Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It's 1980 on the NY Times Op-Ed Page

Readers of the NY Times may have noticed that lately three of the regular columnists have been arguing over the symbolic meaning of Ronald Reagan's decision to open his general election campaign for the Presidency with a speech including praise for "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. The Times intramural brawl began with the publication of Paul Krugman's new book, The Conscience of a Liberal (reviewed positively here), in which Krugman noted the seemingly obvious effort to appeal to white racism that the visit entailed. Then Krugman's colleague David Brooks, without mentioning Krugman by name, wrote a column calling Krugman's account a "slur . . . spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence." Krugman responded in a blog entry that, in turn, did not mention Brooks by name, referring only to a "campaign . . . to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon’s Southern strategy." Krugman pointed to instances of other appeals by Reagan to racial prejudice, both before and after the Philadelphia, Mississippi speech. And to pile on, Bob Herbert then wrote a column in which he provided his own examples, concluding :"Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record." Herbert does not mention that the leading scribe trying to clean up is his colleague Brooks.

What's going on here? As a perceptive (and amusing) piece by Columbia Law School 2L Ethan Frechette explains, whatever else might be said by those Republicans who seek to don Reagan's mantle today, they cannot contend that they believe in "states' rights" in any serious sense. Federal displacement of state regulatory prerogatives has become a staple of the modern Republican Party, leading one to conclude that Republicans formerly liked the states because they were seen as more conservative on the merits than the federal government, but abandoned that stance when they realized they could achieve more conservative results at the federal level. The reverse is largely true of Democrats as well. Principled support for decentralization is hard to find.

Fair enough, but the pissing match among the NY Times columnists is not about federalism; it's about racism. Whether Reagan was a racist matters because Republican Presidential candidates (and some Democrats) want to appeal to conservative voters and others who remember Reagan fondly without being saddled with racist views. There is an easy way to do this, of course. A 2007 candidate for office could say "I moslty believe what President Reagan believed, and I'll follow his example on X, Y and Z, but I don't want to endorse everything Reagan stood for." Certainly a contemporary politician who invokes the example of or quotes George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison is understood not to be endorsing their willingness to own slaves during their lifetimes, even without the disclaimer. So why wouldn't an express disclaimer work with respect to Reagan?

Because 1980 was not 1780 (or 1787 or 1800 or whatever). By 1980, civilized Americans were on notice that express appeals to racism were beyond the pale. That's the reason why a serious candidate for President who wanted to signal his support for racists had to do so in code. And of course, that's even truer today than it was 27 years ago. Thus, the ax that people like Brooks have to grind is not so much for Reagan as it is for his heirs. They (and it's not important to me whether this is true of Brooks himself) want to deny that Reagan spoke in code in 1980 so that they can deny that they are speaking in code today. Look for an explosion of this issue should Sen. Obama end up as the Democratic nominee and look for coded appeals to sexism should Sen. Clinton end up as the Democratic standard bearer.

Posted by Mike Dorf

17 comments:

James said...

"They (and it's not important to me whether this is true of Brooks himself) want to deny that Reagan spoke in code in 1980 so that they can deny that they are speaking in code today."

Hi Professor Dorf. What code did Reagan speak in exactly? As Brooks pointed out, the context in which Reagan used "states' rights" was benign -- education policy. I think it's safer to say that Reagan believed that education policy should be at the state level than that he was using code to pay homage to the racist murderers of Philadeplphia, Mississippi.

I think defenders of Reagan act as such because they greatly admire Reagan, as he was the standard bearer for a generation of conservatives who are now in their late 30s, or 40s. They don't want their hero unjustly smeared as a racist.

In the absence of actual evidence of racism, it's silly to continue to brand someone as a racist decade after decade. Your proposed disclaimer isn't necessary and simply assumes a premise -- racism -- for which you have no or very weak evidence.

James said...

Also, it's so obvious that a visit to the event in Philadelphia, Mississippi entailed racism, does that make Dukakis a racist for his visit in 1988?

Of course it doesn't. But it shows that the "Reagan as racist" canard is simply about policy. Reagan favored policies that liberals like Krugman and Herbert can see simply no rationale for other than a tainted soul. In the absence of a policy justification, they look for evil motives.

But there are and were justifications for Reagan's policy preferences even if, with the benefit of hindsight, those justifications turned out to be wrong. For example, a perfectly non-racist person could've been against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds of its (at least at the time) questionable consitutionality or its restrictions on private property.

egarber said...

The only current candidate who even talks about states' rights in the philosophical sense is Thompson, it seems to me. Some think he has taken the position so he can avoid making tough decisions on gay marriage, etc., but I think it's a sincere defense of federalism (though I wouldn't agree with it to his extent).

Federal displacement of state regulatory prerogatives has become a staple of the modern Republican Party,

The final blow in my mind came during the dispute over Oregon's assisted suicide law. John Ashcroft tried to create muscle in federal law that arguably ran against the spirit of Lopez and Morrison. I wouldn't guess that a states' rights Republican would instead side with the Wickard standard.

(I realize the final case wasn't a constitutional one -- but I stil think it's helpful to examine the politics in the context of constitutional boundaries. That's one way to see how philosophically sincere someone is in his / her choices).

