03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Should Avoid Reid/Lott Comparison

Complaints by Republican leaders of what John McCain called a "stunning double standard" between the treatment of Trent Lott and Harry Reid over racially insensitive comments speak not to the hypocrisy of the Democrats, but rather to the lingering racism of the GOP. In his remarks in December 2002, at a birthday party for Strom Thurmond, then Senate majority leader Trent Lott praised the centegenarian's role in the so-called Dixiecrat Revolt of 1948, saying, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it." Given that the Dixiecrat Revolt was set off by Truman's attempt to desegregate the military and to guarantee federal equal employment practices, Lott's sentiments were a nostalgic endorsement of white supremacy.

Worse yet, the logic of Lott's comments traced the rise of the modern Right in the U.S. As he went on to say, "[I]f the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." In other words, current social and political problems as Republicans understand them stem from the extension of civil rights to African Americans in the postwar era.

As Lott explained on the Larry King Show just after his comments became controversy, he had praised Thurmond because the South Carolina politician had consistently held up the principles of strong defense, "law and order" and fiscal conservatism. That these positions had been linked to a defense of white supremacy in the Dixiecrat Revolt may have been so obvious as to go unnoticed by Lott. Thurmond switched to the Republican party when it became the national opponent of civil rights in the 1964 Goldwater campaign. And indeed, the national success of the Republican party in the following decades was due in large measure to its racially-inflected positions on civil rights, anti-discrimination, affirmative action, crime, and welfare policy.

It is this uncomfortable historical proximity between racism and conservatism that pushed George W. Bush to swiftly denounce Lott's comments before a largely black audience in Philadelphia, and for conservative pundits like Charles Krauthammer and Paul Greenberg to call for Lott's immediate resignation. For them, Lott's real crime was to reach back over 40 years of modern Republican history to uncover its unseemly beginnings, which have been so delicately papered over in recent years. Praising one of the acknowledged heroes of the contemporary Right is one thing, but recalling his white supremacist origins reminded the country of the foundational violence of that Right.

Reid's comments about Obama's electability were poorly phrased in anachronistic language about race. Lott openly celebrated and identified himself with a politics of white supremacy. By contrast, Reid merely pointed out the sad truth that the electorate has yet to get fully past it. Republicans who miss this distinction keep their party tethered to the racial politics of its Dixiecrat past.