Monday, December 24, 2007

Let's Compare Apples to Oranges

Bruce Bartlett is the author of a new book about the Democratic Party's "buried past" of racism. In the WSJ Opinion Journal today, Bartlett hawks this theme:

In his new book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," New York Times columnist Paul Krugman makes a strong case for his belief that the political success of the Republican Party and the conservative movement over the past 40 years has resulted largely from their co-optation of Southern racists that were the base of the Democratic Party until its embrace of civil rights in the 1960s. A key piece of evidence for Mr. Krugman is that Ronald Reagan gave his first speech after accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 near Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. In the course of this speech, Reagan said he supported "states' rights." Mr. Krugman says this was code declaring his secret sympathy for Southern racism.

Others, including Mr. Krugman's Times colleague David Brooks and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, have come to Reagan's defense, denying that he was a racist or had any racist intent in his 1980 speech. That's fine but unlikely to change the minds of those like Mr. Krugman who are determined to smear the Republican Party with the charge of racism, and who are adept at finding racist code words like "law and order" by Republicans that are completely convincing to liberals and Democrats in support of this accusation, even though they are invisible to those with no political ax to grind.

However, if a single mention of states' rights 27 years ago is sufficient to damn the Republican Party for racism ever afterwards, what about the 200-year record of prominent Democrats who didn't bother with code words? They were openly and explicitly for slavery before the Civil War, supported lynching and "Jim Crow" laws after the war, and regularly defended segregation and white supremacy throughout most of the 20th century.

Following are some quotes from prominent Democrats largely drawn from my new book, "Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past." Even with the exclusion of all quotes that contain the N-word, it is clear that many of the Democratic Party's most important historical figures have long made statements that reduce Reagan's alleged transgression to a drop in the ocean. If we are going to hold him and his party accountable for a single mention of states' rights, then the party of those listed below is far more culpable in promoting and defending racism.

It's difficult to know what Bartlett thinks he's proving by quoting Thomas Jefferson and other 19th and early 20th century Democrats on race. The Republican Party did not even exist until 1854, and did not become the party of choice for Southern white racists until the second half of the 20th century. As Matthew Yglesias points out, this is common knowledge for anyone who is reasonably well-informed:
... As everyone with any awareness of American political history knows, for about 100 years starting in the mid-19th century, the Democratic Party was the vehicle of choice for the white supremacist agenda that dominated the politics of the white south and that vast majority of the leading villains in the story of race in America were Democrats. That said, starting in the New Deal, the Democrats also became the preferred party of urban northern African-Americans and white liberals. That created a lot of intra-party tensions which played out over the next 30-40 years and resulted in a decisive victory for the racial liberals.

Meanwhile, in a parallel development, "new right" insurgents -- most of whom were, like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, opponents of civil rights legislation -- took control of the Republican Party. During this time, the white south became the electoral base of the GOP, while the much-shrunken Dixie faction of the Democratic Party became biracial. I don't think there's anything about this history that would upset modern-day Democrats -- obviously, Abe Lincoln and the GOP was the right way to go in the 1860s and Woodrow Wilson's record on racial issues was terrible but that was all quite a long time ago.

Bartlett (or an impersonator) responds in Matthew's comments section:
Joe McCarthy's sins are pretty old new, too. But that doesn't stop liberals from dredging them up time and time again. It's a rare year when there isn't a major new book about McCarthy or a Hollywood film about him.

Matt's reaction is exactly what I expected from the left. Since the history cannot be denied they will sweep it under the rug as old news--and boring news at that. But considering the recent flap about Reagan's Philadelphia, Mississippi speech in 1980, I don't think liberals can dismiss my argument without also dismissing their own efforts to use 27 year old speeches to damn the Republican Party for racism. They can't have it both ways. Either history matters or it doesn't.

History matters. So does intellectual honesty:
I think you're completely missing Matt's point. Matt is not sweeping the shameful history of the Democratic party under the rug, he is pointing out that between that history and the present there is a difference-making series of events, i.e. the Democratic party ceased being the party of white supremacists, and the GOP became the home of the white south. The new version of the Democratic party was, in other words, decisively different from the old. Corresponding to this is the fact that you will be hard pressed to find a Democrat who would defend its old white supremacism.

In contrast, Reagan's 1980 speech is very much continuous with the present-day Republican party. Indeed, Reagan is probably the most commonly viewed recent hero in the Republican party. And I ask you: have Republicans as decisively rejected the past embodied in Joe McCarthy as Democrats have rejected their white supremacist past? That is, I have never met a Democrat who was prepared to defend the Democratic party's old white supremacist agenda. In contrast, it is not difficult to come across prominent defenses of Joe McCarthy among Republicans, is it?

And another thing: What buried past?
Can a fact that's presented in great detail in any high school American history book really be considered buried? I know that people complain about the way we teach history, but most schools do in fact cover the frigging Civil War.

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