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The Democratic Party’s Legacy of Racism

Editorial

December 2002

by Mackubin T. Owens

Under pressure from fellow Republicans, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott recently stepped down from his post as Senate Majority Leader because of racially offensive comments he made earlier in the month. He was persuaded to take this step by Republicans who believed that his comments were at odds with the principles of their party.

Of course, Democrats have used the Lott affair to pillory the Republicans as racists. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who had first dismissed the idea that Sen. Lott was a racist, later claimed that his stepping down did not really address the Republican Party’s inherent racism. "Republicans have to prove, not only to us, of course, but to the American people that they are as sensitive to this question of racism, this question of civil rights, this question of equal opportunity, as they say they are," Senator Daschle told CNN. Among high-profile Democrats, Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer offered similar comments.

It’s about time that Republicans quit pussy-footing around on the issue of race. They need to point out that in both principle and practice, the Republican Party has a far better record than the Democrats on race. Even more importantly, they need to stress that on the issues that most affect African-Americans today, the Democratic position represents racism of the most offensive sort—a patronizing racism that denigrates Blacks every bit as badly as the old racism of Jim Crow and segregation.

Republicans can begin by observing that their Party was founded on the basis of principles invoked by Abraham Lincoln. He himself recurred to the principles of the American Founding, specifically the Declaration of Independence, so we can say that the principles of the Republican Party are the principles of the nation. In essence these principles hold that the only purpose of government is to protect the equal natural rights of individual citizens. These rights inhere in individuals, not groups, and are antecedent to the creation of government. They are the rights invoked by the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not happiness, but the pursuit of happiness.

We should remember that the Republican Party was created in response to a crisis arising from the fact that American public opinion on the issue of slavery had drifted away from the principles of the Founding. While the Founders had tolerated slavery out of necessity, many Americans, especially within the Democratic Party, had come to accept the idea that slavery was a "positive good." While Thomas Jefferson, the founder of what evolved into the Democratic Party, had argued that slavery was bad not only for the slave but also for the slave owner, John C. Calhoun, had turned this principle on its head: slavery was good not only for the slave holder, but also for the slave.

Calhoun’s fundamental enterprise was to defend the institution of slavery. To do so, he first had to overturn the principles of the American Founding. He started with the Declaration of Independence, arguing that "[the proposition ’all men are created equal’] as now understood, has become the most false and dangerous of all political errors….We now begin to experience the danger of admitting so great an error to have a place in the declaration of independence." Thus Calhoun transformed the Democratic Party of Jefferson into the Party of Slavery.

The most liberal position among ante-bellum Democrats regarding slavery was that slavery was an issue that should be decided by popular vote. For example, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1858 Illinois senate race and the 1860 presidential campaign, advocated "popular sovereignty." He defended the right of the people in the territories to outlaw slavery, but also defended the right of Southerners to own slaves and transport them to the new territories.

The Democratic Party’s war against African-Americans continued after the Civil War (which many Democrats in fact opposed, often working actively to undercut the Union war effort). Democrats, both north and south fought the attempt to implement the equality for African-Americans gained at such a high cost. This opposition was often violent. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan operated as the de facto terrorist arm of the national Democratic Party during Reconstruction.

Democrats defeated Reconstruction in the end and on its ruins created Jim Crow. Democratic liberalism did not extend to issue of race. Woodrow Wilson was the quintessential "liberal racist," a species of Democrat that later included the likes of William Fulbright of Arkansas, Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and Albert Gore, father of Al, of Tennessee.

In the 1920s, the Republican Party platform routinely called for anti-lynching legislation. The Democrats rejected such calls in their own platforms. When FDR forged the New Deal, he was able to pry Blacks away from their traditional attachment to the Party of Lincoln. But they remained in their dependent status, Democrats by virtue of political expediency, not principle.

As the incomparable Ann Coulter has observed, when Strom Thurmond, the praise of whom landed Sen. Lott in hot water, ran a segregationist campaign in 1948, he ran as a Dixie-CRAT, not a Dixie-CAN. When he lost, he went back to being a Democrat. He only repudiated his segregationist views when he later became a Republican

Even the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which supposedly established the Democrats’ bona fides on race, was passed in spite of the Democrats rather than because of them. Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen pushed the bill through the Senate, despite the no-votes of 21 Democrats, including Gore Sr. and Robert Byrd, who remains a powerful force in the Senate today. In contrast, only four Republicans opposed the bill, mostly like Barry Goldwater on libertarian principles, not segregationist ones.

Indeed, the case of Sen. Byrd is instructive when it comes to the double standard applied to the two parties when it comes to race. Even those Democrats who have exploited the Lott affair acknowledge that he is no racist. Can the same be said about Sen. Byrd, who was a member of the KKK and who recently used the "n" word on national TV?

"Ah, but this is all in the past," say the Democrats. "Now we push a pro-African-American agenda." But the reality differs significantly from the claim.

Take the issue of education. The single biggest obstacle to the achievement of true equality in the United States is not poverty, but education. If Democrats sincerely wished to help the minority children on whose behalf they claim to labor, they would embrace school choice to help such children escape the trap of sub-standard schools. But that would offend the teachers’ unions upon which the Democrats depend for financial and "in-kind" support. So as has often been the case with the group politics of the Democratic party, African-American interests are sacrificed to other groups who have more pull.

"Affirmative action" has become the touchstone of Democratic racial politics. Democrats portray anyone who opposes affirmative action as racist. But affirmative action, as currently practiced, is racist to the core. It is based on the assumption that African-Americans are incapable of competing with whites. It represents the kind of paternalistic racism that would have done honor to Calhoun. For the modern liberal Democratic racist as for the old-fashioned one, blacks are simply incapable of freedom. They will always need Ol’ Massa’s help. And woe be to any African-American who wanders off of the Democratic plantation. Ask Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, or Ward Connerly. Although they echo the call for a "color-blind society" that once characterized the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., they are pilloried as "Uncle Toms" of "Oreos" by such enforcers of the Democratic plantation system as Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton.

If we need the perfect symbol for the true character of the Democratic Party when it comes to race, we need look no farther than Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy. Rep. Kennedy portrays himself as a friend of African-Americans. But his touching solicitude for African-Americans as a group is gross hypocrisy. When inconvenienced by a real African-American woman trying to do her job, Rep. Kennedy shoved her out of his way, giving her arm a yank for good measure. In practice, the Democratic Party as a whole cares as much about real African-Americans as Rep. Kennedy does.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.

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