As promised, I’ve had more of a chance to closely read and think about Gerard Alexander’s Claremont Review of Books essay, “The Myth of the Racist Republicans.”
The prècis of Alexander’s argument is essentially that, while Republicans were willing to run avowed and former segregationists on occasion as candidates in the South in the 50s and 60s, and while their candidates “from the 1950s on” for state and federal office were willing to “craft policies and messages that could compete for the votes of some pretty unsavory characters,” this conduct—which Alexander concedes is expedient—does not rise to the level of making “a pact with America’s devil”—selling out the Lincolnian principles the GOP was founded on.
Alexander says that proponents of the “racist Republican” myth rest their case on an accomodation with Southern racism that is based on “code words.” He concedes that Goldwater’s call for “state’s rights” in 1964 may have been an instance of Republicans pandering to segregationists, but argues that other allegedly “coded” appeals to racism, such as the positions of Nixon and Regan “on busing, affirmative action, and welfare reform” were designed to appeal to broad middle-class discontent with the Democratic Party’s approach to these issues, rather than being part of a deliberate strategy to court racists; more to the point, he writes:
In effect, these critics want to have it both ways: they acknowledge that these views could in principle be non-racist (otherwise they wouldn’t be a “code” for racism) but suggest they never are in practice (and so can be reliably treated as proxies for racism). The result is that their claims are non-falsifiable because they are tautological: these views are deemed racist because they are defined as racist. This amounts to saying that opposition to the policies favored by today’s civil rights establishment is a valid indicator of racism.
Of course, given the strategic choice that Republicans have made to “craft policies and messages that could compete for the votes” of racists—a choice that Alexander himself acknowledges the GOP has made—it would seem that, at the very least, emphasizing these issues over (say) lower taxes or increased spending on defense, shows a willingness to cater to racist sentiment, which in itself borders on racism.
He then turns to why the GOP gained support from disaffected Southern whites; here he is on stronger ground, as it is fairly clear that the Democratic Party abandoned the tacit “New Deal” agreement to soft-pedal racial issues in favor of a more aggressive pro-civil rights stance beginning in the late 1940s with Truman’s integration of the armed forces, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His argument is essentially that Southern racists came to the GOP “mountain,” rather than the other way around—an argument that would be stronger if he hadn’t already conceded that the GOP was tailoring its messages to appeal to racists and win votes from the Democrats in the South. The “mountain” moved a bit on its own—he quotes Kevin Phillips as saying that Republicans didn’t “have to bid much ideologically” to gain the support of Wallace voters—but they did have to bid something, which arguably included “go slow” desegregation (in opposing busing) and opposition to affirmative action programs.
Alexander then looks at the pattern of GOP growth in the South, noting that the GOP did better in the Peripheral South than it did in the Deep South; he argues that this is further proof that the “Southern strategy” was essentially benevolent, and that the GOP‘s ideology was too moderate to appeal to hard-core segregationists, but an alternative intepretation is that the slowness in Deep South segregationists to move to the Republicans was a result of historical antipathy toward Republicans—who were, after all, the party of blacks (at least, the minority who had managed to evade the barriers to participation erected by segregationists) in the South until the 1960s—coupled with state Democratic parties that were more tolerant of old-line segregationists remaining under the Democrat banner.
It is, of course, overly simplistic to say that Wallace voters make up the bulk of today’s GOP in the South—the typical Wallace supporter from 1968 is probably a Constitution Party voter today, assuming his or her racial views remain intact. Nor is it necessarily the GOP‘s fault that some segregationists support it, any more than it is the Democrats’ fault that they have some support from eco-terrorists like the Earth Liberation Front. But I think it is valid to criticize the GOP for the “Southern strategy” that even Alexander concedes the party has used—and I also think it’s reasonable to believe that at least some of the Republican platform is motivated by an interest in appealing to those with unreconstructed racist views. Does that mean opposition to affirmative action is racist? No. But it does mean that the GOP‘s sincerity in being a non-racist party is somewhat questionable.
I also find it interesting that Alexander manages to write 3500 words on contemporary Southern politics without mentioning Trent Lott, which seems like a rather important oversight; however, that’s neither here nor there.