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NY Times Columnist Charles Blow Completely Wrong: GOP Didn’t Lose Black Vote, Democrats Won It

In his column in the New York Times on Thursday, Charles M. Blow took a moment to correct what he thought was the poor grasp of electoral history displayed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on Wednesday when the junior Kentucky senator addressed a group of primarily African-American students at Howard University. Blow scolds Paul for whitewashing the record of how black voters turned from pro-Republican to a nearly monolithically pro-Democratic voting block in the 20th Century, and he cites a variety of modern political occurrences to explain present African-American voting patterns. Though these events clearly seem to frustrate Blow, they do not explain present African-American voting habits.

“The speech was a dud,” Blow begins his attack on Paul and the GOP in general. “It was a clipped-tail history lesson praising the civil rights record of the pre-Southern Strategy Republican Party, while slamming the concurrent record of the Democrats.”

“It completely ignored the past generation of egregious and willful acts of insensitivity by the G.O.P. toward the African-American community,” He continues.

Predictably, Blow’s history lesson begins in 1970 and a New York Times Magazine article describing the oft-misunderstood “Southern Strategy” that President Richard Nixon used to begin the ongoing process of wresting the “Solid South” away from its support for Democratic politicians.

Republicans lost [the support of black voters] when Richard Nixon’s strategist Kevin Phillips, who popularized the “Southern Strategy,” told The New York Times Magazine in 1970 that “the more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.”

Anyone possessed with a true interest in the turbulent 1968 presidential campaign should take the time to read presidential historian Theodore White’s account of the campaign and the year, 1968. One conclusion that any reader of that account will come away with is that Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” has been subject to much revisionism.

First, structurally, if Nixon were running an explicitly racial campaign, he faced some stiff completion in the candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Blow is correct; the term “Southern Strategy” was popularized in a New York Times article that was a postmortem of the 1968 race – courting Southern voters was a feature but not the dominant element of Nixon’s campaign strategy.

Furthermore, while Wallace only won a handful of states in the Deep South, his candidacy was more competitive than history gives him credit for. Wallace’s success among urban working-class white voters was replicated not just in the South but in the North’s declining manufacturing centers. Nixon’s strategy was not to out-racist Wallace, as Blow implies – it was, as part of Nixon’s strategy (and the strategy of the variety of Democratic opponents he campaigned against over the course of that turbulent year) to highlight his focus on “law and order” and an end to the chronic rioting that had plagued American cities in 1966 – 1968. That theme appealed to all Americans, but especially in the South whose voters were still possessed with a lingering mistrust of African-Americans.

What Blow misses is that the black voters, which had been a swing voters after 1932 and prior to 1960, became a reliably Democratic in the 1960 campaign and for an obvious reason – John Kennedy courted their votes. Kennedy modeled his campaign after Franklin Roosevelt’s, naming his programmatic policy the “New Frontier.” His brother, Robert Kennedy, openly pressed Georgia authorities to release Martin Luther King Jr. from prison. On October 26, 1960, Kennedy himself telephoned Coretta King to express his concerns about King’s plight. The civil rights leader was released as a result of the efforts of the Kennedy brothers and, in an immediate post-release interview, King — a loyal Republican — said he would remain neutral in the 1960 campaign. King’s father went ahead and endorsed Kennedy outright.

Larry Elder has more on the details of this event and the courage displayed by the Kennedys in Real Clear Politics.

Kennedy reversed a trend in the 1950s of African American’s voting for Republican candidates in larger numbers than they had in previous decades, but at no point after 1936 did a Democratic presidential candidate receive less than 60 percent of the vote. Once in office, the Kennedy administration never stopped registering black voters as Democrats. After JFK’s death, Lyndon Johnson set about reinforcing the Democratic Party’s hold on the black vote by championing and eventually enacting sweeping civil rights legislation – legislation that was foolishly opposed on constitutional grounds by the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ).

This graphic from JointCenter.org illustrates the pattern:

By 1968, the Democratic hold on the black vote was solid, but it is a comfortable fable that many hold to that Nixon pushed black voters away from Democrats in 1968. It suffices to create a narrative that the GOP today is composed of misanthropes with a persistent racial antipathy. This is simply a myth. Republicans didn’t lose black voters, Democrats won them.

Blow goes on in his Times piece to list a variety of modern grievances, from Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, to George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) daring to mount a presidential campaign against President Barack Obama, to Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) disrespectful outburst during a joint session of Congress. Finally, Blow claims, black Republicans like Ben Carson or Herman Cain referring to the Democratic Party’s hold on the black vote as a “plantation” is the ultimate insult.

All of these things may be viewed as insulting by African-Americans – they clearly are viewed in that way by Blow — but his claim that these are the reasons for black voters near universal support for Democratic candidates lacks evidence.

Paul’s speech to Howard’s students was a noble effort, but it was at times misguided. He spent too much of his time reminding the already well-informed students that the original civil rights leaders were primarily Republicans. They already knew that and don’t find it to be a compelling case to support Republicans today. Both of America’s major political parties have a checkered history on race relations, but no one today is responsible for the sins of their fathers. Paul should have focused on his vision for how the GOP will move racial equality forward instead of trying to relitigate the history of the American civil rights movement. But at least Paul had his history right. The same cannot be said for Blow.

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An experienced broadcaster and columnist, Noah Rothman has been providing political opinion and analysis to a variety of media outlets since 2010. His work has appeared in a number of political opinion journals, and he has shared his insights with television and radio personalities across the country.