The Roots of the GOP’s Racial Politics
This is a very good article (if long and a bit academic) about the roots of racial politics in the Republican Party. It began in 1964 in an attempt to take advantage of the reaction that followed passage of the Civil Rights Act, by explicitly pandering to the white backlash against it, even if Barry Goldwater, the GOP nominee that year, wasn’t always consistent on this tactic. Of course, Goldwater’s campaign would go down to a spectacular landslide defeat. Part of this is because 1964 was not going to be a Republican year, and another part of this is because Goldwater was one of the worst candidates ever. Nevertheless, racial resentments of whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act were seen to be the only hope for the GOP, and Goldwater would actually carry - by wide margins, five states in the South that had not supported a Republican since Reconstruction.
It is also an excellent factual rebuttal to the widespread - and deeply stupid - propaganda about the Republican Party being the party of Civil Rights.
Growing up in Arizona, Barry Goldwater knew very few African Americans, but nevertheless Goldwater endorsed integration in his family business and the Arizona National Guard, and even joined the NAACP.19 Goldwater believed throughout his life that blacks and whites were equal before the law, and in his major book, The Conscience of A Conservative, he made clear his personal view that the races were equal. However, Goldwater had a narrow definition of what federal civil rights were and what actions the national government could take in their defense. Goldwater’s distaste for government would almost always trump his personal belief in racial equality. As one biographer concluded: “Throughout his life, he would accommodate the bigotry of others while personally distancing himself from it.”20
After 1960, Goldwater was convinced that Nixon had lost because of his civil rights advocacy, and Goldwater began encouraging his party to peel off Southern whites on the basis of racial politics. In a speech to the Georgia State Republican Party, Goldwater pushed the abandonment of the black vote. “We ought to forget the big cities. We can’t out-promise the Democrats… . I would like to see our party back up on school integration.”21 Yet while he fought federal efforts at school integration, Goldwater also criticized the Justice Department for not prosecuting voting rights violations in the South, because these were federal civil rights.22 Goldwater persistently accused the Democratic Party of either being the party of racism or the party of hypocrisy on race.23
Goldwater, never a racist, would eventually appeal to racism in his run for the White House. Yet before Goldwater won the Republican nomination with a campaign predicated on stealing the segregationist South from the Democrats, an uncomplicated and unabashed racist firebrand would demonstrate that fear, animosity, and resentment of blacks were not limited to the white South.
If the Republican Party was somewhat incoherent on civil rights, there was little question where Barry Goldwater stood. As Goldwater emerged as the candidate of an increasingly radical Republican right, the plausibility of his candidacy rested upon his popularity in the South and West. The West would be won on the basis of strident anti-federal government rhetoric, but the Goldwater strategy in the South always relied on the white backlash vote. As a Goldwater adviser said days before Kennedy’s assassination, the hope for victory lay in a backlash against civil rights, even though “I hate to win on that basis.”35
Goldwater made special appeals to Southern Republicans on civil rights and law and order, statements that were designed to play on the white backlash. His speech in May in Columbus, Georgia, reeked of obsequious deference to Jim Crow. Goldwater bemoaned the “distinct cultural loss” caused by federal intervention and centralization.41 The speech had a preface, written especially for a Southern audience, that linked federal civil rights laws to violence in the streets. Goldwater did not limit his backlash themes to the South. In a speech at Madison Square Garden in May, Goldwater proclaimed:
Where are the states which today are witnessing the most violence? … the very states where there is the most talk about brotherhood and the very least opportunity for achieving it. I sadly remind you that we are seeing violence today in those very states which are proving that new laws alone are not the answer. There are too many of the old laws which aren’t even working!42
Goldwater’s rhetoric on race worked in primaries North and South, wherever the white backlash could be found.
Part 2 is here.