Grand New Party and the Salience of Racism

Douthat and Salam generally frame their argument about the breakup of the Roosevelt New Deal coalition of the pre and post World War Two period in terms of a racial dynamic (the role of which they are skeptical) and a gender and cultural dynamic.

In their second chapter, they argue with very little firm ground on which to stand, that the shift in working class white voters away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republican Party had little to do with Civil Rights or racism.  They acknowledge that there were racists among those whose allegiance shifted in the decades following the Civil Rights movement, but scoff at the notion that race played into the larger pattern in a significant way.  

For example, they allow that Republicans of the era employed some racist dog-whistles, but state that they did so “precisely because they were unwilling to promote racist policies.”  In reality, Douthat and Salam refer only to “overtly” racist policies.  The neutrality of the politics of order and of wars on drugs and crime is belied not only by the results, which skewed heavily toward ruthless policing in primarily black and latino cities, but by the words of (among many others) Nixon himself, the reported words of Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman, and the later interviews of Republican strategist Lee Atwater.

Perhaps their most obvious mischaracterization is when they argue that “outside Alabama, Mississippi, and the rest of the Deep South, it’s worth remembering that the Civil Rights movement was extremely popular.”  They don’t offer a citation for that particular claim.  It’s certainly possible that “Civil Rights” as an abstraction was reasonably popular, but over and over and over again, empirical evidence shows that individual efforts and particular leaders were overwhelmingly unpopular in their time.  

An analysis by the Washington Post shows that the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the March on Washington polled at most 28% favorable and between 57 and 61% unfavorable.  FiveThirtyEight also notes a Gallup study from 1966 on which Martin Luther King personally was viewed unfavorably by 63% of Americans.

Douthat and Salam comment with somewhat more authority on cultural changes, the libertine excesses of the hippie movement, and the fringes of the sexual revolution.  They note with particular prescience the idea of a “stratification by education” that started to associate upward mobility and educational opportunity with families who already had the financial resources to send their children to colleges rather than public high schools and professional or trade school.

Their argument is an interesting one in that they attempt to credit old school labor Democrats with building a cohesive and secure middle class, while attempting also to lay blame for the collapse of that cohesion and security at the feet of modern liberalism.  That argument, while certainly compelling in some of their cultural analysis, runs head on into decades of political science and sociological research into the impact of race on American politics and the absurd racially disparate impacts of twentieth century policy.  In a sense, their argument hinges on liberal excesses and it’s hard to argue that liberals were excessive in their support for Civil Rights.  

Their attribution of responsibility carries more weight on the cultural issues they trace back to the sexual revolution and the chasm in education levels:  

“The more that elites kept patriotism at arm’s length and treated national pride with a sophisticate’s tolerance, the more the breach was filled by Sean Hannity-style jingoists.  The more the mass upper class seemed to look down on the rubes in “Red America,” the more the rubes returned the favor, embracing a self-conscious anti-intellectualism that ran from George Wallace down through to Ross Perot and reached its apotheosis, perhaps, in the era of George W. Bush.”

It’s hard to argue with this assessment, but their flaw seems not to be in this vein of inquiry but rather in treating it separately from the issue of race.  In discounting the salience of racial politics in the Southern Strategy and the realignment of party allegiances, Douthat and Salam create a world wherein race is a sort of sideshow, running in streams along the periphery.  Incidental rather than a powerful, omnipresent current underneath.  Perhaps they’re right and parties would have realigned even without manipulation of racial anxiety, but it’s worth noting that extended periods of Democratic power coincided exactly with periods in which Democrats most effectively wrested racial dog-whistles from Republicans.  

Nixon rode his Southern Strategy until Jimmy Carter managed to mitigate its effects by evoking neighborhood integration (notwithstanding Watergate).  Reagan conjured welfare queens, mooching “bucks,” and the legacy of Philadelphia, Mississippi and his successor Willie Horton until Clinton stemmed the time with Ricky Ray Rector and Sista Souljah.

I’m skeptical of anyone who discounts the power of race in American politics.  In criticizing liberals’ assertion that parties realigned solely on the basis of race, Douthat and Salam build a world race played no role whatsoever.  In this world race was merely incidental and they are able to avoid reckoning with that particular legacy in their party.  I appreciate their optimism, but unfortunately America’s history shows it time and again to be misplaced.