Home > How The Republican Party Won Election But Lost Its Soul
How The Republican Party Won Election But Lost Its Soulby Open-Publishing - Friday 26 August 2005
by Richard Rapaport
Give the man big points for chutzpa. Late last month at a speech in front of the National Convention of the NAACP, Republican Party Chairman, Ken Mehlman admitted that his party had indeed engaged in a 40-year racist “Southern Strategy.” In its conception, the idea must have seemed like bold political jujitsu to Mehlman’s speechwriters. After all, if you are chief apologists for the sinister Karl Rove as well as surrogate at the nation’s premier civil rights organization for a conspicuously absent George W. Bush, you might as well swing for the fences. Let one rip Mehlman did. This one sailed right into the deep bleachers ... or was it the “colored only” section of the national political ballpark?
There is a certain cynical nobility to Mehlman ‘fessing up to the dirty, not-so-secret of GOP electoral success: That the four decade right-wing Republican rise to power was due in large measure to an utterly immoral decision by its leaders to play to the worst of all American instincts. That is to say, play the “Willie Horton” card for all it was worth.
Maybe Ken’s Mehlman is not a student of history, maybe he doesn’t care. But his performance last week in front of America’s Black leadership was a little too much like taking out an ad to publicly disinherit your abusive father: The old man may have been a little too handy with the belt, but he was, after all, the one who got you here. Still, it’s funny these days, how good Americans have become at loudly taking responsibility exactly in order to dodge that responsibility. But, hey, since Ken Mehlman seems to be in the mood for apologia, why don’t we take a moment to look at how the GOP won a country and lost its soul.
Love him or hate him, President Lyndon Johnson knew he was doing God’s work in 1964 and 1965 when he forced the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts down the throats of fellow white Southerners. Johnson was hardly a fool. He realized perhaps better than anyone else that by making his country do the just thing, he was dooming his own party to minority status for the next several generations. This, he admitted to his pal, Georgia Senator, Richard Russell just after passage of the Voting Rights Act.
There was no doubt that in the mid-20th Century, the Democratic Party needed to clean out its own stables. The party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy was also the party of Lester Maddox, George Wallace and Jefferson Davis. During the early part of the century, in fact, it was hard to separate the leadership of the Democratic Party from that of the Ku Klux Klan. Democratic Attorney’s General regularly looked the other way at what were literally thousands of racist lynchings and it took a 1948 executive order by Harry Truman to finally desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces. So much for clean hands.
But just about the time the Democratic Party got around to shedding the legacy of lynch law, that most amoral of American politicos, Richard Nixon, saw an opening to woo and win the former Confederacy. Nixon was hungry for the Presidency and the majority of white Southern Democrats bitterly resented the Federal Government forcing them to give up the American brand of apartheid called “segregation.” So Nixon, no racist himself, made his deal with the devils of racism and won the Presidency in ’68 and ’72. Ever since, the Republicans have won seat after senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial seat in the Old South and beyond with a symbolic nod and wink that the Party of Abe Lincoln had become the Party of Jeff Davis. Republican candidates may have called it “States Rights” and the “War on Crime,” but these were merely codes for something poisonous.
What after all, was Ronald Reagan saying when he began his 1980 Presidential campaign at the Neshoba, Alabama County Fair, the very place where, sixteen years earlier, three civil rights workers had been murdered with impunity? Why are trials only now being held for 40-year old racist murders in Alabama and Mississippi? And why most recently, has George W. Bush set the IRS upon the NAACP? Sounds powerfully like a “Southern Strategy” to me.
In his speech and in the talking points he so crisply delivers on CNN and Fox,” Ken Mehlman loves to use the “Party of Lincoln” reference. He might want to rethink that one. If Abraham Lincoln was an office seeker today, he would have been drummed out of the Republican Party for suggesting, as he did in a speech shortly before his death, that “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”