By Kevin Williamson
Frank Rich, writing in New York magazine, has taken issue with my pieces on Goldwater, Republicans, and civil rights, calling it part of “the most insidious and determined campaign to rewrite racial history on the right.” If you can dig through Mr. Rich’s characteristically limp and emotive prose, you will discover that his argument amounts to: “Nyah, nyah! Strom Thurmond!” In Mr. Rich’s words, “The primacy of Thurmond in the GOP’s racial realignment is the most incriminating truth the right keeps trying to cover up.”
Asserting the primacy of Mr. Thurmond’s role does not establish the fact. It also misses the fact that the “racial realignment” that so interests Mr. Rich happened long before 1964, back when Strom Thurmond was just another wretched hillbilly pedophile molesting the help. Mr. Rich simply refuses to deal with the facts: No Republican presidential candidate has won the black vote since the 1920s (Here’s to you, Herbert Hoover!), the majority of black voters had become Democrats by the 1940s, Republicans’ gains in the South were concentrated among educated and relatively affluent suburbanites, the same as they were everywhere else in the country, not among the redneck bloc. The Southern congressional caucus went Republican in 1994, not in 1964.
Mr. Rich refuses to deal with the fact that far from galvanizing the region with his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Barry Goldwater in fact lost the Southern popular vote to Lyndon Johnson (49 percent to 52 percent) and underperformed Dwight Eisenhower’s showing there in 1956. Eisenhower, a civil-rights activist, was the first Republican since Reconstruction to win the Southern vote. As Sean Trende notes, he “carried the peripheral South, but also took Louisiana with 53 percent of the vote. He won nearly 40 percent of the vote in Alabama. This is all the more jarring when you realize that the Brown v. Board decision was handed down in the interim, that the administration had appointed the chief justice who wrote the decision, and that the administration had opposed the school board.” But black voters still did not like Ike: They voted by large majorities for Adlai Stevenson.
The notable thing about Strom Thurmond is that he was the only member of the Senate Democratic Hickoid Caucus to leave his party and join the GOP. Robert Byrd, that barnacle upon Washington, stayed in the Democratic party long enough to roll up the sleeves on his Klan robe to allow Senator Obama to kiss his ring.
The present orientation of our two major political parties is not mainly the result of the racial politics of the 1960s. It is the result of the New Deal. When the Democrats became the New Deal party and the Republicans became the party of opposition to the New Deal, the trends that had begun in the 1920s became fixed, at least so far as black voters were concerned. The historical fact is that black Americans joined the Democratic party at a time when the Democrats were bitterly opposed to civil rights and desegregation: the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Franklin Roosevelt, the commander in chief of a segregated army who had not lifted a finger in the cause of civil rights, received 71 percent of the black vote in 1936. The New Deal was popular with black voters. It still is.
Mr. Rich can bang his spoon on his high chair day and night, but the facts are the facts.
Democrats act as though race were the only subject of interest in the 1960s. But other social factors, notable among them the explosion of crime in those years and the radicalism and disorder on college campuses, certainly played a role in the social character of the parties, as did the Democrats’ cynically enthusiastic embrace of the welfare state under Johnson, another Democratic practitioner of truly odious racial politics. And there was the small matter of revolutionary communism and the Republicans’ more robust response to it at a time when the Democrats were becoming the home of the far left, the party of radical chic. Strom Thurmond’s role in this is mainly that of a story that Democrats tell themselves to feel good about themselves and their dependency agenda.