It is an article of faith among self-congratulatory liberals that the Republican Party built its old congressional majorities and won seven of the last 10 presidential elections by strategically exploiting racism and racial divisions, especially in the South. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently averred, “Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority.”
Republicans often say so themselves. Former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman told the NAACP, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization.” Jack Kemp, the GOP’s 1996 vice presidential candidate, praised Mr. Mehlman for his “repudiation of the Southern strategy.”
By contrast, the Democratic Party’s much longer and more extensive history of appealing to white racists is often swept under the rug. The Democrats today receive strong support from most American minorities and are often credited with their role in passing civil rights legislation.
It is this oversight that Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to two Republican presidents, seeks to rectify in “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past.” As Mr. Bartlett explains in the introduction, he wrote this book “for the same reason that those on the political left never let us forget Senator Joe McCarthy.” Or for that matter, that McCarthy was a Republican.
Mr. Bartlett reminds us that “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Cole Blease, James Byrnes, A. Mitchell Palmer, and Theodore Bilbo — some of the most notorious racists in American politics — were Democrats. Indeed, the extent of their bigotry and sheer nastiness was often shocking. Tillman was once quoted as saying that if all blacks were “shot like wild beasts the country would be better off,” before conceding such actions would be illegal. Bilbo complained about “Southern girls” having to “use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic [black] women.”
From its founding through the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the party of slavery. Southern Democratic elected officials were the architects and, well into the 1960s, the principal defenders of the Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws. Much of this history is well known, but Mr. Bartlett documents that the Democrats’ reliance on racism didn’t immediately melt away as the party began to take its more liberal, modern form.
Mr. Bartlett devotes a chapter to the progressive icon Woodrow Wilson. As president, Wilson segregated the federal workforce. He held a private viewing of the pro-Ku Klux Klan film “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House. Wilson was not only less supportive of equal rights for blacks than progressive Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt, but also relatively conservative ones like Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.
Supporters of Jim Crow were a part the early New Deal coalition, making Franklin D. Roosevelt reluctant to promote racial equality. Programs like the National Industrial Recovery Act effectively discriminated against blacks; Roosevelt elevated a Klansman to the Supreme Court. FDR and Adlai Stevenson included segregationists on their tickets. Stevenson carried only one state outside the old Confederacy in 1956. Even John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, often regarded as civil rights heroes, were actually late converts to the cause.
Any alleged Republican Southern Strategy pales in comparison to this record. As syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan once wrote, “Democrats had bedded down with segregationists for a century without censure.” But Mr. Bartlett is nevertheless somewhat unfair to today’s Democrats. The party of Andrew Jackson has little ideological continuity with the party of Barack Obama.
Once racial liberals within the party began speaking out for civil rights, the Jim Crow Democrats’ days were numbered. Within a generation, they were decisively defeated. Like the ex-segregationists who joined the GOP, such relics as Robert Byrd recanted their old views as the price for staying in power.
Mr. Bartlett makes no distinctions between the last generation of segregationist Democrats and Chris Dodd’s favorable comments about Sen. Byrd or James Webb’s admiration for his Confederate ancestors. Partisanship also distorts his portrait of Republicans, leading him to simultaneously praise their color-blindness and their role in expanding race-based affirmative action.
His minority outreach recommendations are unpersuasive. Republican advocacy for slavery reparations would be a nonstarter. The resulting debate would probably leave blacks more alienated from the GOP than before, much like Hispanics after the failure to pass an immigration amnesty. The argument that Democrats take blacks for granted has been used without effect for decades.
Mr. Bartlett’s book sets the record straight about the past. We’ll have to await another to address the future.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.