GOP Primary Colors

From the controversy over the inclusion of Jörg Haider's "Freedom Party" in the new Austrian government, you wouldn't know that Haider's platform of immigrant-bashing, right-wing social programs and tax cuts is virtually indistinguishable from mainstream Republican thought. Haider's main faux pas, it appears, is his nostalgia for the Austrian contributions to the Waffen SS during the "late unpleasantness" and his praise for the labor policies of Adolf Hitler. But as Joe Conason notes in the New York Observer, Haider's odorous opinions were not enough to keep him from sharing a New York stage with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at a reception honoring Ronald Reagan (a fellow Nazi apologist) on Jan. 17 -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, no less.

Is it far-fetched to connect the dots between the Grand Old Party and the new breed of storm troopers finding their place in the old reich? Perhaps that is unfair to Haider, who trafficks in resentment against immigrants and historical revisionism, but at least he has not proposed flying the Swastika over Vienna. Yet the worthies running for the GOP nomination for president cannot bring themselves to criticize South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag over its state capitol.

U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who supports John McCain and became a celebrity as one of President Clinton's prosecutors during the impeachment, explained to the New York Times why the Confederate flag still flies over Columbia. "There is a guy out there named Bubba," Graham said. "He grew up when public schools got integrated. He goes to work every day. There are women and African Americans in the workplace and he's fine with that, but he thinks the whole world is against him and has rights he doesn't have. He thinks the flag is the last thing he has going for him and he's not going to take it down. I don't want to step on Bubba's feelings. There are no groups sticking up for the Bubbas of the world."

Let me tell you a few other things about Bubba. He is descended from the poor farmers who were sent to fight for the South in the Civil War. They answered the call, fought bravely and, after their defeat, Bubba's great-grandfathers returned home to rebuild their lives. They couldn't very well admit that they had been hoodwinked into going to war to preserve slavery when most of them didn't even own slaves, so they bought into the myth that the war was over "states rights." As long as the wealthy planters were able to focus popular resentment on the Northern interlopers and the newly freed blacks, the poor white farmers were kept from turning their anger on the Southern gentry that had led them into the disaster of the Confederacy.

The only serious threat to the rule by the Southern establishment was in the 1880s when the Populist movement spread through the South and started organizing political coalitions between poor white farmers and poor black farmers. The Southern establishment, known as the Bourbon Democrats, maintained control by fanning resentment against the Republicans, racial prejudice against blacks and the use of terrorism against blacks and white sympathizers when all else failed. First the Bourbons defeated the Populists, then they passed the "Jim Crow" laws, which effectively outlawed any such cooperation between black and white Southerners for the next three-quarters of a century. [For more on the Populist movement, see www.populist.com.]

(By the way, northerners should not feel smug about southern race relations. Northern Democrats and Republicans went along with the arrangement for most of this past century. Remember that the Supreme Court conferred civil rights upon corporations nearly 70 years before it recognized that black citizens had civil rights.)

Nowadays perhaps most South Carolina whites really believe the Stars and Bars represents that state's heritage of righteous rebellion, but the flag flies in defiance not only to the Yankees but also to the 30 percent of South Carolina citizens for whom that flag represents the war to maintain slavery and a century of segregation. The flag was placed atop the capitol only in 1962, after the federal government finally started to uphold the constitutional rights of black citizens.

When Lyndon B. Johnson, a son of Texas, signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he remarked that it was the right thing to do, but it would cause the Democrats to lose the South for a generation. Richard Nixon and the Republican Party saw their opportunity and they seized it, shamelessly casting aside the legacy of Lincoln in favor of the "Southern Strategy."

The Democratic Party has been transformed in the past 35 years, and not always for the better, but they did the right thing on civil rights. The Republicans put themselves on the wrong side of history, along with the haters like Haider, who "clean up real good" when the TV cameras are on but still feed off the old resentments against the poorest and weakest in society.

Segregationist Democrats have long since migrated to the Republican Party. As long as people like Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Lindsey Graham can keep Bubba fixated on the Stars and Bars, maybe he won't notice that both he and his black neighbors are getting shorted on their economic rights. If the GOP can keep stirring the old resentments, the thinking goes, maybe Bubba won't notice the subsidies that governments hand out to megacorporations, or the laws that give those corporations incentives to send their factories overseas, or the regulatory agencies that turn a blind eye toward pollution while folks up and down his street come down with cancer, or the fact that neither his kids nor the kids of his black co-worker can afford to go to the state university because Congress cut financial aid so they could lighten the capital gains taxes for the wealthy.

But you know what? It's been a generation since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Maybe it's wishful thinking that Bubba is starting to look away from the Stars and Bars but let's hope he's beginning to focus on the things he has in common with his black neighbors. Democrats have started winning elections for governor again in states such as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and yes, even in South Carolina. Even if they are a fairly conservative bunch, they are considerably more progressive than their Republican rivals. Their success at least opens the possibility of building a biracial progressive populist groundswell in the South.

Southern Democrats can rise again if they convince Bubba that they'll stick up for him as well as his black and Hispanic and Asian co-workers and family farmers and the mom-and-pop businesses on Main Street. It's up to progressive populists to move the party in the people's direction, by supporting progressive politicians and progressive initiatives.

At any rate it's time for the South to furl the old colors and get over its century of hard feelings.

So George W. Bush has a retooled campaign after New Hampshire voters prescribed a cure for his Texas blues with their preference for upstart campaign finance reformer John McCain. After retreating to Austin for a huddle with advisers, Shrub, the $70 million man, has emerged as the candidate of reform, too. No kidding! Of course, his idea of campaign reform is to force labor unions to go to their membership for approval of spending union money on any political activity.

Bush also complains that McCain is the darling of the journalists covering his campaign. Well, giving straight answers to reporters' questions goes a long way. Shrub points to his endorsements by top Republicans and his record in Texas, which consists largely of presiding over a growing state during an economic boom. But at home, right-wingers don't trust him after he broke his pledge not to try to raise taxes. In short, his campaign is foundering because the Fortunate Son is finally reminding voters of what they didn't like about his dad.

But he has $32 million left to convince you he's the candidate of reform, and he's still raising money off dad's Rolodex. Just don't buy his brand of soap. -- JMC

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