Perhaps some GOP leaders can still rationalize the party’s racial status quo, not to mention its all-white hierarchy, because scant black support has not been a bar to winning past presidential elections. Mathematically, the GOP doesn’t need African-American voters. Blacks, who made up 12 percent of the population at the start of this decade (versus 17 percent for Latinos), are likely to remain a fairly static demographic in the future—rising to only 13 percent of the population in 2050, by which time Latinos could be at 29 percent, according to Pew projections. Their votes will rarely be decisive in the Electoral College.
But in a more and more diverse America, the real political risk in the GOP’s continued apartheid is greater than ever. The party’s alienation from black Americans threatens to turn off larger and larger blocs of nonblack voters—white, Latino, young—who don’t want to be associated with a brand still carrying a whiff of twentieth-century, and even nineteenth-century, racial animus. From the birth of the GOP’s “southern strategy” in the Nixon years until now, that risk has defined the party’s most vexing political calculus: How does it convince mainstream, non-racist America that it is still the color-blind, racially ecumenical party it purports to be, even as it has remarkable luck in attracting whatever die-hard bigots are still out there and perennially fails to win over any but a fringe of black voters? The ascent of America’s first black president has only compounded that challenge by inspiring the GOP’s racial provocateurs to be more uninhibited, and hence more visible, than they have been since Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, or perhaps since the George H.W. Bush political strategist Lee Atwater exploited a black felon, Willie Horton, to slime Michael Dukakis in 1988.
There have been various public-relations strategies throughout the years for finessing this conundrum, many of them as silly as Priebus’s listening tour. Few who were present will ever forget the legions of break-dancers and gospel singers tossed onstage at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia to distract from the lily-white delegate pool in the hall. But the most durable and effective tactic has been the right’s transparent effort to sanitize its own modern history on race to hide it from voters who might find it distasteful. As last year’s election results proved yet again, black Americans, who lived through this history firsthand and were sometimes victimized by it, aren’t fooled for a second. They remember what happened. But as more time goes by and the right’s concerted mythmaking about its history takes root in the culture, many other Americans don’t question it. Indeed, a new generation of conservatives seems to be downright cocky about its ability to falsify the Republican past and peddle the fictions to an inattentive or ill-informed public.
This was most recently illustrated by the new Great White Hope of the GOP base, Rand Paul, the winner of CPAC’s presidential straw poll this year and a man who is not shy about his White House ambitions. In pursuit of higher office, the image-conscious Paul took his own stab at outreach last month, giving a speech at Howard University. Facing a mostly young and African-American audience, he was determined to airbrush history—even very recent history of his own. He had “never wavered” in his “support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act,” he claimed, when in fact he had done exactly that in a Louisville Courier-Journal interview during his 2010 Senate campaign. Back then he’d argued that while it was “abhorrent” of Woolworth’s to refuse to serve Martin Luther King Jr. at its lunch counter, a private business still should retain the freedom to do what it wants. He espoused similar views in a contemporaneous prime-time appearance with Rachel Maddow, who replayed her interview with Paul the night of his Howard address.
But far more representative of the larger Republican effort to neutralize its racial history in the civil-rights era was another passage in Paul’s speech. “How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?” he asked rhetorically. “From the Civil War to the civil-rights movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?” After a meandering account of the party’s glorious record on black emancipation in the post–Civil War era, Paul arrived at the Great Depression and this answer: “The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible—the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.” In other words, African-Americans of the thirties were deadbeats bought off by FDR’s New Deal, much as those of the sixties (in the right’s eyes) were bought off by LBJ’s Great Society entitlements and those of the present day (along with the rest of America’s downtrodden “47 percent”) were seduced by Democrats brandishing still more of what Romney called “free stuff” and “gifts,” starting with Obamacare. In this telling, the GOP’s growing opposition to civil-rights laws in the past half-century (Rand’s opposition included) is blameless for black defections; the party was just too high-minded, too egalitarian, too devoted to freedom to compete with Democratic bribery.