When Herman Cain won the Republican presidential straw poll in Florida last weekend, countless conservative bloggers and pundits saw it as proof that there’s no racism in the GOP, no matter what some people have said.
It was argued that this victory by a black candidate, especially in a Southern state, should lay to rest forever any notions of racial bigotry even among Southern Republicans.
But that’s illogical on several counts.
For starters, the straw poll did not represent a cross-section of Florida Republicans. Participants in the balloting paid $175 each for the privilege. These were died-in-the-wool party activists, not just ordinary Republican voters.
For another thing, Florida is not your typical Southern state, and its Republicans are not your typical Southern Republicans. Florida voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008. Can that be said of any other Southern state?
And then there’s the matter of Herman Cain’s share of the straw poll votes. He got 37 percent, while the remaining 63 percent were unevenly divided among seven other candidates. Granted, Cain’s share was twice as much as that for any of his rivals, but it was a far sight from a majority — and a far sight from a ringing rejection of racism. In fact, it said nothing at all about racism, one way or the other.
Imagine, if you will, a Republican straw poll in which 37 percent of participants cast their ballots for the lone gay candidate in the race, while the other 63 percent of the vote was divided among seven non-gay candidates. Would that prove that the GOP had rejected homophobia? Of course not.
There are, in fact, polls showing that a majority of rank-and-file Republicans support the right of gays to serve openly in the U.S. military. But there’s still a virulent streak of homophobia in the GOP. Some Republicans, including some who hold public office, argue that homosexuality is a moral evil that poses a grave threat to the social fabric of America.
With regard to Cain’s victory in Florida, it was anecdotally reported that some of the votes for him were intended to send a message to the pre-poll favorite, Rick Perry, who had riled the right wing a few days earlier with his comments in defense of state aid to the children of illegal immigrants. People who disagree with him on that matter, Perry said, “don’t have a heart.”
In any event, Cain’s 37 percent total means that 63 percent of the straw-poll votes were not in his favor. That doesn’t mean those votes for other candidates were cast by racists. It doesn’t necessarily have anything at all to do with race. The votes in favor of Cain no more disprove racism in the GOP than the votes for other candidates verify racism in the GOP.
But let’s take a look at a more reliable measure of racial attitudes among Republicans in another Southern state.
A recent scientific survey conducted by Public Policy Polling showed that 46 percent of likely Republican primary voters in Mississippi think that interracial marriage should be illegal. Another 14 percent said they weren’t sure, while only 40 percent of GOP voters said interracial marriage should remain legal, as it has been in that state since 1966. Putting it another way, only a minority of Mississippi Republicans are OK with the idea of whites marrying blacks. If that’s not racism, I don’t what is.
Mississippi is, of course, one of the most reliably conservative and Republican states in the Union — and it has been since the GOP launched its so-called Southern Strategy, the genesis of which dates way back.
The South was a Democratic bastion for more than 125 years — except for a period of 10 or 15 years after the Civil War, when Reconstruction measures gave Republicans a foothold in the old Confederacy. Eventually, however, Democratically-controlled Southern state legislatures enacted constitutions and statutes that disenfranchised blacks and established strict racial segregation in public accommodations. In that part of the country, the Democrats were the party of state’s rights, while the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, embraced relatively enlightened attitudes on matters of race. But then, gradually, the two parties began to change places.
Toward the middle of the 20th century, Northern Democrats became increasingly liberal with regard to the rights of African-Americans. President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, and the Democrats approved a civil rights plank in their party platform at the 1948 national convention. In response, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond led a Southern walkout from the convention and ran for president himself on the so-called Dixiecrat ticket.
The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, with increasing support from white Northern Democrats, further alienated Southerners from the party they had embraced for generations. The Democrats’ “Solid South,” as it was known, was solid no more.
When Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the stage was set for a massive Southern swing away from the Democratic Party. As Johnson himself put it at the time: “We have lost the South for a generation.”
Johnson’s Republican rival in the 1964 presidential election, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, laid the groundwork for GOP inroads in the South by opposing the new civil rights law and arguing for states’ rights. Not surprisingly, then, he carried Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. However, he lost almost everywhere else and was buried in a landslide.
Johnson’s immediate successor in the White House, Richard Nixon, eventually embraced what came to be known as the Southern Strategy. Nixon aide Kevin Philips outlined it thusly:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Shamelessly stated, right?
But that was more than 40 years ago, and American politics have changed a lot since then. Still, much of the South remains solidly Republican, and some of it remains more than a little racist, as that Mississippi poll on interracial marriage will attest.
Again, none of this is to say that anyone who is against Herman Cain — or against Barack Obama, for that matter — is necessarily a racist. But neither does Cain’s tally of 37 percent of the vote in an unrepresentative Republican straw poll in an unrepresentative Southern state absolve the GOP in particular or the South in general of all accusations of racism.
By the same token, Barack Obama’s electoral landslide in the 2008 election did not represent the end of racism in America. It was a hopeful sign that progress had been made in race relations, but much remains to be done on that score.