Ted Cruz and Other Right-Wing Trolls Say that Democrats are the Real Racists Because They Used to Be

by Michael C. Dorf

Last week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee took bipartisan heat for signing a proclamation declaring July 13 "Nathan Bedford Forrest Day." Did Lee deserve the criticism? Maybe not. A state law obligates the governor to declare holidays honoring, respectively, Forrest, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and Confederate Decoration Day. Yet Governor Lee is not entirely blameless. Given his own past expressions of admiration for the Confederacy, he could certainly be doing more to secure passage of a new law repealing the existing obligation to declare the offensive holidays.

But let us put Lee aside for the moment to focus on one of his critics. Texas Senator Ted Cruz took to Twitter to call out Lee and Tennessee legislators. Cruz tweeted:
This is WRONG. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general & a delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention. He was also a slave trader & the 1st Grand Wizard of the KKK. Tennessee should not have an official day (tomorrow) honoring him. Change the law.
I agree with nearly all of that. Why only nearly all? Because in the midst of an otherwise quite sensible anti-racist plea, Cruz could not resist trolling Democrats. Of what possible significance is it that Forrest was a delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention? The slogan of that convention was: "This is a White Man's Country, Let White Men Rule." Perhaps Cruz was referring to that?

Not a chance. How many of Cruz's Twitter followers or Americans more generally are sufficiently familiar with the history of the period to know the 1868 Democratic convention's slogan or anything at all about it? Can you name the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1868? (Answer here.)

So why did Cruz list Forrest's status as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic Convention alongside sins like his role in the Klan? The short answer is that Cruz was engaging in a now-common bit of misdirection from Republicans: calling attention to the fact that prior to the mid-1960s, the Republican Party was overall less hostile to civil rights and less racist than the Democratic Party--as though that should somehow discredit the modern Democratic Party. This move seems aimed at two audiences: easily confused low-information voters; and white voters who would otherwise be uneasy about the GOP's arguably racist policies and the inarguably racist president.

Because I am not a consistent consumer or monitor of right-wing media, my exposure to the Democrats-are-the-real-racists meme has been limited. Nonetheless, even with my merely sporadic engagement with the right-wing-o-verse, I have encountered the meme often enough to conclude that it must be fairly standard. As made by the likes of, say, ex-con Dinesh D'Souza, the recitation of the Democratic Party's past is part of a larger demented conspiracy theory.

And the theory is really quite stupid. It is a well-known fact (among people who know well-known facts), that from the lead-up to the Civil War through the mid-1960s, white racists especially in the South but also elsewhere found a more natural home in the Democratic Party, while the Republican Party--as the party of Lincoln and then Reconstruction--came to favor abolition of slavery and civil rights. Then, nearly a century later, President Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights legislation and, as he predicted, the Democrats lost the South for a generation--now more like two or three generations.

Realignment did not happen immediately. It took Nixon's Southern Strategy, Reagan's coded references to "welfare queens," the Willie Horton ad in support of HW Bush, and Donald Trump's embrace of white nationalism to turn the Solid South from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, but turn it did.  Given that white Republicans are much more likely to embrace racist ideas historically associated with the Democratic Party, it's not at all clear why anyone other than a propagandist would think that the Democratic Party's past association with racism should be currently salient.

That is not to say that there is literally nothing of concern here. While no thinking non-racist would vote for Republicans over Democrats based on the history, we might wonder whether we ought to consider a name change. My view would be we ought to, were it not for the fact that doing so would confuse too many voters and likely lead to the election of more Republicans. Avoiding association with a historically tainted party has value, but not as much value as avoiding the election of people pursuing terrible policies in the here and now.

Meanwhile, in an effort to be as fair as possible, I scoured the Internet to see whether there was any version of the Democrats-used-to-be-racists-so-they-still-are meme that was well reasoned. I couldn't find one, but quite surprisingly, the closest thing I found to a coherent argument came from high-profile expert-in-nothing Sebastian Gorka. Gorka more or less fairly recounts the racist past of the Democratic Party, although he states, at best misleadingly, that "the Republican Party’s embrace of the Dixiecrats was always tepid at best." Still, to Gorka's credit, he calls the Democratic Party by its correct name, rather than using the "Democrat Party" slur. Gorka even seems to recognize the need to connect the Democratic Party's racist past with its current stance. He tries to do so by claiming that Democratic policies, especially in cities with Democratic elected officials, have failed the African American community, while claiming further that Republican Trump's economic policies have led to better times for all racial groups.

These last claims are highly contestable.  There is evidence that in general the economy fares better under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones. Democratic local governments certainly have their share of corruption and ineptitude, but a serious person would attempt to take account of the impact on cities of state and national policies as well.

None of this is to say that just because the Democratic Party's worst racists migrated to the GOP, Democrats have achieved pure racial harmony. As the ongoing struggle between Democratic House leadership and four first-term congresswomen of color illustrates, there are awkward divides along ideological and generational lines about how to expand the range of voices deciding party policy.

But let's keep that struggle in perspective by noting Trump's response. He tweeted that the congresswomen should "go back" to the countries they "came from"--even though all but one of them were born in the US. In light of that and countless other words and deeds from Trump and many of his enablers, one ought not take seriously Gorka's conclusion that "the Democrats are still the real racists."