Why should anyone have been surprised that the senator who led the Republican Party of 2002 paid homage to the States Rights Party of 1948? Those Dixiecrats fatally extolled by Trent Lott at the hundredth birthday celebration of their onetime presidential nominee Strom Thurmond were very much a template for today’s Republican Party. Lott’s expedient demotion does not change the core affinity between the two parties–a kinship ignored in the year-end controversy over whether the senator from Mississippi is a segregationist. Sure, segregation (aka “states’ rights”) was the centerpiece of the Dixiecrats’ platform. But the exploitation of race has never been an end in itself. Then and now, it is an emotional means to a pragmatic political and economic goal: The key objective shared by Republicans and Dixiecrats is a government that’s a passive referee overseeing a status quo of unfettered free enterprise rather than a dynamic agent of social progress.
Many seem to have been under the impression that the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt–the Southern bolt from the Democratic Party in protest of Harry Truman’s civil rights plank–was some spontaneous redneck uprising of rebel-yelling snuff-dippers. Actually, it was quite the opposite, a power play carefully orchestrated by the corporate mandarins of the region (or their lawyers), many of whom answered to parent companies in the North. The racial demagogy they used to achieve the secession was a tried-and-true ploy of those so-called better classes, usually trotted out when the not-so-good classes (poor whites and blacks) were forming an alliance across the color line that threatened the oligarchy of planters and industrialists who had historically ruled the South. This particular white-supremacist tantrum had been brewing since Franklin Roosevelt created the Committee on Fair Employment Practice in 1941, seeking to end race discrimination in wartime defense industries. Truman was proposing to make the FEPC a permanent agency.
The most persistent of the pesky biracial movements bucking the established order was organized labor. Southern bosses had long used racist propaganda and vigilantes to foment strife between black and white workers, with the goal of keeping the unions weak and wages depressed. The aim of those powerful business interests was to roll back the New Deal. Roosevelt had posed many challenges to corporate omnipotence, and the boldest of them was Section 7(a) of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively. The same representatives of organized money who spearheaded the vicious campaign against Roosevelt became the brain trust of the Dixiecrat Party. That in turn morphed into the segregationist resistance of the civil rights era and is now the Republican Party of what was once the Solid (Democratic) South.
What the racist Southern gentlemen of old and the modern-day Republicans have both cannily appreciated is that poor people do not like to consider themselves poor. Low-income whites would rather identify with the rich folks than with their own class, especially if their partners in poverty happen to be black. That helps explain why, in clinging to its nostalgia for the underdog (“special interests” to the überdogs), the pre-Clinton Democratic Party lost much of its base–the Reagan Democrats–to the rival party. The now Solid Republican South is a tribute to the cleverness of the haves at getting the have-nots to work against their own interests: The main attraction the Republicans hold for the “regular people” who make up the bulk of their Southern constituency is that they are the party of the white man.
Trent Lott is a textbook example of the hard-up soul who ended up as a diehard champion of the system in which he had suffered. His father was a sharecropper who graduated to the industrial grind as a pipe fitter for Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Ingalls was owned by a reactionary industrialist from Birmingham, the birthplace of the Dixiecrat Party that begat Lott’s Republican Party in the South. The offensive rhetoric of the earlier era may have softened into code words like “Southern heritage,” “fiscal conservatism” and “strict constructionism” (that last is for Chief Justice Rehnquist, who opposed Brown v. Board of Education as a Supreme Court law clerk in 1952). The mission remains consistent: to undo the damage of the New Deal and make democracy safe for business, discouraging labor unions, taxes, personal-injury lawsuits and environmentalism.
The dark-skinned minority that animates the current Republican agenda tends to have roots in the Middle East rather than Africa, but the policies being advanced in the name of the war on terrorism are the predictable docket of union-beating and corporation-coddling. The sticking point that held up the Homeland Security Act was the Bush Administration’s attempt to use it as a pretext to strip 170,000 federal employees of union representation. Even under the compromise that passed in November, the President has the power to effectively annul the union in the name of “national security”–quite a salute to all those government employees who charged into the Twin Towers without consulting their shop stewards. Georgia Democrat Max Cleland (a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran) lost his Senate seat on Election Day after being called “unpatriotic” for defending the federal employees’ collective-bargaining rights.
Meanwhile, another successful provision of the Homeland Security Act protects the right of corporations to be awarded federal contracts even if they establish headquarters offshore in order to avoid paying federal taxes. And then there was the most stunning, anonymous amendment to the bill, that surgical bit of tort reform that New York Times columnist Bill Keller posits was the handiwork of Lott’s replacement as Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, MD: the shielding of pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits claiming that mercury in their vaccines caused autism in children.
Compared with that, Lott’s sin is refreshingly symbolic: It really doesn’t matter whether he’s a card-carrying segregationist; Jim Crow ain’t coming back. But that doesn’t mean that his peer group has given up its special privileges. Clearly, when Lott indulged himself at the Thurmond birthday party, he thought he was speaking freely, among his “own kind.” Even though he has been banished to the outer darkness of a powerful committee chairmanship, the “free speech” he abused is still a cherished prerogative of rich white men. Vice President Cheney has outdone himself to guard the privacy of the conversations he had with his friends in the energy industry. And the CEOs at Augusta National have no intention of opening up their golf club to women. It’s hard for old boys to be old boys when there are girls around. Or blacks. Or poor people. Or autistic children.