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When liberal America recognized, after years of being told, that racial language mattered, conservatives were outraged. They labeled the attempt to banish routine white supremacist talk “political correctness”. That was classic conservative racial politics as I have known it in my lifetime: be blind to existing racism, refuse to change racist habits, label every attempt at reducing racism in American life as a government intrusion.

Racial Politics

“Political correctness” was a deliberate phrase. It served as a weapon against efforts to discuss the importance of language by labeling the idea political, which meant liberal. Through endless repetition and hollowing out by exaggeration of any useful meaning, the taunt has lost its sting over the decades. Conservatives use it more now as a bullet point on the list of their racial politics.

Maybe conservatives hope that nobody, or at least nobody they care about, will notice that they have fully adopted political correctness in their own language. Macroaggressions have mostly disappeared, replaced by microaggressions that were not so easy to see before people stopped saying “nigger”. Steve King of Iowa is now ostracized for saying what would have been unremarkable not so long ago. Even the proud racists who make a home on the right fringe of the Republican Party avoid the most obvious offenses.

The Republican Party is white and rules white, even more than it did 50 years ago. They are determined that nothing American blacks and nothing American liberals say should ever come to pass.

But that’s as far as they go. The Republican Party is white and rules white, even more than it did 50 years ago. They are determined that nothing American blacks and nothing American liberals say should ever come to pass. Here in Illinois, in Jacksonville, Illinois, it’s worth tracing how we got here.

The Republican Party developed in Illinois as an opponent of slavery, with people from Jacksonville taking leading roles. They coalesced around Abraham Lincoln, who ended slavery, and after his death created unprecedented government programs to reconstruct racial politics in Washington and across the country. Meanwhile, Southern white supremacy became identified with the Democratic Party. The massive, sustained, and violent resistance of Southern whites crushed the Radical Republicans and black reformers by the 1870s. The Republican Party became just as convinced as Democrats that the racist system called Jim Crow should be implemented everywhere, with big regional differences but national agreement that white supremacy should continue forever. Anti-racist politicians in America before World War II were rare, as rare as prosecutions of whites for the murder of black Americans.

Then a seemingly unstoppable social movement, led and leading a host of politicians who were civil rights enthusiasts. Liberals became anti-racists in the 1960s, and decided to push again against Jim Crow and Southern intransigence. They could be found in both parties, but became the center and conscience of the Democrats as they shoved the Party to the left. For a short while, they survived on the fringes of the Republican Party.

Stuart Stevens, a long-time Republican election consultant, has just published the book “It Was All A Lie”. He calls his Republican Party “just a white grievance party”. He traces that back to the Republican Party’s decision to focus on white voters after Goldwater lost in a landslide in 1964. “Race is the original sin of the modern Republican Party.”

Led by Democrats, resisted by Republicans, since the 1960s new freedoms have opened up to black individuals, men and women, many of them. At the same time, new methods of racial control developed under both parties, from the war on drugs backed up by stop-and-frisk policing to quiet acceptance of Confederate hagiography.

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Those are the differences and similarities between the broad band of liberalism represented by the Democratic Party since the 1960s, and the narrower brand of conservatism represented by the 21st-century Republican Party. Now everybody’s wondering, have we reached another dramatic moment, when years, decades, even centuries of oppression move masses of people who were not moved before, shifting the political parties again, creating a new normal?

We can see signs of what is happening to the racial politics of each party. There are voices among Republican politicians, supported by millions of voices of Republican voters, who are saying the system needs to be changed. Yet they are on the fringes of a Party whose official voice, with the barest of internal criticism, espouses and implements a policy of retreat from today, back to the 1950s, when men were men and blacks were quiet. The most we can expect from the most liberal Republican candidates this fall is a studied neutrality, based on a heavy dose of support for doing little. The rest of the Party, as a social body of thousands of donors, radio hosts, elected and unelected officials, has enshrined Rush Limbaugh as their philosopher, transforming itself into an army of little Trumps. Even if he and many of them are defeated in November, that body will remain for a long time. The Republican question is, when will riling up the base with political nonsense stop being a campaign tactic?

The Democratic question is different. How strongly has today’s political form of anti-racism, beyond civil rights, affected their social body? Will that social body integrate voices which have been listened to, mostly politely, but ultimately disregarded? The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has just been defeated a second time by a Democratic establishment and by Democratic voters. Are those Democratic voters shifting their center, as they seem to say to pollsters? Are those Democratic politicians shifting their center, as so many are saying now?

I won’t predict, even to myself, that the Democrats as a Party will jettison the racial politics they have developed over decades. But it seems possible that “American society”, that hopeful concept which still mainly means white male American society, is noticing, recognizing, and internalizing the reality around us, which will be hard to stuff back into the Pandora’s box of official America.

Meanwhile, most Republicans are still looking to an even more racist past for greatness. Stevens does not label all Republican voters racist, but he says “to support Trump is to make peace with white grievance and hate.”

Of course, Republicans who have not repudiated their history with the Party, as Stevens has, do not agree with him about Republican racism. That can be seen in the differing answers that Republicans and Democrats give about whether certain behaviors are racist. While majorities in both parties said that telling a joke about a racial group is racist, fewer than 25% of Democrats, but 40% of Republicans said that was not racist. Wanting one’s children to go to school with people from one’s own cultural background was labeled not racist by 30% of Democrats, but 45% of Republicans. The big partisan differences are revealed when asked about displaying the Confederate flag: 20% of Democrats, but 60% of Republicans deny that it represents racism.

The forces of change are at both ends of the political spectrum. The Democrats are being pulled left by a younger, more educated coalition of races and genders and sexualities that sees how anti-racism and anti-sexism fit together into a vision for the future. Republicans seem to be hearing only the older, angrier, anti-information white male culture of grievance, that shades into those armed and violent fascist cult-like movements, which the Republican Party, again bowing to its leader, can’t seem to repudiate.

Until this Republican racial politics loses big or repeatedly, they won’t abandon it. Until Democrats win with an embrace of anti-racism, their Party won’t be comfortable with it.

The next step forwards or backwards will be taken in November. Whether we know afterwards what Americans really want, despite Russian hacking and Republican vote tampering, beyond endless polls that seem to tell us everything until they are no longer relevant, remains to be seen. Need I say that the future of racial politics in America will be our choice?

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives