WASHINGTON, April 11, 2013 ― “White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.” ― Kevin Phillips, author of The Emerging Republican Majority, in 1968.
It’s tough to make sense of politics without a healthy belief in ghosts. Republicans are recognizing that the racial strategy we’ve pursued for the past half-century has exhausted its usefulness, but any effort to change direction is hampered by a frustrating legacy.
The party’s message is laced with racially-charged assumptions, sometimes maddeningly subtle yet still potent. Moving beyond those obstacles will require us to confront the ghosts of a past that we mostly refuse to acknowledge.
First, we must recognize the awkward relationship between the libertarianism the party has embraced since the ‘60s and the legacy of segregation. The Civil Rights Movement taught Americans that government is not the only force that can infringe on personal liberty and economic freedom. We need a freedom agenda that absorbs those painful lessons and more reliably protects the vulnerable.
This is not so much a matter of tolerance or diversity, but a basic policy question. We embraced, and continue to support, a matrix of public policies that have made it more difficult for minorities to overcome the legacy of racism.
We can’t begin to engage minority communities in the constructive two-way interactions that matter until we are ready to wrestle openly with that problem. Until we can have those kinds of interactions, our outreach beyond our bedrock white demographic will remain stalled.
The process begins with acknowledging our frustrating record on race relations. Republicans are quick to point out that the party was a driving force in the early Civil Rights Movement. We are less enthusiastic about honestly examining how our posture shifted.
The Republican Party’s relationship with minority communities changed with Barry Goldwater. His “principled” stance against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 unwittingly re-aligned the party with the defenders of racial discrimination. Goldwater was a liberal on racial issues who hated Jim Crow. He was also the favorite candidate of Southern segregationists in the 1964 election. That irony continues to frustrate the party of Lincoln today.
Jim Crow belied the fundamental weakness of libertarian thought. The southern states demonstrated that the single-minded pursuit of small government could bring just as much oppression as Statism. The party still fails to acknowledge that ideological conundrum, hobbling our appeal to minority constituencies.
Never, in any settled portion of America, did a real-world government more closely resemble the libertarian ideal than did the post-Reconstruction South. Taxes were extremely low. Government provided almost nothing beyond police and courts. Infrastructure investment was miniscule. Unions were practically unheard of. Bureaucratic and regulatory constraints were almost non-existent. Business was able to operate with no meaningful government intervention.
By libertarian logic the South should have been a paragon of personal liberty and economic dynamism, but it turns out that government is not the only force that can destroy freedom. Jim Crow started with mob violence. It was transformed into legislation on waves of mob violence. It was held in place, even as its popularity steadily waned, not by government, but by mob violence.
There was no law in Mississippi against whistling at a white woman, yet Emmett Till was tortured and executed for that crime by his neighbors. His government was too weak to protect him and too weak to bring his murderers to justice. Any aspiring Atticus Finch in the ‘50s or ‘60s had far more to fear from his neighbors than from any government. Jim Crow was crowd-sourced, grassroots oppression. Small government was crucial to its survival.
Goldwater, in his “extreme” defense of liberty, accidentally aligned the Republican Party with the most repressive forces in American culture. Over the following generation the Deep South went from blue to battle red as the most prominent defenders of Jim Crow fled the Democratic Party en masse.
We have to confront our post-‘64 history because the legacy of that era still lingers in policy and rhetoric. Republicans rightly stand for a vision of government that leaves as many decisions as possible in private hands. However, when Senator Rand Paul suggests that “as many as possible” should include a right to exercise racial discrimination in the marketplace, he inspires some well-founded fears.
If we are going to promote an ownership society in a society that let our ancestors own human beings we need as much distance from that dark legacy as we can get. This is more than just a marketing problem. Our insensitivity to legitimate minority concerns leads us to develop policies that are often doomed from inception.
A stronger respect for states’ rights, for example, would give us more innovative health care, more effective schools, and more responsive social welfare programs. At the same time a sloppy retreat from Federal authority can provide openings for petty tyrants to push fringe agendas that frustrate those same goals. As a party, we cannot realize the benefits of one while ignoring the other. We can’t succeed in devolving health care policy to the states, where it belongs, so long as voters fear putting matters of genuine personal importance in the hands of characters like Rick Perry.
Core Republican values of market economics, strong families, and education offer a better path to prosperity for minority communities than anything the left has developed. Unfortunately, as long as we refuse to acknowledge our history, our ideas will remain suspect and their practical effectiveness will be limited. Worse, we will stumble through our most critical challenge – listening with honest interest and legitimate concern to the concerns of minority communities.
A willingness to listen and re-examine our basic policy assumptions can chase away the ghosts that haunt our efforts to reach minority voters. With enough humility, the reward could be a rejuvenated, optimistic Republican Party, but we won’t see that gain without enduring some painful reflection.
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