The former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Colin Powell, turned heads this past Sunday when he made several blunt criticisms of his own party’s lurch to the far right since the end of the George W. Bush administration. In front of millions of TV viewers, the usually mild-mannered […]
The former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Colin Powell, turned heads this past Sunday when he made several blunt criticisms of his own party’s lurch to the far right since the end of the George W. Bush administration. In front of millions of TV viewers, the usually mild-mannered Powell became a bomb-throwing black radical in the opinion of many conservatives when he stated on NBC’s Meet The Press program that a “dark vein of intolerance” runs through the GOP. It is a party in which many, he said, “still look down on minorities.”
Going further, Secretary Powell condemned the Republican leadership’s toleration of the clearly racist “birther” movement and comments by former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin that President Obama was “shucking and jiving” on the Benghazi terror attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya last year. From shouts of “you lie” during a State of the Union address to remarks that Obama is “lazy,” Powell pointedly called out a pattern of behavior that indicates what many on the left have recognized for a long time but what many so-called moderate Republicans have been loath to see or admit — that the modern GOP has become the party of white reaction.
The slow radicalization of the Republican Party has been well documented in the press and by academic scholars for several years now, and it has been covered in this space, among others, here, here, here and here. To recap the consensus that has emerged out of all this discussion: The Republican Party now caters almost exclusively to the ultra-wealthy, the modern courtiers and hangers-on of the ultra-wealthy and a culturally-reactionary base of lower-middle and middle-class rural and exurban voters based primarily in the South, the Great Plains and rural West.
In short, the GOP has, since the 1960s, been engaged in a complex strategy of political bait-and-switch wherein white-hot rhetoric on “God, Guns and Gays,” and racial dog whistles to bigoted audiences persuaded conservative populists to support an economic agenda that exclusively benefits Wall Street. This is essentially the argument put forth by Thomas Frank in his controversial book “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” and while there have been many critiques of this thesis, its basic premise nonetheless explains a great deal of the contradictions besetting the modern Republican Party.
Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats
A new book on the political life of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond offers an instructive insight into how the GOP came to be this way. Thurmond, the epitome of what it meant to be a Southern conservative, first came to national prominence in 1948 when, as governor of South Carolina, he led the far-right, segregationist Dixiecrats as their chosen candidate in that year’s presidential election. The Dixiecrats, as it might be surmised, were a splinter party formed by Southern Democrats with the expressed purpose of punishing President Harry Truman and Northern Democrats for desegregating the U.S. armed forces and for including a civil rights provision in the party platform at the 1948 Democratic National Convention.
To give you a sense of the man that Thurmond was and the type of politics he represented, it was while stumping as the Dixiecrat nominee for president that Thurmond famously stated, “That there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” If you can stomach it, you can listen to Thurmond’s infamous remarks here. The raucous cheers that come afterward are particularly sickening.
As an effort to derail Truman, the effort ultimately failed – but only just. Truman was widely considered to be a sure-loser in 1948, and it is from that election that we get the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” picture where a triumphant President Truman holds aloft the front-page of the Chicago Tribune, a conservative paper that, like much of the rest of the country, was so sure of Truman’s coming defeat that it printed a glaringly wrong post-election headline before the results were in. Truman won, yes, but the Democrats’ schism on race was now open and festering, for the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond, succeeded in winning 39 electoral votes and four Southern states.
Politics being what it was, the Dixiecrats faded away as an organized party, but they nonetheless remained a powerful voting bloc in the Democratic caucus that consistently stymied civil rights legislation. In the aftermath of the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court that struck down separate but equal provisions, Thurmond, who was by now a U.S. senator, penned the first version of the so-called Southern Manifesto – a declaration of “constitution principles” that endorsed states’ rights and racial segregation. Later, in 1957, the evil Mr. Thurmond did his own version of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” only instead of standing up for the little guy as Jimmy Stewart’s iconic Mr. Smith did in that Frank Capra classic, Sen. Thurmond stood up for the malignant cancer of Southern apartheid. His one-man stand against progress and racial reconciliation on the floor of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes – the longest speech by one many ever given in that body.
