Saturday, February 27, 2010

For Some of the Political Descendents of George Wallace, One Habit is Just a Bit Too Hard to Break

Now I just did a post on remembering the past, because I'd read an article in my hometown paper about the protesting of the segregation of the restaurant of a local (now defunct) department store. So just a bit ago, I was checking out The Daily Dish, and I saw this link to commentary from Jonathan Rauch over at the National Journal Magazine regarding the George Wallace-ization of the GOP. I had to write something.

Essentially, I agree with the article. It more than supports my long held contention that the GOP is essentially old school southern Democrats in GOP drag (especially with its tolerance of big government for programs and social issues it supports). By taking that view, and adding Rauch's perspective on Wallace, it makes perfectly good sense to see how conservatives of the Goldwater and/or Buckley strain could scratch their heads in wonderment at how these folks, these "Wallace 'conservatives,'" are actually conservatives.

My only real criticism of Rauch's argument is that he goes waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out of his way to remove race as a component of "Wallace 'conservatism,'" as though race does not play a role in the current iteration of that political phenomenon. I think that is incorrect and actually hinders the effectiveness of his argument.

Rauch argues that Wallace, unlike other politicians, gave voice to issues that his supporters found important: "easy money, dysfunctional welfare and perverse crime policies." I will admit that I am not quite sure what Rauch means by easy money (it might hit me later). But come on now, welfare and crime? For Wallace, and for people in that time period, those two issues generally had black faces, plain and simple. To that constituency, black folks came across as undeserving, ungrateful and violent welfare recipients. Government (and both parties) seemed to "give" blacks everything, and how did they show their appreciation? They rioted in the streets of American cities over and over again. By the time Wallace made his historic run for the White House, his supporters were tired of all things black, as well as the government programs that supported them financially and seemed to ignore their criminality.

I raise this to suggest that those voters, tired of both political parties for their seeming continued support for black folks at the expense of whites, found comfort in Wallace's populist and thinly veiled racist rhetoric. It was as though he told them that this would happen when you gave in to too many black demands. Wallace's supporters wanted a return of law and order. They wanted government to stop neglecting them. Again, Rauch is right that Wallace spoke to that need. Nixon, by laying the ground work for the "southern strategy," got that message (with Pat Buchanan's help) and pushed the GOP toward meeting that need, which it did in spades throughout the end of the 20th century.

I also think that Rauch's point that Sarah Palin is a political descendant of Wallace (without the explicit racial context), as opposed to Goldwater, is spot on. However, Rauch seems to have forgotten the various people who populated those Palin rallies. The folks I saw during the 2008 campaign were straight up out of a 1968 Wallace rally. I remember the dude with the stuffed monkey. I remember the people who said that they were concerned that Obama would elevate black folks at the expense of white people in a sort of racial revenge for the past. And then we have the current "tea party" political theater, with people insisting that Obama is not a "real American," and who think that Obama hates white folks (in spite of being raised by his white family). Hell, even health insurance reform is being framed, by some on the right, as stealth reparations for black people.

Of course, I agree that the majority of conservatives and Republicans are just as committed as liberals and Democrats to developing a society where race is a non-issue. However, for too many of those "Wallace 'conservatives,'" race remains an important component of their politcs. Race may not be a central theme within Republican politics, but as long as there are "Wallace 'conservatives'" within the GOP ranks, race remains an underlying theme within Republican politics. I also think that there are Republican politicians who are more than comfortable keeping, perhaps, a more subtle form of the racial components of the "Wallace playbook." Remember all of the chatter about Sonia Sotomayor?

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Rauch's essay. It brought back memories of the review I had to write in graduate school on Dan T. Carter's book, The Politics of Rage, in my 20th Century America class. I just think that Rauch too easily dismissed race from his conclusion, and it just didn't seem to jibe with the realities of the current political landscape.

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