Republicans Make Progress on Racial Politics?

07/22/2005 12:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman and George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, apologized recently for what he called “past” Republican Party practices of using racially divisive tactics to win elections. To the credit of some Republicans, they have lately been talking to African-American voters differently. Are Republicans finally getting it? or have they forgotten their own recent history? Actually, it’s both.

Republicans like President Bush and his operatives Rove and Mehlman seem to have finally figured out that African-Americans respond and act like any other group of voters. Not only did they engage in real conversations with African-Americans during the 2004 election, this Bush administration has appointed blacks to the most powerful positions in the government. Because of this, Democrats might face the kind of real competition for black votes that they have not seen since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election and for which they are largely unprepared. On the other hand, Ken Mehlman’s single apology does not alter the reality that the Republicans have created and maintained their current majority in Washington, in state legislatures, and among governors by using overt and coded racial appeals as a fundamental and indispensable building block. Mehlman’s speech, to an NAACP that the President himself has publicly shunned, will not turn that Republican water into wine.

Since the civil rights era of the 1960s and particularly after President Lyndon Johnson led passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), Republicans have failed to average more than 10% of the African-American vote anywhere in the country. During the same period, Democratic statewide candidates in the deep South have only very, very rarely won a majority of white votes and have witnessed a steady erosion of whites elsewhere in the country. The racial polarization in our nation’s politics has become worse, not better, since the 1960s.

Republicans have explained their failure to win African-American support very simply and with a surprising degree of ignorance. Black voters, they say, are mere sheep being led by false promises of the Democratic Party and false prophets like Jesse Jackson. When a political party assumes that a group of voters cannot think for themselves, the party never gets around to asking what might really motivate them – issues like economic justice, equal opportunity, and urban renewal. Republicans have historically thrown their hands up in frustration and not bothered to engage black voters in an intelligent way.

What specifically are Republicans doing under Bush’s, Rove’s, and Mehlman’s new form of politics? Real inclusion at the top levels of their administration and a focus on social issues and real outreach during elections have led the way. Black voters are more conservative than most white Democrats, especially on hot button issues like abortion, women’s roles in the community, gay marriage, and crime. This fact comes as a surprise to most casual political observers, especially to many white liberals who assume that African-Americans think like they do. In the 2004 presidential campaign, for example, most black voters came down on the opposite side of gay marriage than white liberals. Blacks were a key constituency in passing anti-gay marriage amendments even though this did not translate into support for Republican candidates this time.

For the Democrats to dismiss these challenges as superficial is to stare defeat in the face and pretend it is not there. Importantly, the Republican Party does not need to win a majority of the African-American vote anywhere to ruin the Democratic Party’s future election chances. Drawing away only 10-20% more of the African-American vote in key presidential battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Michigan – which voted for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry – will lock out any hope of regaining the White House.

The past Republican absence in the African-American community has made the Democrats’ success with black voters easier, but it has also put the party on very thin ice. Accusations of “taking black voters for granted” is sometimes a fair charge against the Democratic Party, but the more dangerous truth is that many in our nation’s liberal party have spent less effort engaging black voters year round because they have not needed to do so. Remind them, say many Democratic operatives, a few weeks before each election that the party’s policies and record far outpace the Republican’s record. Though unquestionably true over the last 40 years, the Democrats can no longer afford the luxury of this attitude.

To be sure, the Republicans are still a long way from the finish line. Their failure to win more black votes is understandable after decades of racial tactics (and lots of bad policies). What Ken Mehlman ignored with dramatic words and sly rhetoric is that the Republicans continue to benefit even today from overt and implicit racial politics. He referred primarily to strategies in the 60s and 70s, suggesting that the Republicans left racial tactics behind in the 80s, 90s, and even today. Was he kidding? They have never stopped.

The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election was the last time African-Americans were up for grabs in a presidential race. It marked the end of the “Party of Lincoln.” Beginning with the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater election and flowering in the two Nixon elections, Republicans implemented a “Southern Strategy” that appealed directly and indirectly to racial fears in every corner of the nation. The only real change in Republican tactics over time has been the move from openly racist appeals to coded, plausibly deniable appeals.

