MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - We need a strong Republican Party!
Our democracy works best when rival parties are fountains of vigorous new ideas and when--to change metaphors--they serve as watchdogs for each other. No party has a monopoly on the truth or on corruption, either. We need more checks and balances, not fewer!
But if it is to return to health, the national Republican Party needs to shed some toxins. It needs to take a page from the book of its many local elected officials who never got into the national craziness in the first place.
But the national party is another story. Craziness is a polite term for what it got into.
The worst poison in the national Republican Party is its long-standing "Southern Strategy," developed in 1968 after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts guaranteed southern Blacks the right to vote. The strategy involved inviting segregationist Southerners to leave the Democratic Party and join the Republicans. In return, the once-honorable party of Dwight David Eisenhower adopted the old segregationist practice of race-baiting. This strategy meant writing off the Black vote--but as Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips told the New York Times in 1970, the Republicans didn't want the Black vote; they wanted the votes of racist whites. Phillips said, "From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that....The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."
Well, that's where the votes were.
In the next decade, Republican strategist Lee Atwater, a member of the Reagan administration and chairman of the Republican National Committee under the first President Bush, further refined the Southern Strategy. As manager of Republican campaigns, he devised ever more ingenious ways to appeal to racists in the North as well as the South. He told an interviewer in 1981 how the Southern Strategy had evolved from crude racism to coded language. Atwater said, "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N---,' 'N---,' 'N---.' By 1968 you can't say 'n---.' That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights....cutting taxes. All these things you're talking about are totally economic things [but] a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it."
Atwater knew how to manipulate that subconscious racism; soon, coded appeals to other prejudices became part of the Republican playbook as well. These tactics helped win elections, and few Republicans spoke out against them. Kansas's Bob Dole was an exception, however. When Atwater tried to gay-bait Speaker of the House Tom Foley, Senator Dole upbraided him, saying, "This is not politics. This is garbage." And Presidential candidate John McCain publicly reproached a racist supporter and rejected campaign proposals for racist ads.
But despite such principled opposition, the Southern Strategy continues today. In the past, it gave us Atwater's Willie Horton ads and Reagan's "welfare queens"; this year, it gave us Gingrich's "food-stamp President" and Romney's counterfactual Obama-ended-welfare-work-requirements ad. Even more disappointingly, it gave us Romney's post-election charge that Obama used "gifts" to purchase the votes of Blacks and Latinos, among other groups. I don't know whether Romney was speaking his own view in his conference calls with wealthy donors (without realizing reporters were also on the line), or whether he was simply telling his bankrollers what they wanted to hear. Either way, his words sickeningly confirmed the suspicion that an influential part of the Republican Party continues to opt for the scapegoating of minorities rather than insisting upon respect for all.
Terminally ill with cancer, Lee Atwater apologized publicly for using tactics that brought out the worst in the American electorate. Shortly before his death, he wrote, "My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood."
Now the national Republican Party may be dying, too. Will it, like Atwater, repudiate the Southern Strategy? If so, that purgative might turn out to be just the cure that allows the GOP to rise up from its deathbed, renewed, refreshed and more relevant than ever. Purged of its poison, the Republican Party might find that a certain number of people of all ethnicities respond to its message of small government and self-reliance.
Right after the election, my husband told me, "The Republicans sold their soul to the Devil of the Southern Strategy. Now they have to find their way back to the crossroads and try to get out of the deal."
Citizens of all parties and no party should fervently hope that the national Republican Party does find its way back to that crossroads. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this time it unhesitatingly turns its back on the Devil of racist innuendo? Wouldn't it be wonderful to see a renewed GOP boldly, purposefully, strike out on a different path?