Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Say, whatever happened to Strom Thurmond anyway?

Jonathan Chait has a pretty excellent takedown of Kevin Williamson's "the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights" piece at National Review. Two points I'd like to add:

• Chait doesn't frame it in quite these terms, but Williamson's piece is heavily dependent on him ignoring the history of his own magazine and its founder, William F. Buckley, who opposed civil rights legislation on frankly white supremacist grounds:
The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. … 
National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Emphasis added. Buckley, it's worth noting, later recanted his opposition to civil rights.

Williamson doesn't mention this history because it disrupts his thesis, to say the least. (I imagine he might respond by noting that National Review is a conservative publication, not a Republican one, but—as Chait suggests—that would then undermine his efforts to pin racism on the Democrats, and liberals by extension.)

• It's also fascinating to me that Williamson's piece has exactly one mention of the late, great Strom Thurmond:
In Congress, (Lyndon) Johnson had consistently and repeatedly voted against legislation to protect black Americans from lynching. As a leader in the Senate, Johnson did his best to cripple the Civil Rights Act of 1957; not having votes sufficient to stop it, he managed to reduce it to an act of mere symbolism by excising the enforcement provisions before sending it to the desk of President Eisenhower. Johnson’s Democratic colleague Strom Thurmond nonetheless went to the trouble of staging the longest filibuster in history up to that point, speaking for 24 hours in a futile attempt to block the bill. The reformers came back in 1960 with an act to remedy the deficiencies of the 1957 act, and Johnson’s Senate Democrats again staged a record-setting filibuster.
Well, say. Whatever happened to Strom Thurmond anyway?

Well, he didn't stay a Democrat. He jumped to the Republican Party on Sept. 16, 1964.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted two months earlier, a resounding defeat—by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, yes—of legislation Thurmond had spent a career opposing.

Of course, correlation doesn't equal causation. Why did Thurmond switch parties at that point?

According to the New York Times' contemporaneous coverage, Thurmond's move was widely seen as leaving the Democratic Party for passing the Civil Rights bill—and as the beginning of an effort by Southern Republicans to woo Democrats disaffected over the issue.

Thurmond officially came out at a Barry Goldwater rally. The New York Times noted this:
Leander Perez, the ultraconservative Louisiana political leader who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for his violent opposition to integration of schools, attended the rally. 
Mr. Perez sat with Senator Thurmond throughout the speech applauding frequently.
Put it this way: Thurmond—whose political career was built on a defense of segregation and white supremacy—didn't leave the Democrats because he thought the Republican Party was a vigorous supporter of civil rights.

Williamson never deals with this—the only mention of Thurmond is to call him a "Democrat." He never deals with Jesse Helms and his conversion to the Republican Party.

I don't think being a Republican makes you racist—certainly not in the 21st century. But I think it's beyond factual dispute that the Republican Party made electoral hay out of Southern racial resentments in the first few decades following the 1964 bill. Williamson usually strikes me as one of National Review's smarter, more intellectually honest writers. But his failure to deal with some key issues—and even some misdirection, in the case of Thurmond—is contrary to that reputation.

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