Leaving the Party

So the other day I read the quote, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. It left me.”

Which is a great line. I’ve often heard it said. What I didn’t know, I’m embarrassed to say, was that it was first said by Ronald Reagan. This fascinated me since, little as I know about Reagan, it didn’t quite add up.

But I assumed I must be wrong. After all, it was a Monday, and pretty much any day of the week that ends in a “y” is a day I’m likely to be wrong at least twice. And that’s just before breakfast.

So I googled it and, sure enough, Reagan said it. And then I read a couple online bios. And sure enough, the line is both great—snappy, memorable—and complete nonsense.

There are two major milestones in the history of the Democratic Party in the past half century or so, times at which it could perhaps be argued that the party took a radical turn.

One of those dates was July 2, 1964. The other was January 22, 1973.

The first, of course, was when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. He knew exactly what he was doing. You want to talk about signing statements? LBJ knew from signing statements. His statement at the time of signing was, “We have just lost the south for a generation.”

Time has since proven that prediction to be wildly optimistic.

The second date, of course, is when the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade was handed down.

Otherwise, the basic policy beliefs of President Franklin Roosevelt are basically those put forth by the Democratic Party today. The Democratic Party hasn’t really changed. That may be why it’s lost so many elections for the past fifteen or twenty years. Because it’s held onto its bedrock beliefs. And has done a terrible job of explaining to people why those beliefs are good ones, beliefs which make for a better world for all us. Things like society security and voting rights, for instance—you know, really wacky ideas like that.

As opposed to ideas like fiscal responsibility. The Democrats have now picked up on that one, since it was discarded six years ago and someone had to give a damn about future generations.

But back to Reagan. Reagan supported FDR. Reagan supported President Harry Truman. Reagan was still a Democrat as late as the sixties, not switching parties until shortly before he ran for governor of California in 1966.

So in what way did the Democratic Party change between the 40s and the 60s? Roe v. Wade can’t be the rationale, as it is for other former Democrats I know, since Roe v. Wade was still some seven years in the future.

Hmm…well, there’s really only that one other major shift—but it was a biggie. And that would be the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When President Johnson decided that black Americans should have all the same rights as white Americans.

Not so coincidentally, that’s the exact point at which Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, the bluest of the blue states going all the way back to Reconstruction, suddenly turned bright red, and have stayed that blushing color ever since.

Here’s a map of which state went for which candidate in the 1960 election. Confusingly, the Republican party is blue in this map and the Democratic Party is red, due to the custom of the time.


Now look at this map of the 1964 election—again the Republicans are blue and the Democrats are red.


What do you notice? Could it be that all the previously died-in-the-wool, hardcore Democratic southern states are now hardcore Republican? Why, yes, that’s exactly what you notice.

And what is it that happened there? What could possibly account for that stunningly dramatic shift over the course of four years?

Hmm…in that first election they all voted for that Catholic northerner, while in the second election they’ve got a chance to vote for a Protestant good ol’ boy from Texas…but don’t. Well now, that doesn’t make any sense. Why wouldn’t they choose their local son overwhelmingly? Hm. What on earth could explain that radical change?

We all know exactly what explains that radical change. We just don’t like to talk about it.

So, no, the Democratic Party didn’t leave Reagan; he ran screaming from the Democratic Party. And that’s just fine by me. Because the only way his “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left me” whine makes any kind of sense at all is if it’s not very subtle code for “I don’t believe black folks should have the same rights as white folks.” In which case, I’m glad he got the hell away from my party.

Which brings us to the latest debate in DC. As anyone who’s watched any of the debates knows, the current GOP candidates won’t say the name “Bush” at gunpoint, but will coo “Reagan” over and over and over again, in the fervent hope that some of his teflon magic will ooze all over them.

Which is why Reagan’s record on racial matters is in the news again. David Brooks has been claiming that Reagan’s getting unfairly tarred with the racist brush and in an extremely uncommon turn of events, two of his fellow columnists at the Times have now called him on his revisionist history.

Look, do I really think Reagan was a racist? I have absolutely no way of knowing what was in his heart. But here’s what I do know: he frequently used the same language that racists use, which means he either was one or he found it politically expedient to reach out to them. Either way, this beloved president from our past is far from a shining example of Americanism, but someone to be rather ashamed of.

Righting Reagan’s Wrongs?

Let’s set the record straight on Ronald Reagan’s campaign kickoff in 1980.

Early one morning in the late spring of 1964, Dr. Carolyn Goodman, her husband, Robert, and their 17-year-old son, David, said goodbye to David’s brother, Andrew, who was 20.

They hugged in the family’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Andrew left. He was on his way to the racial hell of Mississippi to join in the effort to encourage local blacks to register and vote.

