The Republican Party, Race-Baiting, and Reconstruction’s Legacy

A campaign button worn by so-called "Reagan Democrats:" blue collar white northerners worried that Democrats had caved to black interests.

A 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign button worn by so-called “Reagan Democrats:” blue-collar white northerners worried that Democrats had caved to black interests.

Its become a truism in modern American politics that the Republican Party traffics in coded racial resentment. Dog-whistle phrases like “taxes,” “welfare,” “food stamps,” “dependency,” “entitlement reform,” or, if you’re the non-too-subtle former Pennsylvania senator Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” have helped relay the message to status-anxiety ridden working and middle class whites that the GOP will protect them from the welfare scrounging black hordes.

With good reason, the GOP’s use of racial resentment to win votes is considered a twentieth-century century phenomenon, but it also has deep roots in the nineteenth century Reconstruction era, when the intersection of race and class planted the seeds of racial resentment that show a clear link between the party of Abraham Lincoln and the party of, well, the Tea Party.

In terms of twentieth-century century politics, conservative racial dog whistling is the legacy of the so-called “Southern Strategy:” the campaign by Republican operatives to court the political support of traditionally Democratic white southerners by appealing to their latent, and not-so-latent racism against African-Americans. In the 1960s the Democratic Party, aligned with some moderate northern Republicans, embraced the Civil Rights movement. But taking the high road on civil rights was a big political risk: President Lyndon Johnson famously stated that signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would cost the Democratic Party southern white support for a generation, and he was, in many ways, correct.

Republicans operatives like the notorious Lee Atwater turned Democrats’ embracing of civil rights into a vote-getting strategy that played on the racial resentment of southern and northern whites and turned them into solid Republicans. These efforts first bore conservative fruit in Richard Nixon’s 1968 landslide “law and order” election, but the “Southern Strategy” continued to reap electoral harvest in the 1980s by creating blocs of blue-collar, white, conservative “Reagan Democrats” who switched parties to propel the Gipper to back-to-back terms in the White House.

The culmination of the “Southern Strategy,” however, came after Reagan, in the form of the so-called “Republican Revolution” of 1994 that saw the now largely southernized GOP, led by a degenerate, rotten Georgia peach named Newt Gingrich take control of Congress for the first time in forty years. Since 1994, the southernization of the GOP has spread beyond Dixie, making the southern politics of resentment a country-wide phenomenon. In the era of Barack Obama, the Tea Party infused GOP is anchored by a radically conservative wing that draws its strongest support from rural areas inside, and outside of, the South.

So effective has been the “Southern Strategy” at creating an army of dedicated troglodytes fuelled in part by racial resentment that Salon’s Joan Walsh, in an intentionally provocative article, argues that the current government shutdown over Obamacare is rooted in the modern GOP’s penchant for race-baiting:

You’ll read lots of explanations for the [shutdown] dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.

Nixon begat the "Southern Strategy," which eventually begat a lot of Reagan Democrats.

Nixon begat the “Southern Strategy,” which eventually begat a lot of Reagan Democrats.

There’s no question that much of Walsh’s assertion rings true, but it suggest that the Republican Party’s transition from the Civil War era party of emancipation and black political rights into the party of white racial resentment was a deeply radical shift. But this transformation wasn’t as revolutionary as Wash and others think. In fact, racial resentment over issues of welfare and work go all the way back to the nineteenth century and Reconstruction, drawing a clear — if not always straight — line from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party.

In her excellent book The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, historian Heather Cox Richardson explains that the potent interconnectedness of free labor, class conflict, and race laid the groundwork for the Republican Party’s abandonment of African-Americans by linking the unappealing idea of welfare to blackness. The Republican Party was founded on the notion of free labor; that an individual’s own hard work and dedication would enable them to rise to success in an equal-opportunity capitalist market system. Free labor ideology assumed a harmony between labor and capital based on the belief that each had a shared investment in increased production and national economic growth.

Other groups of Americans, however, such as northern factory workers and former slaves in the South, pointed out that the relationship between labor and capital was often one of class conflict, not harmony. Freed people in the South knew this all too well; they faced economic resistance against their demands for land and fairly compensated labor from planters, sharecroppers, and northern investors seeking a compliant southern agricultural workforce. But southern blacks also faced political obstacles to their economic success: racially discriminatory southern laws known as Black Codes limited freed people’s ability to vote, testify in court, hold a job, and own land, and the rise of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan further curtailed black civil rights.

In response to these abuses, African-Americans called on the Republican Party controlled federal government to redress these outrages. Blacks demanded that the Freedmen’s Bureau — a federal agency formed to assist African-Americans’ transition from slavery to freedom — grant them access to land, and they demanded that Republicans enforce black civil rights and provide access to social services like education when necessary. Many northern Republicans viewed such demands as evidence that southern blacks rejected the free labor ideal and its notions of self-reliance and hard work.*

As Cox Richardson writes, southern blacks’ demands for economic and political justice fuelled “Northern anxiety about an expanding government in the hands of those unwilling to work, who would enact welfare-type legislation to confiscate the property of the true workers in America.”* It was this idea, that blacks only wanted welfare at someone else’s (read: white people’s) expense, that provided much justification for the 1877 Republican retreat from Reconstruction, in which federal troops were removed from the South and racist southern Democrats regained “home rule” and passed laws relegating blacks to second class citizenship.

January 1879 cartoon from Harper's Weekly despicting "Mr. Solid South" writing out the straegy of racial resentment: The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites."

January 1879 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly despicting “Mr. Solid South” writing out the straegy of racial resentment: The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites.”

What Cox Richardson calls the “Northern abandonment of those African-Americans who seemed to reject the free labor system of political economy in favor of exploiting government for their own ends” is the same fear that led to the “Southern Strategy” catching fire with northern and southern working and middle class whites who flocked to the GOP in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.*

Indeed, concerns that black “young bucks” and “welfare queens” were taking advantage of government to mooch from hard-working (read: white) Americans have driven Republican voter turnouts from the successful Nixon campaign to the failed Romney campaign. Racial resentment is also a significant factor in the Tea Party movement that has sunken its grubby maws into Republican congressional hides and driven the party to shut down the federal government in a hostage-taking effort to destroy Obamacare.

Contrary to popular thinking, the combustible mix of racial resentment and class conflict has been a significant influence on the Republican Party since the Reconstruction era. The legacy of Reconstruction, in turn, helps explain the clear connection between the party of Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” and the party of anti-Obamacare, Tea Party numbscullery that is plaguing the American political system today.

See Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), xii-xiv, xii.

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