To be sure, there was plenty of active Racism in the South (and elsewhere in America) in the ’60s and ’70s, and varying degrees of subtle racism persisted afterward. Moreover, there are racist Republicans today, some of whom get elected to public office. There are also racist Democrats today. Some of them get elected to public office. But the question here is whether racial dynamics meaningfully define Republican policy or electoral success.
As ingrained as the racial narrative may be in certain quarters, the evidence admits of greater nuance. At the risk of inviting neo-Confederate aspersions, let’s consider economics (which usually factor so strongly in liberal worldviews):
[T]he shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth. In the postwar era, they note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the G.O.P. Working-class whites, however — and here’s the surprise — even those in areas with large black populations, stayed loyal to the Democrats. (This was true until the 90s, when the nation as a whole turned rightward in Congressional voting.) [My emphasis]
The two scholars support their claim with an extensive survey of election returns and voter surveys. To give just one example: in the 50s, among Southerners in the low-income tercile, 43 percent voted for Republican Presidential candidates, while in the high-income tercile, 53 percent voted Republican; by the 80s, those figures were 51 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Wealthy Southerners shifted rightward in droves but poorer ones didn’t.
To be sure, Shafer says, many whites in the South aggressively opposed liberal Democrats on race issues. “But when folks went to the polling booths,” he says, “they didn’t shoot off their own toes. They voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.”
Racists, just like everyone else, vote their interests. If Woodrow Wilson could find time in his progressive agenda of segregating the federal government to wage a Great War, promote human rights, and launch the precursors to the U.N., then presumably more modern racists can walk and chew gum. Thus it is unsurprising that racists do not, in fact, strongly favor any one party. There may be reason to suspect negative impressions of minorities might correlate somewhat with Republican voting habits (we will ignore, for simplicity’s sake, the question of racial friction from and between minorities), but that is a far cry from demonstrating the persistence of a “Grand Racist Party” that owes its electoral success and philosophical direction to ethnic antagonisms.
If the Republican Party isn’t racist and doesn’t rely on the racism of its constituents for electoral success or philosophical direction, then how do we explain the chasm of opinion and perspective between left and right?
The GOP has historically been the party of classical liberalism based in individual liberty — the bedrock of modern American conservatism. As such, themes like self-reliance, economic freedom, and equality before the law have been integral to Republican philosophy since the days of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In the past, these principles manifested in opposition to slavery and bigotry. More recently, they serve to check the engineering hands of an expansive welfare state and to ensure that government programs don’t become a hand down to ruin. The Republican Party is, as Lincoln put it, “for both the man and the dollar,” and its focus is on securing a robust economy.
By contrast, you may have noticed that the 2012 Democratic National Convention placed something of a premium on social issues. References to abortion, contraception, gay marriage, and immigration permeated the show as the Democratic Party wanted to remind and impress upon you that the Republicans are on the wrong side of history, demographics, and the uncanny valley of human-robot relations. By extension, you are to understand that proposals from the evil, benighted right to resolve our national fiscal troubles cannot possibly be good for anybody who isn’t rich, white, male, and heterosexual.