Dems, Republicans, And The 'Party Of Civil Rights'

In light of John McCain’s appearance before the NAACP’s national convention, Bruce Bartlett makes the case in a WSJ op-ed that McCain should arg

In light of John McCain’s appearance before the NAACP’s national convention, Bruce Bartlett makes the case in a WSJ op-ed that McCain should argue that the Republican Party, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, is the party of civil rights. (If this sounds familiar, Bartlett wrote a book on this subject, called “Wrong on Race.”)

Everyone knows this, but it’s worth repeating: the Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln and was established in 1854 to block the expansion of slavery. The Democratic Party was the party of slavery. […]

After the war, it was the Republican Party that rammed through the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution over Democratic opposition…. Historically speaking, the Republican Party has a far better record on race than the Democrats. Sen. McCain should not be shy about saying so.

This comes less than two weeks after the National Black Republican Association put up billboards in Florida and South Carolina saying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican (a claim which is demonstrably ridiculous).

Now, we’ve been down this road before, but if the right sincerely intends to push this argument again this election year, we might as well go to the trouble of pointing out how foolish — and frankly, intellectually lazy — this entire tack really is.

The inescapable fact is, the Republican Party of the 19th century bears no resemblance to, and has no bearing on, the modern-day Republican Party. The problem isn’t that Bartlett’s history is wrong; it’s that his history is irrelevant and badly misses the point.

One need not have a doctorate in American history to know that the nation’s two major political parties have shifted significantly for the better part of nearly two centuries. The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to competing constituencies — southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with a progressive, inclusive agenda.

On race, Democrats changed and became the party of civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, changed and became the home of racists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party.


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As Matt Yglesias recently argued:

Decades ago, the Democratic Party was, among other things, the political home of white supremacy in the United States. In the 1960s, the party’s leadership decisively broke with that record. At around the same time, part of the rise of the conservative movement inside the Republican Party was the growing prominence of folks like Barry Goldwater who opposed the Civil Rights Act and who found in his 1964 campaign that the main electoral constituency for his brand of conservatism was … white supremacists. Other white supremacist politicians (some of whom, unlike Goldwater, would forever remain unrepentant) like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms moved into the GOP column. And of course while explicit advocacy of segregation has long since vanished from the top ranks of the Republican Party, major conservative leaders have been heard in recent years issuing paens to the work of Thurmond and Helms, with key legislative leaders specifically regretting that Thurmond’s 1948 white supremacist presidential campaign failed, and pointing to Helms as exemplifying what conservatism is all about.

Bartlett’s central point seems to be that voters should be aware of the parties’ pasts, because the Dems’ generations-old record has to matter. I’m very much inclined to agree — because that party broke from that past to become champions of civil rights. Equally important, then, is the Republicans’ present — the party not only welcomed the racists who left the Democrats, they became the party of the “Southern Strategy,” opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, Katrina, boycotting minority debates, and opposing legislative remedies to problems that affect the African-American community most.

Ultimately, this isn’t much of a campaign pitch: “Vote Republican: The Party Was Right Before It Was Wrong.”

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