Friday, May 28, 2010

Rand Paul and the Ghost of Richard Nixon

One of the saddest parts of watching Rachel Maddow's interview with Rand Paul was seeing his honest perplexity at the idea that anyone could think that his view of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 indicated any racist proclivities on his part. As I said in my last post, I believe Paul is sincere when he says he has no racial animus. But this is what happens when a political naif and ideologue ventures unthinkingly into America's racial past.

Paul's big mistake was thinking that his libertarian views on the primacy of property rights could be separated from the intent of the Civil Rights Act. In a perfect world, that would be possible. In the fallen world of American political history, it is not.

Paul may not realize it, but in this case he has been haunted by the ghost of Richard Nixon. In 1968, the Nixon campaign subtly exploited the fact that LBJ had made the Democrats the party of civil rights to attract white votes. The so-called "Southern Strategy" became part and parcel of the political realignment that began with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it ultimately helped to convert the "solid South" from reliably Democratic to predictably Republican.

But it didn't begin there. The first presidential election after the passage of the act was just months later, between LBJ and Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona who voted against the Civil Rights Act. As Sam Tanenhaus notes in a fine article in the New York Times, Rand Paul used almost verbatim Barry Goldwater's 1964 defense of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. While Goldwater may not have intended people to take his opposition to the act as opposition to civil rights, many people did. In an election when over 60% of the general public voted for LBJ, Goldwater won six states. (By contrast, in 1984, when Ronald Reagan got 58.8% of the vote, his opponent Walter Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota.) In addition to his home state of Arizona, Goldwater also won five states of the deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Interestingly, of those six states, the margin of victory was smallest in his home state (50.4% to 49.5%), while in Mississippi he won a stunning 87% of the vote, and in Alabama nearly 70%.

While it is obvious that this sudden southern support for a Republican was due to his vote on the Civil Rights Act, it is just as obvious that a candidate cannot be held automatically responsible for why people vote for him. Goldwater's personal campaign rhetoric never indulged in race-baiting. But this campaign flyer, which urges a vote for Goldwater, explicitly stokes racial resentment. It shows a grim-faced white man, with the word "Fired" underneath, while a picture of a smiling black man appears over the word "Hired." The flyer falsely claims that the recently passed act means that whites could be fired for no reason and replaced with blacks: "you can lose your job because of Johnson's Civil Rights Bill. This your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism ... vote to protect your job ... your family ... your home." (The flyer anticipates by 26 years the infamous Jesse Helms "hands" ad from the 1990 senatorial campaign in North Carolina.) It ends with language that evokes what Paul has said: "Employers read this: This is your last chance to save your freedom to run your own business as you choose!"

Four years later, Nixon would more subtly stoke the same fears with the coded rhetoric of law and order, local control and states rights. He and the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would get a combined total vote similar to what LBJ received just four years earlier. The Democratic candidate, vice-president Hubert Humphrey, aptly described Nixon as a perfumed version of Wallace. As he had done 16 years earlier with another demagogue, Joe McCarthy, Nixon in 1968 presented a smarter, more respectable face for some some raw and rancid views. And it worked.

This is the political cesspool Rand Paul waded into with his comments on the Civil Rights Act. That a man could rise to the position of major party nominee for U.S. Senator without understanding this history is enough reason to keep him out of the Senate.


  1. Mark, this is so very well done, thank you. I can't get over how your writing is as accessible as good journalism, but with much more authority and historical "texture."

  2. Thanks, Bill. I think another one taking down David Brooks is firming up in my mind ...

  3. What did David Brooks do? Regardless, I will enjoy watching you take him down. Thanks for the history lesson in this ventry. I wish our electorate could all agree that it's shameful for candidates to be ignorant of history and political context for their positions.