Charles M. Blow, over at The New York Times, loves to allege that Republicans are racist, racist, racist. James Clyburn, the third ranking Democrat in the House, accused Gingrich of practicing the Southern Strategy. The NAACP piled on.
In Gingrich’s populist call and celebration of the nobility of work, they hear Nixon’s ominous “Southern Strategy.” The media alone seems acutely attuned to the racist dog whistles we conservatives are supposed to be hearing, but their dogged attempt to sully the Republican Party’s strategy in the South runs afoul of historical facts. Ironically, one commentator, Jim Sleeper, professor at Yale University, plays the race card in suggesting that Gingrich plays the race card.
In 2004, the masterly Claremont Review of Books debunked this growing media narrative in greater depth than I can venture here, but the left-wing argument rests on three key assumptions: that Republicans tailored their message to attract racists, that those of us who oppose racial preferences are somehow racist, and that, having won the South in ’68, the Republican party continued to play to racism. This is what they believe, made clear by Dan T. Carter, author of From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution 1963-1994: “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.”
The problem with each of these instances of supposed racism is that you have to believe that the issue is racism, not principle. To wit, plenty of non-racists doubt the wisdom of busing, racial preferences, furloughing criminals, and giving lavish government benefits. This is a subtle game the media plays and as tautological as it is stupid: views are deemed racist because they are defined as racist. It’s not really an argument because it already assumes its premise.
Conveniently left out of this analysis is that the Democrats elected openly segregationist candidates in the ’10s and ’30s. Progressive president Woodrow Wilson actually resegregated Washington D.C. and worked with the Democratic controlled congress to ban interracial marriages in the District, bar blacks from becoming military officers, segregate trains and streetcars. They even attempted to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment. Josephus Daniels, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, promised that the election of the Democrats during the 1912 campaign would lead to the nationalization of the Southern racial policy. Democrats often defend this behavior, when they comment on it at all, by pointing to the standards of the time, but this wasn’t the case. Calvin Coolidge routinely spoke with blacks and attended Negro League games often, while F.D.R. refused to ever be photographed with them.
The 1960s analysis almost never credits the Democrats with turning off whites across the country with their policies that embraced economic redistribution, Black Power violence, and surrender in the Vietnam War. The Democrats simply went too far left to appeal to the solid South. As Gerard Alexander, an associate professor of political science at the University of Virginia, perceptively notes:
Given that trend, the GOP did not need to become the party of white solidarity in order to attract more voters. The fact that many former Wallace supporters ended up voting Republican says a lot less about the GOP than it does about segregationists’ collapsing political alternatives. Kevin Phillips [the architect of the so-called Southern Strategy] was hardly coy about this in his Emerging Republican Majority. He wrote in 1969 that Nixon did not “have to bid much ideologically” to get Wallace’s electorate, given its limited power, and that moderation was far more promising for the GOP than anything even approaching a racialist strategy. While “the Republican Party cannot go to the Deep South”–meaning the GOP simply would not offer the policies that whites there seemed to desire most–“the Deep South must soon go to the national GOP,” regardless.
In all these ways, the GOP appears as the national party of the middle-class, not of white solidarity. And it is this interpretation, and not the myth, that is supported by the voting results. The myth’s proponents highlight, and distort, a few key electoral facts: Southern white backlash was most heated in the 1960s, especially in the Deep South. It was then and there that the GOP finally broke through in the South, on the strength of Goldwater’s appeals to states’ rights. Democrats never again won the votes of most Southern whites. So Goldwater is said to have provided the electoral model for the GOP.
But hidden within these aggregate results are patterns that make no sense if white solidarity really was the basis for the GOP’s advance. These patterns concern which Southern votes the GOP attracted, and when. How did the GOP’s Southern advance actually unfold? We can distinguish between two sub-regions. The Peripheral South–Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas–contained many growing, urbanizing “New South” areas and much smaller black populations. Race loomed less large in its politics. In the more rural, and poorer, Deep South–Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana –black communities were much larger, and racial conflict was much more acute in the 1950s and ’60s. Tellingly, the presidential campaigns of Strom Thurmond, Goldwater, and Wallace all won a majority of white votes in the Deep South but lost the white vote in the Peripheral South.
What the left-wing media fails to understand is this: the South has changed.
Starting in the 1950s, the South attracted millions of Midwesterners, Northeasterners, and other transplants. These “immigrants” identified themselves as Republicans at higher rates than native whites. In the 1980s, up to a quarter of self-declared Republicans in Texas appear to have been such immigrants. Furthermore, research consistently shows that identification with the GOP is stronger among the South’s younger rather than older white voters, and that each cohort has also became more Republican with time. Do we really believe immigrants (like George H.W. Bush, who moved with his family to Texas) were more racist than native Southerners, and that younger Southerners identified more with white solidarity than did their elders, and that all cohorts did so more by the 1980s and ’90s than they had earlier?
One young Northeastern transplant, Newt Gingrich, came to the suburbs of Atlanta with his family as a teenager. In 1974 and 1976, Gingrich ran against John James Flynt Jr. and nearly beat him with the suburban vote. Flynt was a longtime Democrat and an avowed segregationist, who only beat Gingrich with the rural Democratic vote and retired when it became clear that Gingrich might beat him in 1978.
In 1981, Newt Gingrich was among the first congressmen to call for making Martin Luther King Jr. day a national holiday. [Roberts, Steven V. (August 11, 1983). “One Conservative Faults Two Parties.” The New York Times: p. 18A] He has routinely championed school choice as one of the leading civi rights issues of our day.
But in pointing out the facts of Obama and the food stamp presidency, Blow and the rest of the New York Times opinion page seem more than willing to rubber stamp whatever is on offing from Obama.