The history Rand Paul struggles to understand

The history Rand Paul struggles to understand
The history Rand Paul struggles to understand
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We talked yesterday about Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) speech at Howard University, a traditionally black school in Washington, D.C., and his willingness to brazenly lie about his previous positions on the Civil Rights Act. But before we move on, there’s one other angle of this that’s worth noting.

The point of the speech was not to talk about the Civil Rights Act, but rather, Paul believes his African-American audiences will be more receptive to his party and worldview after hearing his sales pitch. In particular, Paul seems to think history is on his side.

“We see horrible Jim Crow and horrible racism in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s – it was all Democrats,” he said. “It wasn’t Republicans.” Paul added, “How many of you – if I’d said, who do you think the founders of the NAACP are, do you think they were Democrats or Republicans, would everybody here know they were all Republicans?”

“Yes,” the audience responded, since he was speaking at Howard University, where the students and faculty understand the history of the struggle for civil rights better than the self-accredited ophthalmologist ever could.

“I don’t mean that to be insulting,” Paul responded. I suspect that’s true, though condescension seems to come naturally to him.

But the tension between the speaker and his audience underscores a larger issue. Paul seems to think his superficial understanding of history ought to be enough to persuade African-American audiences – Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, liberal Republicans helped form the NAACP, and segregation was a product of racist Dixiecrats. Ergo, in Paul’s mind, black voters should necessarily gravitate to the Republican Party.

Paul’s rudimentary grasp of history overlooks all of the relevant details – a point that was not lost on those who listened to the senator yesterday at Howard.

We talked about this nearly a year ago, but since it continues to come up from time to time, let’s set the record straight again.

The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two broad, competing constituencies – southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled with this conflict for years, before ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.

As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. In the wake of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, the Republican Party welcomed the white supremacists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform.

It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition – leaving the progressive, diverse, tolerant Democratic Party for the GOP.

In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, became the party of the “Southern Strategy,” opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms and Thurmond. (A Republican congressman from Texas named Ron Paul also criticized Abraham Lincoln for waging the Civil War, while also opposing the Civil Rights Act.)

Paul’s remarks emphasized Democratic tactics in the South, and the observations aren’t wrong – Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War – on the wrong side.

The problem, however, is with the relevance of the observation. Which matters more in contemporary politics: that white supremacists were Southern Democrats or that white supremacists made a new home in the Republican Party in the latter half of the 20th century?

Democrats have no reason to sweep this history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the racists and segregationists to the GOP, which welcomed them and their racial attitudes. Indeed, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee conceded just a few years ago that his party deliberately used racial division for electoral gain for the last four decades. (This includes, by the way, Ronald Reagan.)

By Rand Paul’s reasoning, voters should care less about the last four decades, and more about the Democratic Party’s divisions four generations ago. I’m afraid that’s backwards.

If history ended in the 1960s, Paul may have a slightly more legitimate point. But given what we’ve seen over the last half-century, the more salient point is that Dems have been part of the solution on race, and the GOP has been part of the problem.