Normally it is impossible for an individual to choose the family that she or he will be born into. The Modern Republican Party defied the impossible, and chose the family that it wanted to be born into: that of Jim Crow.
Or perhaps we should say “James” Crow because the Modern Republican Party (hereafter MRP) has tried since the Civil Rights Movement to dignify as well as obscure its association with the raw, unsophisticated Jim Crow racism of pre-civil rights America. Raw racism may be “out” today, but stirring racial animosity is definitely “in” for the MRP and its leaders.
Given the civil rights achievements of the 1960s, the MRP’s leadership – men like Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Lee Atwater – sensed that the vast majority of Americans would no longer support or attend public lynchings and similar blatant displays of hate-filled racism. Yet the MRP also sensed that angry Whites would support “milder” procedures (such as today’s Voter ID laws) that would allow racial animus to vent itself.
For example, many racially animated American citizens came to support deep tax cuts, as shown with Reagonomics, precisely because such cuts were perceived as hurting “lazy” people on welfare, especially people of color and their alleged exploitation of social services. Never mind that these tax cuts actually favored the richest Americans as well as powerful corporations. That reality was obscured by talk of punishing welfare cheats.
Joining James Crow
The founders of the MRP might have chosen to be born into the political family descended from Abraham Lincoln, one of the founders of the original Republican Party. They might have chosen to understand the human and historical importance of Civil Rights legislation and Voting Rights legislation, and might have chosen to lend their support to the progress – however fitful – that the USA has made over 200+ years in its efforts to end racial discrimination.
But they discerned another future for Lincoln’s party. They saw that they could profit politically from the anger, however inchoate or misdirected, of millions of Americans who were unhappy with Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. They allied themselves with the poisoned, debilitating ideals of the Jim Crow tradition.
Of course, they did not say they were adopting Jim Crow. They said they were adopting the Southern strategy. They wanted the American electorate to believe that, for the good of the nation, they had chosen to be the political party that was built on the perceived pillars of strength of the southern American states – justice for all (with special justice for Caucasian people); patriotism (with emphasis on military and civilian gun-driven patriotism); and respect for God (with special respect for a Christian God). The MRP then sold the idea that its “Southern” strategy would push American democracy to new heights of national glory.
To this end, efforts at inter-racial harmony were cast aside. In the chaos of the 1960s, the MRP reacted against the perceived cultural decline driven by supposedly dissolute hippies, psychedelic drugs, and traitorous demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Under the surface of these (mis)remembered events, powerful and well-known currents of thought and action, welling up from polluted springs, have continued to flow.
The currents that kept the family of Jim Crow alive and well for a hundred years rebounded in strength as the leaders of the MRP reached ever higher levels of intuitive, and conscious, understanding of the connections among political emotions, political power, and the modern media machine.
Unhinged rhetoric about the threat posed by hippies and drugs and demonstrations and war in Vietnam camouflaged a deeper and insidious reality of prolonging the progeny and power of James Crow. An orchestrated campaign of resistance to Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation was flowing in the midst of a tumbling, roaring stream of events. The roar of those chaotic times distracted many Americans from why Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation had been so desperately needed in the first place.
Language became camouflage. Code words hid a deeper reality of the Modern Republican Party’s maintenance and support of the family of James Crow. Language took the form of phrases that could be processed by a mind in more than one way, depending on how the mind perceiving the phrases was wired, or what the mind needed to find a comfortable explanation for. Talk of “trickle-down economics” or balanced budgets or austerity worked to keep taxes on the rich down even as governmental spending increased, with corporations benefiting the most from the latter.
The hidden meaning of “cut taxes” became for many “cut funding for programs that help the poor, especially people of color.” The rationale went something like this: The poor do not work anyway. They are victims of a system that debilitates them. It debilitates them because it facilitates a desire to ride free on a bus whose expenses the poor do not contribute to. It would be better for the debilitation to stop, for the bus to stop running, for taxes to be cut.
Government was the problem, not the solution, as Reagan famously put it. To rein it in, you had to starve it of funds. Especially funds for social programs.
Meanwhile, “voting rights” quietly became an expression infused with challenge, the challenge being to find words that would deny the need for voting rights legislation. “Affirmative action” also became a polarizing term. To some it suggested ways to give opportunities to people of quality who in the past had been denied those opportunities, often because of their skin color. To others it suggested ways to deny, in the name of righting past racial wrongs, opportunities to qualified people because of the color of their (usually white) skin.
Thus Whites, in this racialized construct, became the new victims of racism, slaves to a system stacked against them. Or so the narrative went within the MRP.
In joining the Family of James Crow, the MRP abandoned the high ideals of America, tapping into the racial animosities of the angry, the ignorant, the gullible. The racially-driven machinations of the Modern Republican Party have served further to divide ordinary Americans, even as the richest Americans have profited from those machinations.
Small wonder the MRP continues to lean ever more rightward today even as it descends into bitterness and obstruction. Such is the ugly fate of joining the Family of James Crow.
Matthew Jacobson is a lifelong student of the history of American politics.