Tuesday, October 19, 2010

But my soul is pure

Carl Paladino, the very angry Republican tea party candidate for governor of New York, managed to go 72 hours last week without making an offensive remark or threatening to take out a reporter, which may be a new record. (Though his fellow tea partier Joe Miller, running for U.S. Senate in Alaska, had his private security guards grab and handcuff for 30 minutes a reporter who tried to question him about his reported misuse of his government office for political activities when he was an Alaska county attorney in 2008. Miller indignantly explained that he had already made clear he would not answer questions about his "personal life.")

Paladino's spate of good behavior was apparently prompted by growing signs of public disaffection with his wild-man persona in general (a new New York Times poll puts him at 24 percent) and his anti-gay remarks in particular, which he delivered a week ago to the brief acclaim of the very anti-gay Yehuda Levin, the kind of Orthodox rabbi who appears to be trying his best to give anti-semitism a good name. After being hailed by Levin for reading a script that Levin himself provided (in which Paladio ominously warned that children are being "brainwashed" into thinking homsexuality is acceptable), Paladino offered the standard "some of my best friends are . . ." and "the press misinterpreted and misstated my views" non-apology apology. That prompted the rabbi (whose metaphors seem a bit out of date) to denounce his erstwhile hero for having "folded like a cheap camera" to the "gay agenda."

Actually, though, Paladino was arguably following a well-worn strategy of calibrated cynicism that has been employed for decades by conservative politicians in their courting of the bigot vote. The formula is to play to popular hatreds with well-recognized code phrases (or not-so-code phrases) but then to turn around and express outrage at the suggestion that one is bigoted oneself. (Paladino in his original speech angrily said it would be "a dastardly lie" to "misquote" him as being in any way antihomosexual.)

Taking it one step further, the practitioners of this art often suggest that it is their critics who are the real bigots. Glenn Beck of course is the master of this, combining the racist appeal and the self-immunization in a single thought, notably when he declared that President Obama has "exposed himself as a guy with a deep-deated hatred for white people." Similarly, conservative columnists and think-tankers regularly offer up the analysis that it is a "liberal myth" that conservatives have ever appealed to the racist vote, and that it is liberals who are "playing the race card" when they try to point out the racial political game conservative politicians are playing. (Similarly, when liberals mention that Republican tax proposals will transfer $700 billion over the next 10 years to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, that is fomenting "class warfare"; and, as I wrote about in my book about the white terrorist violence in the Reconstruction South, whenever progressives decried the assassinations and beatings of African Americans who attempted to exercise their right to vote in the years after the Civil War, that was "waving the bloody shirt.")

The Washington Post ran a recent specimen of this genre by a University of Virginia political scientist who asserted that it was, yes, a liberal myth that the Republican Party ever courted the white racist vote as part of a "Southern Strategy," and that the shift from Democratic to Republican party affiliation among white Southerners in the 1950s and 1960s was purely a phenomenon of growing income and other long-term, slowly evolving cultural and economic factors. Now, I should be clear that I am not in any way arguing that all conservatives are or were bigots. Barry Goldwater's 1964 candidacy perfectly encapsulated the postwar GOP coalition of traditional pro-business Republicans, anti-communist foreign-policy conservatives (who would come to include the disaffected neocons), and social conservatives. But there is no denying that the last group was a powerful force in the South, that race was at the forefront of Southern white social conservatism, and that Goldwater and other Republican leaders unabashedly appealed to the white conservative racist vote after seeing an opportunity created by Lyndon Johnson's historic support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

This is shown vividly by the votes in the presidential elections during these years. The swing from overwhelmingly Democratic in 1956 to overhwlemingly Republican in 1964 in the Southern states was breathtakingly abrupt. And to those who would try to argue it was not about race, it is instructive to also consider 1968, when George Wallace's unabashedly racist-tinged third-party campaign garnered as vast a chunk of the deep-South vote as did Goldwater four years earlier — so much for long-term demographic shifts toward the Republican economic agenda:

Wallace is an interesting study himself on this point. He began politics as a New Deal Democrat and largely retained his progressive economic views throughout his career, championing the "underdog" and programs for the poor. But after his first unsuccessful run for governor of Alabama in 1958 — when he was called the worst thing a politician could be called in those years in the South, namely a "moderate" on racial issues — Wallace knew that the only path to political success was by appealing to the white racist vote. His opponent, John Patterson, had run an openly racist campaign in which he declared his steadfast opposition to any "mixing" of the races and earned the backing of Ku Klux Klan. When it was over Wallace said to his campaign aide Seymore Trammell, "Seymore, do you know why I lost? I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again."

Running for president in 1968, Wallace became adept at playing both sides of the street in the classic manner, throwing red meat to white Southern racists while cloaking it enough deniability to soften his appeal elsewhere; thus like Strom Thurmond (who carried four deep-South states in 1948 as the candidate of the segregationist "States Rights Democratic Party" and who switched to the GOP in 1963), he would couch his opposition to school integration as a stand against communism or big government or for "states rights."

Liberals have subtly enabled the politics of coded racial appeal by making racism and other bigotry into a personal moral issue — a question of the content of one's soul. You could make a respectable argument in fact that neither Goldwater nor even Wallace or Thurmond were racists in their hearts. But they shamelessly played racial politics, and they and their political heirs rode to considerable electoral success on that cynical strategy of appealing to the worst in the hearts of others. I have mentioned before the essay by my state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Linwood Holton, who lamented the fact that when faced in the 1960s with the chance to take the high road — and put together what Holton argued in fact could have been an unstoppable coalition of pro-business voters, moderates, and African Americans — the GOP instead took the low road by, as Goldwater himself notoriously put it, appealing to the disaffected conservative racist vote in the South on the theory that "you go hunting where the ducks are."

The GOP is still shamelessly playing this game, though now the ducks include right-wing hatreds for gays and Muslims in addition to the more traditional racial enmities.