Francis Wilkinson: The GOP isn’t letting go of racial resentment

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Last week, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas reminded us that George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was a Democrat. It wasn’t Cruz’s first foray into what might be called “The Democrats Are the Real Racists” discourse.

The notion that contemporary Democrats are the same party that enjoyed night rides in white hoods is immensely popular on the right. Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse has established a tenure track on Twitter correcting distortions of the history of political parties and racial politics.

Like many Republicans, Cruz enjoys parsing the morality of racial politics before the parties sorted along racial lines in the second half of the 20th century. Also like his colleagues, he is silent about the sorting and its consequences, which resulted in the GOP attracting virulent racists, north and south, who felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil and political rights for Black people.

GOP efforts to move beyond racial resentment have been neither plentiful nor especially energetic. There was an extended moment during the administration of President George W. Bush when Republicans looked as if they might evolve beyond racial aggression as a political bonding agent. But the nation then elected a Black man president in 2008, and again in 2012. If a Black president was no fluke, what perils did the future hold as the White share of the population declined? The rage and anxiety generated by that question form the core of MAGA, and the content of Fox News.

It seems unlikely that Cruz, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, has failed to notice that about 9 in 10 Black Americans avoid supporting his party, or that the first Black president and vice president were both nominated by Democrats. Cruz likely also noticed that the previous Republican president ran on a platform of uncamouflaged racial aggression and White nationalism, idealizing the 1950s, when Blacks were a legally as well as politically subjugated group.

It wasn’t just talk. Donald Trump’s administration and federal court appointments — both enthusiastically backed by Cruz — replicated the pre-feminist, pre-Civil Rights era, overrepresenting conservative White men and their priorities. Meanwhile, the price of admission to GOP politics for its rare non-White candidates remains public allegiance to conservative myths of White racial innocence.

Cruz’s tweets are a recognition that, for the GOP, the only morally hospitable ground in racial politics is in a distant past, before Democrats shed segregationists and Republicans took up the White Man’s Burden. It’s also a signal that he and his party won’t be embracing democratic pluralism anytime soon. At least for the immediate future, they’ll keep claiming they don’t see color while cultivating racial reaction.

The Democratic Party’s long, violent journey from administering to rejecting racial terrorism and apartheid is one of the most consequential political developments of American life. Deep South states had locked themselves into what University of Michigan political scientist Robert Mickey calls “authoritarian enclaves” that subverted democracy. Federal policy, too, was designed to accommodate the preferences of White racists.

How the Democrats emerged from that morass is the subject of Mickey’s 2015 book, “Paths Out of Dixie.” It was anything but simple. Diehard segregationists battled for decades against the emerging power of northern Blacks and White liberals with roots in organized labor or religious witness. The party was perennially on the verge of fracturing, with leaders such as President Harry Truman appeasing segregationists with one hand and cultivating Black voters and White liberals outside the authoritarian South with the other.

But like the party he led, Truman ultimately had to show his cards. “We cannot, any longer, await the growth of a will to action in the slowest state or the most backward community,” Truman told the NAACP in 1946. “Our national government must show the way.”

That declaration was hardly conclusive. Even after the 1960s, racial appeals cut a swath through Democratic politics. But Democrats evolved, and multiracialist Democrats ultimately prevailed.

I recently asked Mickey if the Democrats’ shift from racial apartheid to racial pluralism held any lessons for the resentment merchants in the GOP today. Democrats paid a famous political price — all of Dixie and plenty of White locales elsewhere — for their evolution. But it has put the party in position to succeed in the multiracial 21st century, provided democracy itself doesn’t fail.

But as Mickey pointed out, the GOP’s compact with plutocrats on tax and economic policy makes racial resentment and similar fare, such as the reactionary panic over trans rights, its chief selling proposition to a broader electorate. “They can’t make credible appeals to most non-White voters because they have nothing to offer them materially, so they have to keep focusing on White voters,” Mickey wrote in an email. “Worse-off White voters also don’t like their economic policies, so they double down on right-wing populist appeals.”

The politics of racial resentment has already persisted nearly as long as Jim Crow. In a remarkable 1963 newspaper column, the syndicated political columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak relayed conversations from a Republican Party meeting in Denver, where the party’s future of cultivating racial resentment was openly discussed. “These Republicans want to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party,” Evans and Novak wrote. One year later, the GOP nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and the transition to a party based in Dixie, and steeped in racial resentment, accelerated.

Yet if the GOP’s future of racial politics was telegraphed in Denver, 1963, so was its present dilemma, with the GOP flummoxed by the limits of its White political base. It’s “inevitable that Negroes will eventually break through the bonds of poverty,” Evans and Novak wrote. Republicans might then appeal to Black voters, “but not if the Republicans had by then become labeled as the white man’s party.”

Republicans have reached the point where, if they want to succeed in a multiracial, democratic 21st century, they will have to take a leap, just as Democrats did in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, they have opted to undermine democracy rather than change to meet its demands.

The writing was on the wall 60 years ago. Remarkably, the lines today remain largely unchanged. You can read them on Ted Cruz’s Twitter feed.


(Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist)