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Bruce Bartlett: Historian? Logician? Or Hack?

Thursday, July 17, 2008
Bruce Bartlett wrote yesterday asserting that the Republican Party is America's real civil rights party. To make this counterintuitive case he points to perfectly accurate historical facts: that for its first 100 years, Republican Presidents and members of Congress had a far better civil rights record than the Democrats, who were more often that not the party of segregation. He also takes a swipe at Franklin Roosevelt, who had big majorities but refused to do a thing for black Americans.

Notice anything interesting about this argument? Well, the principal actors in it are all dead. It's ancient history. Beginning in the 1960's, the Republicans prostituted their legacy of social justice in order to win over segregationist whites. Bartlett amusingly ignores the emergence of Republicans in the South at the precise moment the Democratic Party pushed for civil rights, or that very same segregationist whites flocked to Barry Goldwater in 1964, George Wallace in 1968, and Richard Nixon in 1972. Saying that Republicans are the civil rights party based on history is like saying that Democrats are historically in favor of states rights, or that Japan is expansionist, or that Christians think slavery is cool. Well sure, those statements all used to be true - A really long time ago. But Bartlett's facts are about obsolete as black and white TVs or record players.

As an aside, I'm not sure how much Republicans really cared about civil rights even before the 1960's. It made perfect sense for FDR to avoid civil rights, since his coalition was based on the South. But that wasn't true of the Republicans in the first part of the twentieth century. They had huge majorities too, and did precisely zero for civil rights at a time in which they would have paid very little price - the South wasn't voting for them anyway. Heck, Eisenhower could have passed civil rights in 1954-54 if he'd felt like it. But he didn't.

What's most offensive about Bartlett's piece is its subtext. He thinks African American voters are stupid: either stupid because they don't know their history, or (more likely) stupid for swallowing his ridiculous arguments. But of course they're not stupid. African Americans are acutely aware of where their political interests are. Unlike other groups I could name that do believe whatever Republican hacks tell them, however destructive the GOP is to their interests. Not that I'll name those groups. That would be mean.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:30 AM
  • Both Bartlett and you present flawed arguments. You both operate under the assumption that political parties can be separated analytically from time and place, as if parties follow their own logic and rules without regard to geography.

    The states above the Mason-Dixon line have historically been for Civil Rights, with regard to African-Americans, because they didn't pay an economic price for it. The merchant class and industrial states allowed progressive racial politics because those politics didn't threaten economic foundations. The Southern Agrarian economy depended on slave labor, and after the Civil War cheap labor, for its foundations. The slave economy supported the de facto caste system and social hierarchy that went with it.

    Whichever party draws its votes from the Northeast and Midwest is going to be more in favor of progressive racial politics than the party that represents the southern states. But politics regarding women, or gay rights, can be just as backwards in the Northern states as the southern states.

    So look past the parties and look at the regional political dynamics. Who cares which party has a better civil rights record? The better question is which states have better civil rights and equal rights records. The Party will adapt to the state and the region.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 11:43 AM  
  • What you're saying isn't wrong, it's just irrelevant. Of course the regional basis of the two parties influences their positions on civil rights (although one could just as easily say that their positions determine their regional bases). But that's really not the point. We're talking about which party has a better record on civil rights - not which region supports given policies.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 3:17 PM  
  • The discussion that you are framing has no meaning. The region determines party policies by filtering what parties can and cannot achieve. Eisenhower, as you mentioned, could have easily passed Civil Rights legislation because his based of support was in the Northeastern states. The same could be said of Nelson Rockefeller, who did sponsor socially progressive legislation as Governor of New York (as Richard Norton Smith wrote in the NYT recently). Any Republican governor of a Northern state is likely to have a better record on Civil Rights Post-WWII America than any Democratic Governor of a Southern state in the same period.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 8:35 PM  
  • I'm not "framing" anything, whatever that means. I was simply saying that Bruce Bartlett's observations were silly, and why.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:13 PM  
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