As time progressed and the Democratic Party became more and more controlled by Northern liberals, Southern Democrats grew less and less enchanted with the New Deal Coalition created by Franklin Roosevelt. Even though that coalition had spent untold amounts on addressing the South’s endemic economic underdevelopment, which politicians like Thurmond gladly took credit for, that largess was nothing compared to the threat to the South’s cherished institutions posed by desegregation. In hindsight, the rupture, when it came, was inevitable.
How times (and political parties) change
The second, permanent break with the Democrats came in 1964 with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation by Congressional Democrats and Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Strom Thurmond, once again taking up the mantle of legalized white supremacy, switched parties to become a Republican in response. Thurmond’s switch was the first in a long line of Republican victories in the South which would, by the end of the century, turn the once solidly Democratic South bright Republican red.
That was down the road, however. At the time, Thurmond’s switch was repudiated by mainstream Republicans like Michigan Governor George W. Romney and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who were repulsed by the new Southern branch of the Republican Party and the racist zealots who comprised it.
Indeed, by all accounts, Sen. Thurmond’s constituency of “Dixiecrats, John Birchers, far-right business types and Christian fundamentalists,” were derided as kooks by moderate Republicans even though it was “Thurmond Republicans” who chalked up Republican Goldwater’s only victories outside his native Arizona in the presidential election of that year.
Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, landslide loss that it was, did well in the Deep South precisely because it mined what Secretary Powell would later call the “dark veins of intolerance” that fortified Southern resistance to federally-imposed desegregation. From then on, Dixie constituencies became a new source of dynamism and power for the Republican Party. As it grew, Southern conservatives – the kooky collection of Dixiecrat racists, John Birchers, far-right business types and Christian fundamentalists that Thurmond fashioned into the new Southern branch of the Republican Party in 1964 – became an ever-more important part of the modern, national Republican Party.
“Thurmond Republicans” both inside and outside the South have by now become so powerful within the party that they effectively are the GOP, or so close as to make no difference. Both Nixon and Reagan paid homage to Thurmond Republicans, and George W. Bush’s campaign quashed Goldwater’s heir in South Carolina – the home of Thurmond Republicanism – by spreading rumors that John McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter was actually a black child he had illegitimately fathered. A charge that arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond himself was ironically guilty of.
Though George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” what the nation got was Thurmond Republicanism in its purest form – a half-baked mélange of tax-cutting, borrow-and-squander right-wing idiocy that pursued a militant policy abroad and reactionary politics at home. Failure and ruin were the natural result of extremism of this type, and when the dust settled in 2008, all that remained after the votes were counted were the enraged partisans of the party of Thurmond, who somehow believed that “their” country had been stolen from them.
Since then, it has been the Thurmond Republicans who would go on to fuel the tea party movement in 2010, empower congressional obstructionism in 2012 and fight the bitter, just-finished presidential race of 2012 all in the name of “taking back” a country that was never theirs in the first place.
Rebuking the Republican Party
That a man like Colin Powell could not see the modern GOP for what it is until this past Sunday is a striking example of the art of political masking and individual self-deception. Powell, as a career military man, grew up professionally in an inherently conservative institution that, for all its faults, was to become one of the most deeply integrated organizations in America in the latter half of the 20th century.
Powell’s own triumphant climb to the top ranks of the armed forces – well before Obama’s political breakthrough – was and is proof to the degree to which merit and hard work, regardless of background, can take you to the top in the U.S. military. His adoption of moderate Republicanism as his avowed political philosophy, in turn, no doubt reflects his life experience as well as the political orientation of the politicians and powers he served for so long as first a soldier and then a diplomat.
That moderate Republicanism, however, has turned out to be just a façade – a political Potemkin village meant to fool the gullible and unwary. Lurking just behind, like the man behind the curtain, was the party Strom Thurmond gave birth to and which used moderates like Powell in order to push a Southern-fried, right-wing agenda that aimed to turn all of America into a colder version of Thurmond’s Dixie.
With the mask of moderation ripped off, the party of Thurmond is today revealed as one that stands for nothing except an obsequious obedience to wealth, the demonization of foreigners, the denigration of minorities and the purveyance of ignorant, fundamentalist religion.
Thurmond’s party is, as it has always been, a white nationalist party, and it is the glaring white nationalism of the tragically devolved party of Lincoln that Colin Powell had to finally acknowledge and rebuke this past Sunday.