Sunday, September 28, 2008

Party swap

At this year's Republican Convention, Mike Huckabee said, "Abraham Lincoln reminded us that a government that can do everything for us can also take everything from us." I've been trying to figure out what he meant by that. In Lincoln's day, it was the Democratic Party that preached laissez-faire, free trade, and states' rights, while the Republicans advocated increased taxation, protectionism, and an activist federal government. Was Huckabee mythologizing Lincoln as a small-government conservative? Or was he criticizing the massive government expansion that Lincoln in fact engendered? I suspect it was a little of both, because nowadays the party of Lincoln is also the party of neo-Confederates.

I often see Republican politicians walk that tightrope, invoking the mantle of Lincoln without directly praising Lincoln's politics. It's striking that Democrats rarely do this with their presidential godfather, Thomas Jefferson, who, similarly, didn't have much in common with today's Democrats. ("That government is best which governs least.") Huckabee's reference to Lincoln was one of several during the Republican Convention, but the Democratic Convention featured just one reference to Jefferson, and it was in a speech by Jim Leach, a Republican.

I can understand why. Historians of all political stripes consider Lincoln the greatest U.S. president, who kept the nation from splitting apart and oversaw the abolition of slavery, perhaps the most important moral development in our nation's history. When reading about Republicans in the nineteenth century, it is hard not to think of them simply as the good guys and the Democrats as the villains. While the picture was more complicated than that, the Republicans did begin as an anti-slavery party and continued to support the interests of African Americans after the Civil War, even as Democrats were loudly proclaiming the inferiority of the Negro. The Democrats' racism continued well into the twentieth century, with their support for the Jim Crow laws.

Modern-day Republicans like to point out these ugly facts to undermine the Democratic Party's legitimacy on race issues. But the fact remains that the Democrats, to a large extent, were the ones who first embraced the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That a white-supremacist party evolved into a civil-rights party--and, ultimately, became the first party to nominate a black man for president--is one of the more remarkable facts about our nation's political history.

How and why these realignments happened is the subject of Lewis Gould's 2003 book Grand Old Party. Gould argues that certain features of the Republican Party have remained constant even as its philosophy of government, as well as its demographics, changed. Among other things, Republicans always had a close relationship with the business community. That they initially saw no conflict between this relationship and their regulatory views suggests how radically different society was back then.

According to Gould, Teddy Roosevelt's departure from the Republican Party was a seminal event in solidifying the party's conservative philosophy. The other Roosevelt's presidency, on the other hand, represented the beginnings of the Democratic Party's embrace of welfare capitalism. That was when blacks began migrating to the Democrats. Southern whites remained attached to the party and wouldn't start to become agitated until Truman's administration.

It was in the 1960s, especially in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and in LBJ's passage of key civil-rights legislation, that the white South became solidly Republican, while African Americans became solidly Democrat. Goldwater's role in this process was not entirely fair. He was generally supportive of civil rights, and he had helped desegregate the Arizona National Guard. But his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had an important symbolic impact.

Both parties eventually reached a consensus on the issue of desegregation. But it is hard to forget what initiated the realignment of the South. One notable Dixiecrat-turned-Republican was Strom Thurmond, famous for the longest filibuster in history to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (which Goldwater supported). On the other hand, ex-Klansman Robert Byrd remained in the Democratic Party. Of course, neither of these men continued to preach racism after the 1960s.

That's what makes the question of "Where did the racists go?" so complicated. Some of them had a genuine change of heart, regardless of which party they ended up in. They all grew old while the younger generation forged its identity in a world more accepting of diversity. But African Americans have not forgotten how the parties developed to their current state, which is why the vast majority of them vote Democrat to this day despite holding some conservative views.

There is still evidence of racism among whites in both parties. A recent study suggested that one-third of white Democrats and independents hold negative views of blacks. Blogger Nate Silver has criticized the survey for both its methodology and its attempts to draw conclusions about the current election, but I have observed throughout this year that many Democrats are beginning to notice the old-fashioned racists still lurking within their own party. It is time to engage in a little reflection and stop placing the blame solely with the other party.

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