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On civil rights, Republicans pick the wrong fight at the wrong time

Ted Cruz insisted, "The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan." He and the GOP may not like where a debate over civil rights ends up.
Senator Ted Cruz addresses delegates on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016. (Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty)
Senator Ted Cruz addresses delegates on day three of the Republican National Convention at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016.

The day after Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was rebuked while making a speech critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Sen. Ted Cruz blasted Democrats, saying their party is the one rooted in racism."The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan," Cruz (R-Tex.) said in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday. "You look at the most racist -- you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan. The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats."

There are a couple of dramatic problems with this. The first is recent history: just last year, during the presidential campaign, a KKK newspaper published its support for Donald Trump's candidacy. It was part of a broader push among white nationalists to help elect the Republican Party's presidential ticket.This followed an incident from last February in which Trump was asked to denounce support he'd received from white supremacists -- and the Republican hesitated.Perhaps Ted Cruz missed this.The second problem is the not-quite-as-recent history. As regular readers know, we usually revisit this story about once a year, and in light of Cruz's misguided rhetoric, now is as good a time as any to set the record straight once more.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.
The result was a dramatic shift in both parties. After “Dixiecrats” began their exodus in 1948, and in the wake of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Republican Party welcomed segregationists 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 conservative GOP.
In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion, while Republicans 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, Thurmond, and others.
To be sure, Cruz's surface-level understanding of history isn’t entirely wrong: Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War, on the wrong side of the issue. Practically all of the major segregationists of that era were Dixiecrats.
The trouble is the context and the relevance of the observation. Which matters more in contemporary politics: that segregationists were Southern Democrats or that segregationists made a new home in the Republican Party in the latter half of the 20th century?
Democrats have no reason to ignore this or sweep history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the segregationists to the GOP, which welcomed them into the party fold.
If history ended a half-century ago, Cruz may have a slightly more legitimate point. But given what we’ve seen over the last 50 years, the more salient point is that Democrats have been part of the solution, not part of the problem, on race.The Texas Republican may like to believe the party of Barack Obama and John Lewis "the party of the Ku Klux Klan," but there's no reason for any sensible person to take such nonsense seriously.