For once, Michael Steele is absolutely right: If Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Republican leader, had described Barack Obama as a “light-skinned” man “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” he absolutely would be under fierce pressure from black leaders and Democrats to step down.
But Mitch McConnell didn’t say that. Harry Reid did. And instead of calling for his head, every big-name Democrat and every big-name civil rights leader—to say nothing of Obama himself—is rallying around the Senate’s Democratic leader.
It’s a double standard, yes. But it’s only fair. Call it the price of being on the wrong side of history.
Few appreciate it today, but once upon a time, it was actually the Grand Old Party, much more than the Democratic Party, that led the way on racial issues. In the decade after the Civil War, for instance, it was the Radical Republicans in Congress who pushed through expansive new laws that significantly improved the status of blacks in the old Confederacy. And it was racist Southern Democrats who wiped out that progress with Jim Crow.
And it was those same white Southerners who, for nearly a century after the Civil War, accounted for the largest and most loyal component of the national Democratic Party. No matter what, the South could always be counted to support the party up and down the ballot. Even as Adlai Stevenson was being demolished by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, he still snagged 70 percent of the vote in Georgia (and 65 percent in Alabama and 60 in Mississippi).
In those days, a politician expressing ugly, vile sentiments toward African-Americans was more than likely to be a Democrat.
But then something funny happened: the two parties switched roles—abruptly and permanently. The final straw was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, championed by a Southern Democratic president who, as he was affixing his signature on the bill, purportedly mused that he was signing his region away for a generation.
Prior to civil rights, the Democratic Party had been defined by an increasingly untenable alliance of ideological opposites—integrationist Northern liberals like Hubert Humphrey and Herbert Lehman teamed with Southern segregationists like Richard Russell and John Stennis. By embracing what Humphrey called “the bright sunshine of human rights,” Lyndon Johnson effectively chose the Northern wing over the Southern wing.
At the same time, Republicans were grappling with a similar identity crisis. Just as the Democrats moved left on civil rights in ’64, the G.O.P. veered sharply to the right—rejecting the legacy of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and even Eisenhower and embracing Barry Goldwater, a leading opponent of the Civil Rights Act, as its nominee.
The impact was immediate: Johnson won a smashing landslide that fall, racking up 61 percent of the vote nationally. But Goldwater swept the Deep South—59 percent in South Carolina, 69 percent in Alabama and a stunning 87 percent in Mississippi.
From there, a steady, decades-long transformation of the two parties ensued. The Republican Party, which had barely existed in the South prior to ’64, was flooded with disaffected segregationist Democrats—like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond. The godfather of the modern Mississippi Republican Party, Charles Pickering, left the Democrats in 1964 because the party’s national convention agreed to seat two black delegates.
National Republicans began catering to the aggrieved sentiments of white southerners (mindful, of course, of not seeming overtly racist). Richard Nixon built his presidency on his notorious “Southern strategy.” Ronald Reagan opened his general-election campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi—where three civil rights workers had been murdered just 16 years earlier—and won the white crowd over by declaring his belief in “states’ rights.” By 1983, when the Senate finally approved a federal Martin Luther King holiday (after a filibuster threat from Helms, who derided the civil rights hero as a “Communist”), 18 of the 22 no votes came from Republicans It is the descendants of those Southern segregationists (and some of the original segregationists themselves) who now form the backbone of the national Republican Party. And all too often, we are greeted with reminders that, while the rhetoric of their politicians may be toned down, the racial attitudes of many white Southerners remain troubling.
For instance, it was a white Southern Republican (Georgia’s Lynn Westmoreland) who called Obama “uppity” in 2008. And a white Southern Republican (Mississippi’s Trent Lott) who infamously lamented “all of these problems over all these years” that resulted from Thurmond’s defeat in the 1948 presidential election, when he ran on a segregationist platform.
But the “controversy” over Obama’s birth certificate is most telling. A poll last summer found that nearly 90 percent of voters in the Northeast, Midwest and West believe that the president is an American citizen—while only 47 percent of Southerners do. One analysis of the survey concluded that more than 70 percent of white Southerners do not believe that Obama was born in the United States.
No, not all (or even most) Republicans are closet racists. And plenty of Democrats are. But it is the G.O.P. that has willfully built its modern foundation on the lingering racial and cultural resentments of the South, not the Democrats.
This is why Harry Reid is receiving a benefit of the doubt that wouldn’t be extended to a Republican leader under similar circumstances. There is no reason to believe that he was trying to send some kind of coded message to his party’s base. With a Republican, there would be.