The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.
On the day the Affordable Care Act took effect, the U.S. government was shut down, and it may be permanently broken. You’ll read lots of explanations for the dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.
People talk about the role of race in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”: how Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips helped him lure the old Dixiecrats into the GOP permanently. Far less well-known was the GOP’s “Northern Strategy,” which targeted so-called white ethnics — many of them like my working-class family. Without a Northern Strategy designed to inflame white-ethnic fears of racial and economic change, Phillips’ imaginary but still influential notion of a “permanent Republican majority” would have been unimaginable.
“The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips wrote. “Democratic ‘Great Society’ programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation.” Phillips was not trying to defuse that tension, far from it — he was trying to lure those white ethnics to the GOP (although he later broke with the party he helped create). But his Northern Strategy truly came to fruition in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan.
Reagan picked up the political baton on race passed to him by Barry Goldwater and Buchanan, and played his role with genial gusto. Reagan had trafficked in ugly racial stereotyping over the years, about “young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps and Cadillac-driving welfare queens. But the Reagan who got elected president was better at using deracialized language to channel racial fears and resentment. He and his strategists had succeeded in making government synonymous with “welfare,” and “welfare” synonymous with lazy people, most of them African-American.
When Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg studied the voters of Michigan’s Macomb County, a hotbed of Reagan Democrats — the county gave two-thirds of its votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the same proportion to Ronald Reagan in 1980 — he found that they no longer saw Democrats as working-class champions. “Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives,” and they saw government “as a black domain where whites cannot expect reasonable treatment,” Greenberg wrote.
Reagan knew for a lot of Democrat-turned-Republican voters, “government” was all about blacks. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained how it worked in a now-infamous 1981 interview that was secret for 30 years.
This is Atwater talking to an academic interviewer in 1981, Year One of the Reagan revolution: You start out in 1954 by saying, “N–ger, n–ger, n–ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n–ger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … “We want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N–ger, n–ger.”
And then you say “Defund Obamacare,” and everyone knows why.
Reaching black voters
To be fair to Republicans, not everyone is or was comfortable with this strategy. One of the things I remember best from Richard Ben Cramer’s legendary history of the 1988 election, “What It Takes,” was the way George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole grappled with whether and how to reach black voters, in the wake of the Reagan revolution. Each man struggled, in his own way, to understand and accept exactly how party leaders, starting with Goldwater, had actively pushed African-Americans out of the party of Abraham Lincoln. Dole’s discomfort seemed a little deeper and more genuine; in the end, Bush acceded to Atwater and Roger Ailes, one of Nixon’s media henchmen, to produce the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped torpedo Michael Dukakis.
Over and over, that’s how things got worse: Republicans who know better, who probably aren’t “racist” in the sense of believing in black inferiority and opposing the equality and integration of the races, nonetheless pander to those who are, for electoral gain. And when the election of our first black president riled up the racists and launched the tea party, too many Republicans went along. Read More