In February, Ted Cruz said, “The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Of course, I know right-wingers loved stumbling across this tidbit on Breitbart; it stoked the red flames broiling against political correctness and the moral sanctimony of the Left. It was ammunition on their tongue, ready to spit.
Maybe they slept through history class, or maybe they have lost sight of the ebbs and flows of political history; more likely, they prefer to cherry-pick facts that make them feel reinforced and safe. I see danger in that comfort. But no matter; it benefits me to research and solidify my understanding of this argument, for if Ted Cruz and his believers are what we are up against, perhaps the opposing side needs to occasionally lower itself to giving history lessons. The same way the news media has had to lower itself to analyzing the U.S. President’s factless tweets.
First off, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Ted Cruz’s statement is but a diversion, the same way a magician moves your attention to the smoke and lights during his slight of hand. If he can manipulate history to his advantage, it distracts us from the present reality. What actually matters in this debate are the policies of today and whether they are working to address systemic racism. At the end of the day, race relations should not be viewed as a partisan issue. They are a human issue. Attempting to prescribe racism to one party or the other causes us to overlook the fact that we are an inherently racialized nation. Our history is one of violence and oppression; our present is one where de facto segregation still exists in our neighborhoods, where trauma is generational in urban communities, where our criminal profit system is perpetuating injustice, and racial and gender equity are still not a reality. People of color in our country grow up in communities that are over-policed, over-incarcerated, impoverished, and pushed into ghettos with troubled school systems, whether they are in blue states or red states.
The Democratic party has been able to brand itself as attuned to ending these systemic problems because it is proactive in proposing legislative solutions to them, albeit imperfect; by contrast, the Republican party leans toward a belief that a freer market and trickle-down economics will correct all social ills. The debate between “what works” rages on, both sides arguing a different form of proactivity. Programmatic responses versus bootstraps. Social responsibility versus personal responsibility.
The debate is ostensibly less about race than creating a more equitable America, but the truth rumbles low and angry beneath the surface. Racism intersects with most of the socio-economic issues we debate. But instead of inclusion in the conversation, communities most affected by systemic racism are used as tokens and tools for obtaining power. African Americans are reduced to a demographic referred to by politicians as “the black vote,” so that even their Constitutional right becomes racialized. Politicians from both parties continue to see "the black vote" as separate, all the while failing to recognize the broad range of diversity in opinions and values existing throughout black communities. Beyond that, many predominantly black communities, particularly ones in poverty, are not even represented to their fullest potential. 1 in 13 black adults – or 2.2 million in the U.S. – are currently disenfranchised from voting.
Racism transcends party lines. It transcends gender. It transcends geography. But between the Democratic Party’s clever marketing against racist sentiment and the rise of Right-wing extremism, it has become easier to align this (albeit prejudicial) dichotomy: Republicans = racist; Democrats = fighters for social justice. Calling ‘racism’ before having a dialogue is not a productive way to open one with someone who doesn’t share your worldview; yet both parties are guilty of it.
But there is a reason this polarized generalization has formed, and I'm interested in exploring that. So let’s talk history.
Republicans have pushed back at their bad branding by calling themselves “Lincoln’s Party,” which has always elicited a good laugh from everyone. I do appreciate their effort. It’s kind of like watching someone put duct tape on a flat tire. I’m sorry, but the Republicans claiming credit for freeing slaves is like me saying I deserve credit for education reforms because my great great great grandfather was the president of DePau University. It’s like giving yourself a pat on the back because your second aunt twice removed marched at Selma. It would be similar to the Democratic party calling itself Jefferson’s Party; while he was the party founder, he advocated "wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another but which would otherwise leave them alone to regulate their own affairs.” That’s because Democrats were once considered the conservative party. Find me ONE Republican who agrees that Jefferson is an emblem of the modern Democratic Party, which is currently advocating for single-payer health care and environmental regulation, not “leave them alone to regulate their own affairs.”
