In Search of a 'Civil-Rights Republican'

Those who lived through it may find it hard to believe that Wednesday, November 4, marks just the thirty-fifth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election as president: All the praise, adoration, and incantatory recitation of his name in the time since make it feel a lot longer than three-plus decades. With election season underway, greater public devotions become obligatory, not only but especially when candidates debate against the backdrop of an Air Force One replica in the eponymous presidential library, where Reagan's name was mentioned forty-five times.

With the GOP’s national standard bearer having lost five out of six popular elections after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the party looked briefly into the mirror and issued a report on how to stop alienating voters it needed to win the White House. The recommendations were commonsensical and have thus been forgotten. Building walls, cutting taxes on the wealthy, demonizing Obama, demonizing Obama voters—these have much more appeal, and besides, Ronald Reagan.

Frustration with the Republicans’ continued inability to lure African American voters—their continued futility all but guaranteed in 2016—has prompted Theodore R. Johnson to offer an eminently reasonable, if less eminently realistic, prescription. Writing in The National Review, he calls for a civil-rights Republican, a national figure “strong on bedrock conservative principles as well as civil-rights protections [who] will win the support of black voters at levels the party hasn’t seen in generations.” I say reasonable, because Johnson premises his call on what the party itself might consider an inconvenient truth: “The stark polarization of the black electorate is a function of the evolution of [Republican and Democratic] stances on civil-rights protections. Period. There is no mystery here.” Republicans, he says, operate according to a fundamental misunderstanding of African Americans and what motivates their voting decisions; Republicans have accepted and perpetuated the “false narrative” that black voters support Democrats because they expect unearned benefits; Republicans “ignore history” when they point to the Constitution as a guarantor of civil rights given the failure of the 14th Amendment to “prevent the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ or statutory Jim Crow.” Johnson states that yes, voter ID laws passed in the aftermath of Shelby v. Holder have made “made voting more difficult for many blacks.” He points out that Republican attempts at outreach are “repeatedly undone by inadvisable strategic communication choices and a basic callousness about the black experience in America.” Not just reasonable, but almost bracing, in the pages of The National Review.

But realistic?

Grant Johnson his point about inadvisable strategic choices, but might those choices be the inevitable result of such “basic callousness”? These aren’t separate phenomena; rather, one is the cause of the other. Callousness seems woven into the DNA of the modern Republican Party, which is what made “compassionate conservatism” such a cynical sham. “Republicans have allowed themselves to be branded uniquely intolerant,” Johnson says later. In fact, they seem actively to have sought the label. As George Packer writes in the current New Yorker: “Republicans today have given the country conservatism in the spirit of Sarah Palin, whose ignorance about the world, contempt for expertise, and raw appeals to white identity politics presaged [Donald] Trump’s incendiary campaign… Trump may be the bastard spawn of the Republican Party, but his parentage can’t be denied.”

Johnson himself generally avoids naming Republican names—though he presents Donald Trump, Jeb (“free stuff”) Bush, Richard (“southern strategy”) Nixon, and Barry Goldwater, scourge of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—as examples of who to not emulate. As to who from today’s GOP could assume the civil rights “mantle” (from Abraham Lincoln, presumably), he’s even more reticent, a silence that may speak for itself: Could a civil-rights Republican be birthed by the party as currently constituted? It’s not a facetious question; Johnson says “civil-rights Republicans don’t need to champion liberal policies, but only to ensure that conservative policies don’t leave blacks behind.” Is there a strategy for this? Who’s equipped to articulate it?

Conspicuous by his absence from Johnson’s piece is Ronald Reagan. Callousness and “inadvisable choices” might well have merited him mention as a cautionary example next to those others. He helped popularize the image of the “welfare queen” during his 1976 presidential campaign. Soon after receiving the 1980 nomination he gave a speech outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, using the phrase “states’ rights” just miles from where three civil rights workers had been killed in 1964. (Whether it was an intentional appeal to anti-civil rights southerners is still debated, but even David Brooks wrote in 2007 that “It’s callous, at least, to use the phrase 'states’ rights' in any context in Philadelphia. Reagan could have done something wonderful if he’d mentioned civil rights at the fair. He didn’t. And it’s obviously true that race played a role in the G.O.P.’s ascent.”) In 1982, thirty-three state agencies affiliated with the United States Commission on Civil Rights publicly charged Reagan with responsibility for a ''dangerous deterioration in the Federal enforcement of civil rights.'' The same year, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel R. Pierce (“the most the most prominent black official in the administration,” according to the New York Times) acknowledged the “insensitivity” to African Americans by the Reagan administration, citing its decision to let the Internal Revenue Service grant tax exemptions to private schools that discriminated, along with Reagan’s initial opposition to strengthening enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. It would be a positive development if a civil-rights Republican emerged, for as Johnson notes, civil rights is an issue for all Americans. But first it would seem to require a critical assessment of the party’s acclaimed patriarch—something to which the GOP over the last thirty-five years has developed practically a genetic aversion. These are the ties that bind, and they won't be loosened soon.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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