Through the 1960s, overt appeals to racism were perfectly acceptable. Senator Strom Thurmond’s record 1957 filibuster against civil rights legislation and Alabama Governor George Wallace’s fight to stop integration of the University of Alabama by standing in the doorway of the college’s admissions office may be the most famous examples by elected politicians.

After the 1960s, explicit appeals to racism became less acceptable in the public domain, so Republicans and many conservatives knew they had to use code language to feed on racial voting tendencies by voters. Public school integration was a fact by the early 1970s, so Republicans turned to talk about “forced busing” and “community schools” to play on whites’ fears of sending their children to schools with black children. The same strategy of indirectly appealing to racial animosities continues even today over issues like affirmative action. Republicans have appealed to white workers’ fears that the government was “giving” black workers their jobs. They have tried to redefine the issue from remedies for historic wrongs suffered by African-Americans to “undeserved special rights” given to African-Americans by a federal government allegedly hostile to the majority white population. Republicans have even had the audacity to use Martin Luther King’s own words against affirmative action proponents by quoting his famous hope that Americans judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush accepted the mantle of Republican racial politics in the 1980s. Reagan began the decade by giving his first major campaign speech in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for "states' rights" — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters. Reagan then created the obscene portrait of the Mercedes-driving, gold-jewelry-wearing black welfare queen when attacking federal programs to help poor women and children of every race. Reagan’s advocates explained the attacks on welfare as attacks on fraud. They worked to make an ostensibly non-racial point about wasteful government that carried powerful racial signals.

George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign continued the tradition. The famous Willie Horton television advertisement featured a convicted African-American murderer who was released on a furlough program to create the impression that Michael Dukakis would let loose (black) inmates into the streets to terrorize law-abiding (white) citizens. Once again, the Republicans found ways to make ostensibly non-racial, even credible, arguments. Bush explained his use of Willie Horton as a political tool by claiming that it highlighted Dukakis’ soft-on-crime policies as governor.

Even today, exploitation of racial animosity continues. Arguments against expanded civil rights and the makeup of federal courts usually include statements for states rights and against liberal judicial activism. The “intellectual” arguments against many civil rights laws have always rested on these tenets, which are once again non-racial on their face but deliver compelling racial signals.

Listen closely and one can still hear voters in the South and elsewhere mirror exactly the sentiment planted and nurtured by Republican leaders. Explicit comments like “The Democrats are the party of the blacks” are common in private company. Voters and politicians who have switched to the Republican Party often say, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” Of course, this means more than the Democrats’ identification with civil rights and black elected officials. It also means a negative reaction to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, the anti-Vietnam War stance by many liberals, and the Democrats’ move toward greater reliance on the federal government to pursue their agenda. But the fact that the switch to the Republican Party means many things does not negate the reality that race is central and indispensable to their overall equation for electoral victories.

Where, then, does this leave the Republican chairman’s apology on behalf of all Republicans? Perhaps the most revealing point about Ken Mehlman’s speech is that he refuted decades of Republican denial about their racial political strategies. No more. The Republican National Chairman himself has admitted to the party’s past sins and the thin layer of non-racial defenses and their theater of the absurd has been exposed.

To conclude, Ken Mehlman’s recent NAACP speech was without a doubt a positive for the continued progress of racial politics in the United States, a nation that has struggled with the demon of race even before its founding. The Democrats should take note because the Republicans have begun acting like a party that will sincerely compete for the African-American votes. No longer can the Democrats rest easy because of the Republican neglect of and ignorance about black voters. On the other hand, a few savvy Republican operatives and an inclusionary Republican president do not change their party’s admitted reliance on racially divisive tactics and their track record of conservative policies on economic opportunity, community development, urban renewal, and affirmative action. Only time will tell whether the Republicans are putting new wine in old bottles or whether we will be left drinking the same old swill.