On the day the Affordable Care Act takes effect, the U.S. government is shut down, and it may be permanently broken. You’ll read lots of explanations for the dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.
People talk about the role of race in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”: how Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips helped him lure the old Dixiecrats into the Republican Party permanently. Far less well known was the GOP’s “Northern Strategy,” which targeted so-called white ethnics – many of them from the Catholic “Sidewalks of New York” like my working-class family, in the words of Kevin Phillips. Without a Northern Strategy designed to inflame white-ethnic fears of racial and economic change, Phillips’ imaginary but still influential notion of a “permanent Republican majority” would have been unimaginable.
“The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips wrote. “Democratic ‘Great Society’ programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation.” Phillips was not trying to defuse that tension, far from it – he was trying to lure those white ethnics to the GOP (although he later broke with the party he helped create). But his Northern Strategy truly came to fruition in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Where Nixon swept the South, Reagan was able to take much of the North and West, too.
I loved Chris Matthews’ book “Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked,” but as I said in my interview with him, I think he let Reagan off the hook when it came to race. Ronald Reagan picked up the political baton passed to him by Barry Goldwater and Pat Buchanan, and played his role with genial gusto. Reagan had trafficked in ugly racial stereotyping over the years, about “young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps and Cadillac-driving welfare queens. But the Reagan who got elected president was better at using deracialized language to channel racial fears and resentment. He and his strategists had succeeded in making government synonymous with “welfare,” and “welfare” synonymous with lazy people, most of them African-American.
When Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg studied the voters of Macomb County, a hotbed of so-called Reagan Democrats – the county gave two-thirds of its votes to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and the same proportion to Ronald Reagan in 1980 — he found that they no longer saw Democrats as working-class champions. “Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives,” and they saw government “as a black domain where whites cannot expect reasonable treatment,” Greenberg wrote.
So for a lot of Democrat-turned-Republican voters, “government” was all about black people, Reagan knew. You didn’t have to be racist to thrill to Reagan’s declaration that “government is not the solution; government is the problem,” though it didn’t hurt. Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained exactly how it worked in a now-infamous 1981 interview that was secret for 30 years. Atwater explained how the GOP dialed down its racial rhetoric for fear of alienating white moderates who might buy the GOP’s anti-government crusade, but be uncomfortable with outright racism.
This is Atwater talking to an academic interviewer in 1981, Year One of the Reagan revolution:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N–ger, n–ger, n–ger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n–ger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites … “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N–ger, n–ger.”
And then you say “Defund Obamacare,” and everyone knows why.
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To be fair to Republicans, not everyone is or was comfortable with this strategy. One of the things I remember best from Richard Ben Cramer’s legendary history of the 1988 election, “What It Takes,” was the way both George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole grappled with whether and how to reach black voters, in the wake of the Reagan revolution. Each man struggled, in his own way, to understand and accept exactly how party leaders, starting with Goldwater, had actively pushed African-Americans out of the party of Abraham Lincoln. Dole’s discomfort seemed a little deeper and more genuine; in the end, Bush acceded to Atwater and Roger Ailes, one of Richard Nixon’s media henchmen, to produce the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped torpedo Michael Dukakis.
Over and over, that’s how things got worse: Republicans who know better, who probably aren’t “racist” in the old-fashioned sense of believing in black inferiority and opposing the equality and integration of the races, nonetheless pander to those who are, for electoral gain. And when the election of our first black president riled up the racists and launched the Tea Party – supposed deficit hawks who tolerated skyrocketing government spending under George W. Bush — too many Republicans went along.
Today, the entire government has been taken hostage by leaders elected by this crazed minority, who see in the face of Barack Obama everything they’ve been taught to fear for 50 years. Start with miscegenation: He’s not just black, he’s the product of a black father and a white mother. (That helps explain an unconscious motive for birtherism: They can’t get their minds off the circumstances of his conception and birth.) With his Ivy League degrees, they are sure he must be the elitist beneficiary of affirmative action. Steeped in Chicago politics, he’s the representative of corrupt urban machines controlled by Democrats – machines that ironically originated with the Irish and once kept African-Americans down, but that are now synonymous with corrupt black power. In Michele Bachmann’s words, Obama is a product of Chicago’s scary “gangster government,” or did she say “gangsta”?
Leading Republicans who know better have demeaned the president with a long list of racially coded slurs. Obama is “the food stamp president,” Newt Gingrich told us. He wants to help “black people” (or was it “blah people”?) “by giving them somebody else’s money,” Rick Santorum said. Even his so-called GOP “friend” Sen. Tom Coburn insists Obama is spreading “dependency” on government because “it worked so well for him as an African-American male.”
Where Mitt Romney’s father, George, stood up to the rising tide of racism in his party and marched in fair housing protests in the 1960s, Mitt himself embraced the birther-in-chief Donald Trump during the 2012 campaign. And when things got tough in the fall campaign, he and Paul Ryan doubled down on racial appeals by accusing Obama of weakening welfare reform – he hadn’t – and of giving white seniors’ hard-earned Medicare dollars to Obamacare recipients. And we all know who they are.
Now we have John Boehner, elected House speaker thanks to the Tea Party wave of 2010, shutting down the government over Obamacare. Boehner has the power to open the government by bringing a clean continuing resolution to the floor and allowing it to pass with the help of Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats. Should we expect such courage? In one of his first major media appearances after becoming speaker, he refused to rebuke the birthers in his caucus. “It’s not up to me to tell them what to think,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams.
Now he’s kowtowing to the roughly 30 House Republicans from bright red districts that also happen to be almost exclusively white, in a country that is more than one-third nonwhite. They want to shut down the government to torpedo Obamacare, the signature program of our first black president. Obviously, though he’s the leader, Boehner believes it’s not up to him to tell the GOP suicide caucus what to think. Although the speaker told reporters after Obama’s reelection that Obamacare was the law of the land, and that a government shutdown would be bad for the country, he changed his tune when confronted with an insurrection, and the de facto House speaker who happens to be a senator, Ted Cruz. (Cruz’s father, by the way, just joined the ranks of those who seem to believe Obama is a Muslim, telling a Colorado woman who made that claim: “[Sen. John] McCain couldn’t say that because it wasn’t politically correct. It is time we stop being politically correct!”
In the end, it’s all about Obama. I keep waiting for John Boehner to have his “Take this job and shove it” moment, since he’s not the House leader, he’s being led by Ted Cruz and the House suicide caucus. But I’ve been waiting a long time for Republicans to do the right thing and repudiate their party’s lunatic fringe, particularly its racist fringe. I assume I’ll be waiting a while longer.