In recent days I've gotten a slew of emails asking, or accusing me of saying that the Republican party's a racist party. Or accusing me of saying that the only reason Republicans control the South is because of racial politics. And there have been a bunch of other similarly structured charges or questions, all of which muddy or confuse the question by framing it in ... well -- what else can you call it? -- black and white terms.
Like the Democratic party, the Republican party is far from a monolith. There are neo-conservatives, social-issue conservatives spread around the country, money-Republicans, libertarians. Some of these groups have views on racial matters which liberals or Democrat don't like. But they're all different in kind from the latter-day Dixiecrat wing of the party which is so potent in much of the South.
The closest analogue I can think of is to the Democratic party in the early and middle 20th century and their dominance of many of the corrupt party machines in the big cities of the North and Midwest.
A few readers have told me that my thinking on this is all wet because racism or racialist thinking just isn't part of conservative 'thought'. But whether this is true or not is irrelevant. This is about getting votes, not 'thought'. Ballot-box-stuffing wasn't part of Democratic 'thought' either in, say, the thirties. Many Dems found it abhorent. And most didn't practice it. But the party as whole benefited from it when it happened in Chicago because it kept Democratic congressmen or senators in Washington. (Needless to say, Republicans controlled corrupt machines too; just not as many. And election fraud never had anywhere the impact of the Republican absorption of Southern Dixiecrats.)
So just as we might say with the Democrats of 70 or 80 years ago, the issue isn't one of 'thought' or whether the whole party is 'corrupt' or 'racist'. These are false questions, either imprecisely posed or meant to obfuscate.
The question is whether the party as a whole benefits from the use of racism or race-tinged wedge issues in certain parts of the country and whether the party as a whole makes any efforts to say such behavior won't stand. In the case of Republicans and race the answer to the first question is clearly 'yes' and the answer to the second question is 'not nearly enough'.
The Democrats of course used to have this problem. For several decades of the last century they were the party of both the most liberal Northerners and the most reactionary Southerners -- liberal and reactionary on the issue of race in particular. Eventually, the strain just became too great. And Democrats outside the South began pushing for the national party to take a stronger stand on civil rights. That led -- among other things -- to the 1948 Dixiecrat break-away led by Strom Thurmond -- something you have heard of recently.
In any case, the latter-day Dixiecrats are an important part of the Republican party. Though many Republicans are repelled by its frequent appeals to race-politics, the party as a whole nonetheless benefits from it. So they have to take responsibility for it, even though Trent Lott-types have little to do with Wall Street Republicans or neo-conservative intellectuals. Republicans can't be the party of black opportunity and anti-black resentment no matter how big the tent. The Democrats tried it; it didn't work.
Now another point.
Earlier today I posted a line from Bill Frist's 1994 stump speech in which he said. "[Jim Sasser is] sending Tennessee money to Washington, to Marion Barry ... While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry."
Now I gave a lot of thought to whether I should post that or not. Marion Barry, as I said in the post, was a rotten mayor. Corrupt, drug-using, the list goes on and on. And one can't get into a situation where one can never criticize a black politician for fear of being tarred as using a racial code word. But look at the line and tell me what on earth this had to do with a Senate race in Tennessee. I think the answer is obvious: nothing.
Now, I don't think Bill Frist is a racist. Nor do I hope or expect he'll end up like Trent Lott. One reader -- flopping around like a fish-out-of-water making the case for Frist -- sent me this link about how Frist goes to Sudan to operate on African children. So how could he hate black people? How could he be a racist?
This misses the point. I doubt Frist is a racist. But this almost makes the point more clearly. Even some of best Southern Republicans seem incapable of resisting the temptation to dabble in racial code words and appeals on the stump. (In Frist's case, perhaps it was a rather notorious campaign consultant who worked for him that year and has a rep for such ugly tactics.)
I think the Bush family is a very similar case. I don't think this President Bush or the last one were racist in any way. Nor do I think either of them liked dabbling in racial politics. But in a pinch, when the chips were really down, both have been willing to do so. For this President Bush you need look no further than the South Carolina primary fight in February 2000.
The issue here isn't what's in your heart or what your party's 'thought' is. It's what you're willing to profit from, where you're willing to draw the line, what you do and don't look at and say 'I'm not going to put up with that in my party.'
On that count, the GOP falls really short.
Neo-conservative Republicans are very different from Dixiecrat Republicans. So why won't they stand up to them more often? Maybe they should try ...