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The GOP Has Been Recruiting Cliven Bundy for 50 Years

04/25/2014 05:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2014
George Frey via Getty Images

I have no doubt that many individual Republicans are genuinely shocked -- not Claude Rains-shocked -- by Cliven Bundy. But as far as their leaders go, it's pure Casablanca time.

They can't possibly be surprised to discover yet another racist in their ranks. They've been actively recruiting racists for 50 years.

It used to be the Democratic Party that did this. By accepting slavery and then Jim Crow, the Democrats of the bad old days owned the solid South from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Not all Democrats were racists, of course. But racists were a key part of their "winning coalition" -- what pols call a strategic collection of voting blocs that can add up to victory.

When Democrats finally abandoned their racist partners in the 1960s, they knew the political cost.

"We've lost the South for a generation," Lyndon Johnson is said to have said upon signing the Civil Rights Act.

Whom the Democratic Party abandoned, the GOP eagerly embraced.

In 1968 Richard Nixon won the presidency -- and began a long Republican winning streak -- by exploiting what became known as the Southern Strategy.

It was memorably described by Nixon consultant Lee Atwater in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- 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.

The Southern Strategy rapidly flipped the South from solidly Democratic -- hard to imagine now, isn't it? -- to solidly Republican.

And ever since 1964, the GOP has deliberately invited racists to be key members of its winning coalition.

Not incidentally. Not "Oh, my, where did they come from?" Deliberately -- strategically.

If you doubt it, you can check with former GOP chair Ken Mehlman, who apologized for the Southern Strategy at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 2005:

Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.

Despite Mehlman's apology, the Southern Strategy has endured, uninterrupted, from Nixon to now. It's no accident that:

  • Ronald Reagan declared his candidacy in Philadelphia, Miss., near where three black civil rights workers had famously been murdered, announcing that he was strongly in favor of "states' rights."
  • George H. W. Bush got a major boost over Michel Dukakis thanks to the infamous Willie Horton ad.
  • A push poll for George W. Bush suggested that primary opponent John McCain had an illegitimate black child -- actually his adopted Bangladeshi daughter.
  • Mitt Romney indulged the birthers and falsely claimed that President Obama had ended the work requirement for welfare.
  • Right now, with the help of a conservative Supreme Court, Republicans across the country are working mightily to prevent minorities from voting.

Of course, no one can say that any of these people are or were themselves racists, at least intentionally.

But they certainly appealed to racists.

And so we arrive at Cliven Bundy, the deadbeat government-denier who wonders if "black people were better off as slaves."

In the modern GOP Cliven Bundy is no more surprising a presence than Strom Thurmond was among the Dixiecrats.

Bundy didn't crash the party; he was invited.

He isn't an outlier; he's just outspoken.