Michael C. Dorf said...

In response to the questions posed by James, I think it's important to note that Krugman and Herbert et al do not say that Reagan was a racist. What they say is that he, like Nixon, pandered to racists both in their policies (and this goes well beyond opposing affirmative action, e.g., Reagan as President opposed making Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday) and sometimes in their rhetoric. As to Dukakis, had he invoked "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi, yes, that would make him too, guilty, not necessarily of racism, but of pandering to racists. Of course, we know that in the 1988 election, the pandering to racism was principally accomplished by Reagan's Vice President, George H.W. Bush, who preyed on white fears of black men through the repeated invocation of Willie Horton.

Ethan said...

The argument that the context of education policy is a benign one in which to talk about states' rights is not self-evident. Really, really, really not self-evident.

Relatedly, Reagan's speech came just four years after George Wallace's last Presidential campaign.

Carl said...

"Of course, we know that in the 1988 election, the pandering to racism was principally accomplished by Reagan's Vice President, George H.W. Bush, who preyed on white fears of black men through the repeated invocation of Willie Horton"

Yeah, because obviously no one would have any objection to giving weekend furloughs to convicted murderers if they were white.

Michael C. Dorf said...

in response to carl's snide comment, let me only say that OBVIOUSLY it's possible to have legitimate fears about crime that have no connection to race. that just wasn't what Bush was doing w/r/t the Horton case, as even Lee Atwater acknowledged before his death.

Paul said...

As someone who strongly opposes affirmative action and who also voted for Bush I (and Bush II the first time), I can tell you my opinion was that the Willy Horton ads were clearly intended to invoke race based fear. I think Bush would not have gotten nearly the effect out of those ads had the released criminal been white. I think he probably would have run the ad even if it was a white guy, but I also think the add would have taken a different form.

Take these two forms of the ad, both ran in the 88 campaign:

Here is one that I think gets the substantive point across without being racist:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lFk78R_qYM&feature=related

And here is the blatantly racists one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC9j6Wfdq3o&NR=1

I think the difference is pretty clear.

James said...

Prof. Dorf writes: "I think it's important to note that Krugman and Herbert et al do not say that Reagan was a racist. What they say is that he, like Nixon, pandered to racists both in their policies ... and sometimes in their rhetoric."

I don't think Herbert and Krugman are making this distinction, but in any event it's irrelevant here. Since Prof. Dorf is saying "pandered to racists" rather than "racist!", then I agree. He also helped bring down communism and kick start an economic boom that still persists, so on balance I'd say he was pretty good for the country, notwithstanding the pandering to racists from time to time.

But I'd also like to note that when it comes to Herbert, Krugman, and possibly for (my fantastic Civ Pro professor) Dorf, it really is about abhorring conservative policies more than abhorring racism or pandering to racism.

Racism isn't an either-or proposition. There's a vast spectrum between Jack Greenberg and George Wallace (or Martin Luther King and Leonard Jeffries), and many if not most white men of Reagan's generation fell somewhere in the middle. Yes Reagan, as a non-racist in his heart, nonetheless pandered to racism. And so did Jimmy Carter, who had significant ties to segregationists. But Jimmy Carter is a liberal icon -- favored the "correct" policies -- so this isn't what's talked about.

Actually, how the heck was the Bill Clinton Sista Souljah episode any different from what Reagan did from time to time?

Carl said...

"it's possible to have legitimate fears about crime that have no connection to race. that just wasn't what Bush was doing w/r/t the Horton case, as even Lee Atwater acknowledged before his death."

Atwater's deathbed "confession" is at best ambiguous:

"In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate.' I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

Expressing concern that something you've said or done makes you "sound racist" is not the same as saying that what you've said or done was racist (or even that it was motivated by a desire to pander to other people's racism).

Perhaps I am being overly naive, but I fail to see how reminding the public that a candidate support's a ridiculous program that permitted a convicted murderer to walk out of prison and commit a series of additional felonies, including rape, is necessarily racist simply because the perpetrator was black. I can see, however, that the candidate's best (and probably only) response to this kind of attack is to brush it off as racist. And I can see how the strategist behind the attack may regret that his target was able to make that accusation stick. But saying as much is a far cry from admitting that the ad was racially motivated to begin with. Even supposing Atwater was trying to pander to racists, however, I fail to see how you can so cavalierly attribute these motives to Bush when there are perfectly good non-racist reasons to want to associate Dukakis with Horton.

Jamison Colburn said...

In response to Carl, no one has "cavalierly" attributed "motives" to Reagan, Bush, or their heirs which they haven't had -- which is precisely why observations like this sting so much when people like Mike make them. Atwater, Rove, Luntz and the other courtiers who have now become the professional class of message consultants on the right (and the left has them too, they just tend not to pander to racists and sexists) have long admitted what they do and why they do it. Get a grip.

Carl said...

Atwater, Rove, Luntz and the other courtiers who have now become the professional class of message consultants on the right (and the left has them too, they just tend not to pander to racists and sexists) have long admitted what they do and why they do it

I don't doubt that Republican strategists on occasion pander to racists and sexists. This is evident too among strategists on the left when they target conservative blacks and women. I simply don't think the Horton campaign (or Atwater's "confession")is particularly strong evidence of this.

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