Democrats and race: A lively debate

My recent article on the history of the Democratic Party — whose inflammatory name was inserted not by me but by the Phoenix editors — must have struck a nerve. It generated not one but two full-length responses, one from Nate Urban and another from Jason Clayton. Neither response calls into question any fact that I presented, but both insist that I should have written on a different subject from the one I chose. Urban is right that civil rights issues of today deserve focus. But universities also have history departments. At any rate, Urban’s piece is more thoughtful than Clayton’s, so I’ll reply to his first.

Urban’s article is well-written, but I disagree with him throughout. Early in his counterargument he makes a curious assertion: “In 2015, no party should attempt to claim the moral high ground on slavery.” Why not? The Democratic Party is perfectly happy to claim the moral high ground on that issue and others. If you go to the website of the Democratic National Committee and click on the History section, you will find this opening sentence: “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.” First of all, it’s patently absurd to say that Democrats led the fight for civil rights “for more than 200 years,” as I hope I made clear two weeks ago. In any event, the Democratic Party is eager to take credit for its purported accomplishments over the span of two centuries, regardless of the “differences between 19th- and 21st-century political parties.” When the facts comply, I see no problem with this, and I believe the Republican Party should be allowed to do the same. So, yes, in 2015 Republicans can take the moral high ground on slavery, seeing as they actually did lead the (literal) fight to abolish it and pass the Reconstruction amendments.

The bulk of Urban’s response is about voter ID laws, on which I published my own views in a previous article from the fall semester. His point seems to be that Republican support for voter ID laws must be evidence of racist intent. Yet the vast majority of Americans support these laws, including Democrats.  For example, a recent McClatchy poll found that 84 percent of Americans approve of voter ID legislation, along with 72 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of independents. Rasmussen found 78 percent overall approval, and the “Washington Post” 75 percent approval. The laws enjoy support across demographic groups; they are even backed by a small majority of blacks. Cherry-picking ugly comments cannot change this. Furthermore, there’s no evidence that voter ID laws suppress minority turnout, as I noted in my editorial on the subject. After searching meticulously through the data, scholarly studies conducted by both Columbia University and the Brennan Center for Justice were unable to find any evidence that voter ID laws affect minorities. Minority turnout sometimes increased in states with these laws, even exceeding white turnout.

I respect Urban’s views and I’ll try to profit from his example. I hope he’ll review his column and look into his mirror just as steadily as he asks me to look into mine. Now I’ll turn to Clayton.

I must admit, this is a pretty odd piece of text. I had trouble teasing out an actual argument to respond to. Clayton begins with two paragraphs in which he sounds like he’s congratulating himself for not fleeing in disgust when he spoke to a Republican in 2012. He confesses that his usual reaction to articles he disagrees with is to mock them with his friends at breakfast. He says this again later on, so we must assume that this snickering echo chamber is important to him, though it’s not clear why he thinks mocking others behind their backs is something to tell the whole college about.

Lest the reader wonder what any of this self-analysis has to do with the Democratic Party, Clayton then informs us that I should have written my article on a different subject — “conservative ideological goals or Republican Party policies.” He yearns for the golden days when Republicans “wryly acknowledged … part of the Republican platform was completely indefensible,” then issues a demand “that Republicans defend their platform.” Basically the whole piece is a snide lamentation that I didn’t demonstrate “some willingness to debate the issues.” Last I checked, there is more to politics than a set of narrow policy debates.

But if Clayton were actually interested in my views on “the issues,” he could have readily found them in articles I’ve published in this very newspaper (and in “The Swarthmore Independent”), which deal with such topics as divestment, voter ID laws, big business, the limitations of government, and the misleading rhetoric of politicians. Clayton doesn’t respond to any of these, but does take a bizarre swipe at my article on classical music, which is completely irrelevant to the matters at hand. His assertion that I am “complaining, without evidence, that liberals don’t like classical music because dead white men created it” reveals that he didn’t even bother to read the column, in which there is neither mention of liberals nor anything remotely partisan.

Clayton also tries to argue that Republicans are now attempting to “erase our country’s disgraceful history.” His example is the reaction to former Senator Mary Landrieu’s comment that “the South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” Taking Landrieu’s words cleanly out of context, Clayton acts as if her statement was some penetrating acknowledgement that Republicans are denying. He evidently didn’t read the whole quote, because in the real world she was just blaming President Obama’s unpopularity in the South on his blackness, rather than on his policies. Certainly this would explain how Senator Tim Scott, black Republican of South Carolina — bedrock of the Confederacy — won 88 percent of the white vote in 2014, a larger share than Lindsey Graham’s. Republican backlash against Landrieu’s comment had nothing to do with Jim Crow era laws or lack thereof. And on the subject of that disgraceful history, Clayton says I see it “as primarily the fault of Democrats.” He’s right, I do. I’m still waiting for his counterargument.

Sometimes Clayton just contradicts himself. For example, in one sentence he says that my article “promoted conservative views.” Two sentences later he says that it “didn’t promote a viewpoint at all.” Since he can’t decide for himself, I’ll tell him: the article isn’t about conservatism. My purpose isn’t to absolve the Republican Party or pretend it’s free of sin. I intend instead to bring to light an ugly guilt rarely discussed.

If the Democratic Party wants to use history to polish its image, as its national organization clearly does, it must also account for the uglier parts of its past. Now, I don’t expect the DNC to do this, but I do expect honest students of history to do it. Some Democrats I’ve talked to here at Swarthmore are willing to admit that their party’s past has racism in it, but they try to disown this ugly record by claiming that conservative Democrats migrated to the other party over race (a myth which I’ll discuss another time). The Democratic Party argues that its current platform, self-described as pro-civil rights and equality, is something it has long fought for. Yes, Democrats have achievements they can be proud of. But if the party wants to lay claim to that liberal ancestry, it must also acknowledge that some of those same exalted liberals also committed terrible acts of racism. If you claim it, claim it all. I’m willing to discuss the historical sins of the Republican Party; I do that frequently at this college. We’re obliged to talk about our history just as much as the other side. So I stand by what I said before: cut out the fantasies and talk about your past, Democrats.


  1. This is actually hilarious, so the entire point here is for you to get the ‘liberals’ to own up to a history of racism. Oh wait, most long-standing organizations on earth have a history of racism. In the present day, there is racism in both parties. Seemingly, there is less racism in the democratic party. I don’t understand what claims you are making in this series of ridiculously trivial and laughably shallow columns, which seem to only exist because you don’t actually understand how to talk to the ‘liberals’ in a non-accusatory manner which doesn’t involve some blatantly straw-man conception.

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