Are you seeing yet how this branding doesn’t make sense? Tell me, does “Lincoln’s Party” still agree with our 16th President’s support of the progressive income tax, giving free land to the poor, or creating the regulatory Department of Agriculture? NO! So why do Republicans think that Lincoln would align himself with them in modern times? It would be one thing if Republicans maintained a brand as champions for racial equality, but the beginning of the Civil Rights Era was when the Republican and Democratic parties began to flip their agendas.
Tagging along with the "Lincoln's Party" defense is the flimsy claim that Democrats are the "party of the KKK." Yes, the Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist group formed and fostered in the predominantly-Democratic South during Reconstruction. It was founded by people who voted as Democrats, but it is more accurate to understand them as a post-war Confederate insurgent group. The Democratic party did not “found” or endorse the KKK. But if you REALLY want to use Ted Cruz’s logic that the KKK belongs to whatever party it endorses, just ask yourself who they endorsed last election.
I reject that way of thinking, which is why I reject Ted Cruz’s comments and this faulty notion of “Lincoln’s Party.” Conservative writer Kevin Williamson puts it well: "This is a childish approach, a high-school debater’s trick at best: 'WFB was a conservative, WFB favored segregation in 1957, ergo conservatism is the philosophy of segregation.'" It's illogical.
The Democratic Party was a different party in 1865; it ran on very different issues in that time. It was split between Northern and Southern Democrats - the former, supporting abolition and Reconstruction, and the latter opposing it. As I mentioned, Democrats were considered the conservative party, so naturally it attracted people opposed to sweeping changes like abolition, and Republicans were considered liberal (this eventually switches, as we know). Today, the KKK is considered a right-wing terrorist group. Since Goldwater, the organization has endorsed Conservative candidates because, even if the candidate disavows them, their agenda is complementary to the KKK’s. This is possibly because Republicanism has aligned itself with Christians, and the KKK has called itself a Christian group (though they are denounced by Christians). It may also be due to Republican focus on defunding support services that benefit a proportion of African Americans, or the focus on limiting immigration from non-Western areas of the world, or the rejection of Black Lives Matter. Certain Republicans also found a niche fueling their campaigns on racial resentment, as we witnessed in the Trump campaign. These agenda items of course would be attractive to a white supremacist, even if unintentional by the party.
In 1948, Truman (a Democrat) issued two executive orders banning segregation in the armed forces and guaranteeing fair employment practices. In response to Truman’s liberal stances on civil rights, the pro-segregation fragment of the Democratic party split off into “Dixiecrats,” which followed a more conservative-leaning ideology. This was the beginning of the end for Liberal Republicanism and Conservative Democrats. Today, we have a cleaner cut of Conservative Republicans and Liberal Democrats.
In other words, political identities were changing. As the Democratic Party began voting on civil rights issues, it seemed to purge its conservatives and segregationists. People like Strom Thurmond, a Democrat and segregationist, migrated to the Republican party, where he found he would garner more support. Still, Republicans were no enemy to civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 had bipartisan support led by Republicans. But by the time we had the Civil Rights Act of 1960, it was passed by a House and Senate with a Democratic majority. Later, Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, both Democrats, worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act. But take caution: isn't this a shallow way to examine history, as Williamson points out? Can we really define Democrat or Republican roles in Civil Rights based on these little pieces of evidence? LBJ also voted against anti-lynching legislation and was unsupportive of Republican-backed civil rights legislation. The more you examine, the more you will fall back to my initial point, that racism transcends party lines, undiscerning of affiliation.
During these years, though, states like North Carolina switched from blue to red. Some argue that this change was unrelated to matters of racial equality and related to other economic issues at hand; however, the timing is questionable. The KKK also shifted its support, albeit denounced or ignored by the endorsed Conservative candidates. Each party’s stance toward civil rights advocacy was turned on its head. That is why Democrats brand themselves the way they do now, and it is why Republicans may find themselves on the defensive more often than not. This has led to today, as each party attracts people who identify with the values set forth and support the policies that may further those values. For Republicans, that has included those who actively denounce social justice work, or those who feel indifferent toward it and are more concerned with economic matters. The "dichotomy" of racist vs. advocate has made room not for moderation but for the continued polarization of our politics, and the inability of each party toward introspection.