It was a dangerous mission, and Andrew’s parents were reluctant to let him go. But the family had always believed strongly in equal rights and the benefits of social activism. “I didn’t have the right,” Dr. Goodman would tell me many years later, “to tell him not to go.”

After a brief stopover in Ohio, Andrew traveled to the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a vicious white-supremacist stronghold. Just days earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan had firebombed a black church in the county and had beaten terrified worshipers.

Andrew would not survive very long. On June 21, one day after his arrival, he and fellow activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney disappeared. Their bodies wouldn’t be found until August. All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

And Reagan meant it. He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial discrimination. And in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation.

Congress overrode the veto.

Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. Congress overrode that veto, too.

Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up that dismal record.

To see Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and the acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words like “states’ rights” in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of the G.O.P.’s Southern strategy. That acknowledgment came in the very first year of the Reagan presidency.

Ronald Reagan was an absolute master at the use of symbolism. It was one of the primary keys to his political success.

The suggestion that the Gipper didn’t know exactly what message he was telegraphing in Neshoba County in 1980 is woefully wrong-headed. Wishful thinking would be the kindest way to characterize it.


About the other scott peterson

Writer of comics and books and stuff.
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10 Responses to Leaving the Party

  1. shannon says:

    Holy Crap. I had no idea any of that went on with Reagan. (I was in junior high when he was re-elected and I campaigned against him in our school election). It doesn’t surprise me that he was a white power sympathizer. That’s how I look at him.
    My son was the only white child in an all-African-American school last year. It taught him more about being different but being treated the same than any words I could use. It shames me that there are still people in this world who think they are different by virtue of their skin color or money or anything other than their own abilities. Thanks for posting this. I’m just sorry that we have to admit Reagan was once part of the Democratic party.

  2. DT says:

    One of the things that is truly, TRULY messed up about this country – in every awful way possible – is that hardly anyone today can place the names Goodman, Chaney, or Schwerner. And it should be every American’s duty to know whose these three brave kids were, what they were doing, and why they died. They are as deserving of having their names and legacies known as Nathan Hale. Maybe more.
    And hardly anyone knows who the hell they were. And we vote for Nixon and Reagan and Bush 43 while forgetting about them year after year, generation after generation.
    And that is just so damn sad.

  3. Tom E. says:

    Know who the Dixiecrats were? Well, they bolted the party over Truman’s progressivism on the race issue. (Remember, it was he who sighnd the executive order desegregating the armed forces.)They ran a third-party candidate for president that year on a segregationist ticket. Who was he? Strom Thurmond. Thurmond left the Democratic Party for the same reasons Big Dutch did. Ever wonder where the Dixiecrats went? Look no further than the fact the most prominent Republicans in the country all seem to have a pronounced Southern drawl.

