Thanks to Newt Gingrich's loose lips, the cat is out of the bag: The Republican Party, answering the call of a large part of its following, will continue its subtle and not-so-subtle uses of the race card.
Gingrich said during the health care debate that "much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" when Congress enacted civil rights legislation, President Barack Obama's health care reform will prove as destructive. His audience needs no reminder of Republican divisiveness, but Gingrich, no stranger to distorting history, demands correction.
First, LBJ and his party, the anomalous home of Southern segregationist congressmen, never could have passed civil rights legislation without the herculean efforts of the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill., and the late Rep. William McCulloch, R-Ohio, who led most of their party to enact bipartisan legislation. Appropriately, after a century of trimming, the Republican Party briefly returned to its anti-slavery and Reconstruction Era roots. Gingrich's version of history cannot imagine what he considers improbable.
Second, the Democratic Party was not destroyed by its support for civil rights, but instead it gained some ideological clarity, and lost that segregationist base, which readily donned the proper Republican attire. Being a Republican in the South became a cover for racial attitudes that in no way could be suppressed or changed. The shift is captured in the recent movie The Blind Side, with its Christian, Southern setting, in which a prospective employee sheepishly reveals her dark secret -- she's a Democrat. Can anything be more ironic than a Republican "Lincoln Day" dinner in the South? The Republican Party of today, born in that 1960s moment, must be totally alien to its founders. Where are you, Sen. Dirksen, now that we need you?
Media pundits debate whether the Republican Party and the so-called Tea Party are one or two distinct entities. The former needs the latter for its opportunity to speak for "the people," and tea party goers have little choice but to be Republican Party fellow travelers.
More history is in order. The Supreme Court's 1954 decision striking down segregation in Brown v. Board of Education was the watershed event for the next half century and beyond in our domestic life. Race became -- and remains -- a central, national issue. It serves as a political platform for those who advocate equality for all citizens, and it provides that useful instrument to play on prejudice for political gain. Racial equality is embraced within our constitutional framework in ways 180 degrees from what had been; nevertheless it also has left us with an increasingly alienated and emotionally distraught part of the populace, bereft of the once legally mandated system of apartheid.
For some, Barack Obama's election in 2008 signaled a new day -- one eagerly grasped as proof of a "post-racial America." Gingrich and his fellow Republican presidential wannabes know better. They know exactly what their followers mean when they scream and chant, "Take back our country." They stir a dangerous pot of anger and hatred. Republican leaders can exploit the race card subtly, as they play to their supporters at health care "death sentence" rallies. Our memories are short. Witness Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Obama's "great white hope" for bipartisanship on health care reform, and his obscene remarks as he gave credibility to those protests, even though he knew better. Grassley appeared at white bread rallies, replete with obvious placards that denounced the president, and with racist innuendoes.
Innuendoes are gone; witness the recent protests at the Capitol by supposed Tea Party folks hurling racial epithets at congressmen as they approached to vote on health care. House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey, D-Wis., was merely accused of illegitimate birth; Barney Frank, D-Mass., received the familiar homophobic remarks. Similar outbursts occurred in the chamber. The C-SPAN archives undoubtedly will prove useful to future historians. Unlike the networks', the C-SPAN video was unedited and not vetted to remove "offensive" remarks.
If Obama campaigns as vigorously for financial reforms as he has over the past year on behalf of health care, he will face determined opposition again. The lobbies opposing him will easily recruit shock troops of "ordinary" Americans, demanding to take back the country. Once again, their racial anger will animate them and fuel their hostility. Reining in the unbridled excesses of our banking and financial institutions is desirable public policy that will benefit the many, and only to the consternation of a few. Yet we can expect determined opposition from a mass that will benefit, however indirectly, from such reform. Nonetheless, they will bury their own interest in favor of their blind, unreasoning hatreds.
Race is the issue we will face for a long, foreseeable future. Obama's election owed much to his mixed-race ancestry. He undoubtedly attracted a large number of new, younger voters, anxious to make a statement they thought worthy of America. Certainly, his election majority was multiracial, and that may be difficult to maintain. But we can look in vain to find a presidency that has encountered such ugly, virulent opposition within its first year as Obama's. Even George W. Bush, winner of our most disputed election, encountered formidable opposition only when he led us to a war for obviously dubious reasons. Make no mistake: Race as an issue will not go away.
The media have obsessed on the 2010 midterm elections, and beyond to 2012. The Republican nominee will have a racist constituency he dare not disavow. All the more imperative that President Obama, who, in the health care run-up, looked and sounded like the 2008 candidate he was, return to that attractive, widely appealing form. Race will remain in our politics, but we can defeat the ambitions of those who embrace it to divide and cater to our worst instincts.
Stanley Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate and other writings.