.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) recently argued that race did not play a central role in the partisan shift in the South, saying the transformation was led by a younger generation of Southerners in the post-segregation 1970s. But the best evidence that things other than race mattered most in the shift was that it was an even older generation that moved to the GOP in the peripheral South. By the time Lyndon Johnson reportedly remarked that the Civil Rights Act would deliver the South to the Republicans for a generation, the GOP had already won nearly half the region's Electoral College votes three times in a row.

The remainder of the region -- the race-obsessed Deep South -- repeatedly tried to be a presidential kingmaker in the 1960s but failed. Instead of reforming the GOP in its image, the Deep South's white electorate was among the last to join an already-winning Republican presidential coalition in the early 1970s. Wallace voters ended up supporting Nixon, Reagan and other Republicans, but much more on the national GOP's terms than their own. The Republican Party proved to be the mountain to which the Deep South had to come, not the other way around.

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