Reagan in Philadelphia

Ezra Klein is convinced by Bruce Bartlett’s argument that Ronald Reagan didn’t choose to give his first speech after getting the GOP nomination in Philadelphia, MS because it’s Philadelphia, MS, but because…well, Bartlett doesn’t exactly give a compelling non-racist reason why he would have chosen it. He hints at one here:

[I]t’s worth noting that the Neshoba County Fair is not some obscure event visited only by politicians chasing racist votes. In fact, it is a major stop for presidential candidates of both parties. For example, Michael Dukakis spoke there on August 4, 1988. According to press reports, he made only a passing reference to civil rights and, like Reagan eight years earlier, basically gave a standard stump speech. Yet no one has ever suggested that Dukakis was winking and nodding to local racists by speaking in Neshoba and not giving a strong pro-civil rights speech.

But “it’s a normal campaign stop” doesn’t cut it, especially when Reagan went out of his way to praise “states’ rights” in his speech. But, wait, Bartlett defends that too:

When Reagan got to the point where he mentioned states’ rights, it was only after a discussion of wanting to devolve federal power and resources to the states in areas such as education. He argued that governmental functions that can best be delivered at the state and local level ought to be delivered at that level. In doing so, Reagan was simply stating a belief in federalism that echoed the words of Thomas Jefferson in his first Inaugural Address and first State of the Union message.

This is absurd. Everyone knows that the term “states’ rights” implies something wholly different from simple federalism. If you’re interested in having an honest discussion about the proper division of responsibilities between state and federal governments, you use the term “federalism”. If you’re interested in race-baiting, you use the term “states’ rights”. I don’t know about Bartlett, but I’ve certainly never heard the term used in a non-racist context.
But let’s suppose for a second that Bartlett is right, that Reagan went to the site of the most notorious act of terrorism from the Civil Rights Era and talked up his states’ rights credentials for wholly non-racist reasons. This does nothing to negate the fact that the Republican party has engaged in and thrived upon racist electoral strategies for the better part of the last century. Watch the Willie Horton ad:

Watch Jesse Helms’ “Hands” ad:

Hell, read what Lee Atwater said on the matter:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

When Lee Atwater admits that even advocating tax cuts has a racial undercurrent to it, it’s hard to deny that that this was a conscious part of Republican electoral strategy.

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