White Republican Debate Continues to Rage

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Delegates on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis

Sam Tanenhaus’s historical essay in the latest edition of the New Republic, on how the GOP is unalterably the party of white America, runs along many of the same lines as my story in last week's issue of New York. Tanenhaus even discusses in depth the theories of John C. Calhoun, which I mentioned briefly, as did Frank Rich in an essay in the same issue as mine. (For any New York readers surprised at the double citations in a single issue, the explanation is simple: Subscriber surveys have found that our readers want more coverage of mid-priced restaurants south of 50th Street and also much more discussion of the philosophy of John C. Calhoun.)

Tanenhaus’s piece is a great read and provides a lot of depth in areas I only touched upon, such as the deep and conscious influence of Calhoun on the twentieth-century thinkers who founded the conservative movement. But I think it also loses the thread of its argument toward the end, and in so doing, misses what’s really important and alarming about the current moment of the Republican Party.

Tanenhaus consistently runs together white racial panic and the tactics of minority rule; the two have often been linked. My piece mentions the electoral college and the three-fifths clause, which represented the successful effort by the South to turn its slaves into extra representation for the slaveowners. The attacks on the franchise at the end of the nineteenth century reflected, in different forms, the same sense of racial unease. Calhoun represented the fears of the slave-owning agrarian South being outnumbered by the growing North. But the same style applies to other elites maneuvering to retain their power in the face of diminishing numbers. Michael Lind, in a Salon essay on the white South, adds a fascinating detail I wish I’d found: After the 1920 census, Congress refused to reapportion itself — the only time in American history it failed to do so. Why? Because the 1920 census recorded vast increases in urban population, and retaining the 1910-era boundaries gave rural areas disproportionate representation.

In Tanenhaus’s account, the two things are not merely linked but essentially interchangeable. This leads to a confusing passage in which Tanenhaus described Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy as a “realignment, based on the politics of nullification” but then, in the next paragraph, asserts that after Nixon’s reelection, “Calhounism went into remission.”

I would argue that Nixon shows how Tanenhaus is running two different things together. Starting in the mid-sixties, the Democratic majority that had existed since the New Deal started to crack up, and the Republicans created a majority in its place based on the general belief among most whites that “big government” meant taking things away from them and giving them to lazy, criminal, or otherwise less deserving minorities. The time period from Nixon through George H. W. Bush was a time when the GOP most openly embraced racial politics — busing, welfare queens, Willie Horton, quotas, among others, were major elements of the party’s appeal.

That started to fade out with the election of Bill Clinton, who inoculated the party on racial issues by breaking as conspicuously as possible with his party on welfare and crime. George W. Bush reaffirmed Clinton’s political achievement by abhorring the sort of racial appeals politicians like his father employed. And in recent years, the minority population has grown to the point that Democrats can win Dukakis-esque levels of white support and still carry the national vote; therefore, a racialized politics that could beat Michael Dukakis can't beat Barack Obama.

But the key thing is that the Republican Party has now rejected its Southern Strategy and is embracing Calhounism instead. The high period of the Republican Party’s most explicit racial appeals was also the time when it had the least use for Calhounian methods of minority rule. The Southern Strategy, as a political method, was not based on Calhounism. It was closer to the opposite of Calhounism.

Why? Because Republicans were winning. They didn’t need to block the majority from working its will because they usually were the majority.

It’s only since about 2008 that Republicans have turned to the methods I describe — massively expanding the power of the Senate minority, widespread voter suppression and other schemes to rig the vote, obstructing nominees to block laws they can’t overturn, using the Courts to enforce economic policies they can’t win through legislative channels. Republicans have turned to these techniques because the party's identity as that of white people, once the cornerstone of its political dominance, has turned into a trap from which it is wriggling to escape.