  4. Tom E. says:

    Then there’s this from the inestimable Dr. Krugman:
    So there’s a campaign on to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon’s Southern strategy. When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that “I believe in states’ rights,” he didn’t mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake.
    Indeed, you do really have to feel sorry for Reagan. He just kept making those innocent mistakes.
    When he went on about the welfare queen driving her Cadillac, and kept repeating the story years after it had been debunked, some people thought he was engaging in race-baiting. But it was all just an innocent mistake.
    When, in 1976, he talked about working people angry about the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store, he didn’t mean to play into racial hostility. True, as The New York Times reported,
    The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression “young buck,” which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.
    But the appearance that Reagan was playing to Southern prejudice was just an innocent mistake.
    Similarly, when Reagan declared in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the South,” he didn’t mean to signal sympathy with segregationists. It was all an innocent mistake.
    In 1982, when Reagan intervened on the side of Bob Jones University, which was on the verge of losing its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating, he had no idea that the issue was so racially charged. It was all an innocent mistake.
    And the next year, when Reagan fired three members of the Civil Rights Commission, it wasn’t intended as a gesture of support to Southern whites. It was all an innocent mistake.
    Poor Reagan. He just kept on making those innocent mistakes, again and again and again.
    PS: It has been pointed out to me that Reagan opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday, giving in only when Congress passed a law creating the holiday by a veto-proof majority. But he really didn’t mean to disrespect the civil rights movement – it was just an innocent mistake.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is in reference to a New York Times column in which conservative pundit David Brooks tried to offer a favorable explanation for Ronald Reagan’s blatant 1980 appeal to those racist conservatives who had not yet bolted the Democratic Party for a far more congenial home in the GOP.
    Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair Visit?
    By Joseph Crespino
    Mr. Crespino is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton, 2007). He teaches American history at Emory University.
    In his November 9, 2007, column in the New York Times, David Brooks discussed Ronald Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980 and his use of the term “states’ rights.” Brooks absolved Reagan of racism, but he ignored the broader significance of Reagan’s Neshoba County appearance.
    A full account of the incident has to consider how the national GOP was trying to strengthen its southern state parties and win support from southern white Democrats. Consider a letter that Michael Retzer, the Mississippi national committeeman, wrote in December 1979 to the Republican national committee. Well before the Republicans had nominated Reagan, the national committee was polling state leaders to line up venues where the Republican nominee might speak. Retzer pointed to the Neshoba County Fair as ideal for winning what he called the “George Wallace inclined voters.”
    This Republican leader knew that the segregationist Alabama governor was the symbol of southern white resentment against the civil rights struggle. Richard Nixon had angled to win these voters in 1968 and 1972. Mississippi Republicans knew that a successful Republican candidate in 1980 would have to continue the effort.
    On July 31st, just days before Reagan went to Neshoba County, the New York Times reported that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed Reagan. In its newspaper, the Klan said that the Republican platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.” Reagan rejected the endorsement, but only after a Carter cabinet official brought it up in a campaign speech. The dubious connection did not stop Reagan from using segregationist language in Neshoba County.
    It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past. Reagan’s states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance. John Bell Williams, an arch-segregationist former governor who had crossed party lines in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, joined Reagan on stage at another campaign stop in Mississippi. Reagan’s campaign chair in the state, Trent Lott, praised Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate in 1948, at a Reagan rally, saying that if Thurmond had been elected president “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
    [The same sentiments later cost Lott his position as Senate Majority Leader]
    Brooks’s defense of Reagan seemed to be a response to his fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman, who in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal,mentions the Neshoba County visit several times. Krugman’s account of modern conservatism is not without problems. He reduces the success of modern conservatism to the fact that “southern whites started voting Republican.” Such a formulation singles out white southerners alone as providing the racist element in conservative politics. It ignores the complex intersection of racial issues with cultural and religious concerns to which liberals have not always been sufficiently sensitive. And it obscures the fact that Democrats continued to win elections in the South after the 1960s by appealing to populist economic issues—a history that Democrats today should recall before they start “whistling past Dixie.”
    Brook’s column, however, is a good example of conservatives’ discomfort with their racial history. Reagan is to modern conservatism what Franklin Roosevelt was to liberalism, so it’s not surprising that Brooks would feel the need to defend him. But Brooks’s throwaway remark that “it’s obviously true that race played a role in the GOP ascent” understates what actually happened.
    Throughout his career, Reagan benefited from subtly divisive appeals to whites who resented efforts in the 1960s and 70s to reverse historic patterns of racial discrimination. He did it in 1966 when he campaigned for the California governorship by denouncing open housing and civil rights laws. He did it in 1976 when he tried to beat out Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination by attacking welfare in subtly racist terms. And he did it in Neshoba County in 1980.
    Reagan knew that southern Republicans were making racial appeals to win over conservative southern Democrats, and he was a willing participant. Despite what Brooks claims, it’s no slur to hold Reagan accountable for the choice that he made. Neither is it mere partisanship to try to think seriously about the complex ways that white racism has shaped modern conservative politics.

  6. Theresa says:

    I am so glad this is finally coming out in the open. I was beginning to think dh and I were the only ones left scratching our heads when suddenly Reagan went from being remembered as a sleazy, elitist jerk to being revered as St Ronald the Great. When the heck and HOW did THAT happen? What mind-numbing drug has the powers that be been slipping in the nation’s water supply that can selectively erase our collective memories so efficiently? Or perhaps it is just the steady diet of bullsh*t they’ve been feeding us these past 7 years.

  7. Tom E. says:

    Or perhaps it is just the steady diet of bullsh*t they’ve been feeding us these past 7 years.

  8. KC says:

    Thanks for this illuminating post.

  9. SassyBelle says:

    I would just like to point out, however, that in certain areas of the south there is still a strong tradition of Southern progressivism… And that the entire south doesn’t hate black people. And that it just seems like, as per usual, the stupid people talk more loudly then the smart ones around here.

  10. scott says:

    I was born in Dallas, went to college for five years in Virginia, met the insanely perfect Top Management there, she then moved down to North Carolina to get her master’s, and then after about ten years in New York City and its surrounding areas we moved back down to the unspeakably gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains. My folks live in North Carolina and Top Management’s folks are from Georgia and Alabama.
    I love the south and its peoples. And it, like pretty much every other part of the country, is far, far, far more liberal in many, maybe most, respects than you’d ever guess from the politicians it elects or the moronic talking heads we see on television.

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