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Look Past the Flag: The Real GOP Problem Is a Half-Century of Promoting Racial Division for Political Advantage

06/29/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016
Win McNamee via Getty Images

Charlie Baker, the very popular Republican governor of Massachusetts stumbled last week. When asked what he thought about the confederate flag flying over the capitol in South Carolina, Baker fell into the trap of suggesting that flying the flag was a matter of local choice and tradition. After friends asked him what on earth he was thinking, Baker made no bones about it: he apologized for his comments.

Baker did not walk back his remarks to be politically correct. Rather, it was his original comments that picked up on Republican Party talking points pandering to "conservatives" in South Carolina and the base of the Republican Party that were the hallmark of political correctness. Political correctness dominates politics during presidential primary seasons. Hillary Clinton, for example, a long-time supporter of global free trade agreements, sat mute on the sidelines during the recent vitriolic debate over providing fast track trade negotiation authority to President Obama in order to avoid raising the hackles of union members and Democrat voters on the left. Since formally entering the fray, Hillary has done her best to channel Elizabeth Warren and tamp down her ties to Wall Street and defense hawk credentials, despite the fact that she faces no material threat to her nomination.

Baker was not alone in wondering how it was that he found himself defending something that John McCain famously described as "a symbol of racism and slavery." Jeb Bush, whose political roots are similar to Baker's, was also caught flat-footed by the issue. The scion of a New England Republican family with strong civil rights bona fides, Bush removed the confederate flag from the capitol in Tallahassee early in his first term as governor of Florida, only to embrace the same talking points that tripped up Baker. A Fox News commentator made news when she tried to bail out flailing Republican candidates by suggesting that they had no obligation to address the issue at all, as the confederate flag was historically the banner of southern Democrats, who for a century or more stood in opposition to the GOP, itself the party of Abraham Lincoln and northern abolitionists.

And so it was, until Richard Nixon changed the face of the modern Republican Party.

Few recall in the prevailing political climate that the seminal legislation of the civil rights era drew greater support from the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are largely identified with Democrat President Lyndon Johnson, it was the Democratic Party at the time that tried to block both pieces of legislation and the Republican Party that voted in overwhelming numbers for their passage. When the Civil Rights Act finally reached the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1964 -- after a long Democrat filibuster -- it was supported by 82 percent of Senate Republicans, compared with two-thirds of the Senate Democrats. When the Voting Rights Act came to the floor a year later, 94 percent of Republicans supported the bill, against a far smaller majority of Democrats.

In that era, the Republican Party had strong support among black voters. In 1944 and 1948, the Republican Party presidential candidate Thomas Dewey had a strong civil rights record, at a time when the Democratic Party was deeply split on the issue. In 1956 -- two years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education -- Dwight Eisenhower won 39 percent of the non-white vote in his reelection campaign against Adlai Stevenson. Four years later, in the last presidential election before the Civil Rights Act came to the floor of the US Senate, Eisenhower's Vice President Richard Nixon won 32 percent of the non-white vote.

The popular vote in the 1960 presidential race was split 50-50 between Nixon and John Kennedy. To this day, many contend that Nixon may well have won that election and that the margin of victory turned on Election Day dirty tricks orchestrated by the Kennedy political machine. Whatever the truth of those claims, Nixon left that election determined to make sure that his next race for the White House would not be so close.

In the wake of his narrow election loss in 1960, Nixon and his advisors crafted the "Southern Strategy" to bring southern Democrats disaffected by the Democratic Party's embrace of civil rights to the Republican Party. Nixon essentially traded away the New England Republican Party -- with its long historical commitment to civil rights -- for the disaffected south by embracing racially targeted and divisive tactics. In terms of the Electoral College, the trade was an easy bet. The Republican Party picked up a solid advantage in winning over 150 electoral votes across the south, while ceding its historical advantage with respect to the 60 or so electoral votes in New England and New York.

When Nixon won the presidency in 1968, his share of the non-white vote fell from 32 percent to 12 percent -- a level that as been barely exceeded by any Republican presidential candidate in the ensuing half century. By 1972, the "solid south," long the cornerstone of the Democrats, was firmly in the Republican camp. For the ensuing half-century, the solid south has been the cornerstone of the modern Republican Party, and over the course of the past half-century many Republican politicians, who knew better, said and did things they knew they did not believe in.

The GOP did not have to continue down the path that Richard Nixon embraced in the wake of his loss to JFK in 1960. After Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment in 1974, GOP leaders could have reversed course, but they chose not to, presumably because they believed that the strategy was working. As this graph illustrates, the swap of the New England for the South was complete and has endured. As of 2014, there was not a single white Democrat in Congress from the deep south--though as Charlie Baker has demonstrated, the Massachusetts tradition of electing Republican governors has continued.

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Over time, Republican electoral strategy migrated from overt racial tactics to the use of code and "dog whistles" to garner electoral support of its targeted voters, and wedge strategies to use hot-button political issues to drive voter turnout. Years later, prominent GOP political strategist and South Carolinian Lee Atwater described the evolution of the Southern Strategy from overt to covert racial tactics.

''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 and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.... You follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N-----, n-----.'''

For years, Republican candidates and strategists have criticized leaders of the African American community and black voters for their loyalty to the Democratic Party, yet they rarely acknowledge that black voters were pushed out of the Republican Party as much as they may have been attracted to the Democrats. Ten years ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman spoke before the national convention of the NAACP and apologized for the decades-old GOP strategy of leveraging racial polarization to its political advantage. But Mehlman's comments were neither widely applauded nor adopted as talking points across the party of which he was a leader.

Events in South Carolina over the past two weeks have demonstrated that the racially-targeted political strategy that Richard Nixon set in motion to assure his own electoral victory fifty years ago remains deeply ingrained in the GOP, Mehlman's apology notwithstanding. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has been widely applauded for her leadership in enabling GOP leaders to recognize that the time had come to confront the issue of the confederate flag. However, Charlie Baker's apology and Haley's leadership on the flag issue should not mask the reality that the essence of the Southern Strategy strategy--as exemplified in tactics ranging from voter suppression to Donald Trump's eloquent characterization of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists--remains alive and well. While Republican leaders and pundits are congratulating Haley for her leadership in tackling the flag issue, they have remained silent on the enduring implications of its fifty-year long racially-focused political strategy that has been and remains so important to the GOP success.