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The GOP's 'Magic Negro' Debacle

In the era of Obama, the GOP’s tone-deafness on race could ultimately destroy the party.

Would-be RNC Chairman Chip Saltsman's decision to send out a Christmas CD to GOP committee members featuring a song calling our president-elect "Barack the Magic Negro" is the just latest sign of Republicans' tone-deafness when it comes to race. It's a problem that has led directly to the pathetic lack of diversity on its political bench and underscores the party's long-term challenge of regaining relevance in the Age of Obama. 

Saltsman presumably did not intend to offend by mailing out the parody CD by Paul Shanklin with songs that first aired during the campaign on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. A look at the lyrics shows that the song's real target is the Al Sharpton-sound-alike singer who feels that Obama has usurped his rightful place as the protest leader of African American politics. But now that Obama has been elected the president of all Americans, and Saltsman is attempting to run for leader of the opposition party, the song -- whose title comes from a Los Angeles Times column -- could not help but become a lightning rod. The failure to anticipate the outrage points to the blinders that exist in racially homogenous Republican backrooms. Conservatives who take good ol' boy pride in being politically incorrect are either unaware or don't care that they come off as being somewhere between indifferent and hostile to the full diversity of American life.

But ultimately, this is not a problem of political perception -- it is rooted in the Republican Party's electoral strategy over the past four decades.

Republicans rightly take pride in calling themselves "the Party of Lincoln." It's sometimes easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, and that his promise to preserve the Union, even by ending slavery, caused the South to secede after his election in 1860. People who lose wars have long memories, and the (white) South voted straight Democrat for 100 years.

But when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act over Southern conservative objections -- whispering to his press secretary Bill Moyers, "I just gave the South to the Republicans for your lifetime and mine" -- some Republicans smelled electoral opportunity. Conservative icons Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional infringement on state's rights and freedom of association. These men were not racists, but they gave some racists the cover of political legitimacy in a new party. Mississippi returned the favor by casting 87 percent of its votes in 1964 for Goldwater -- the first time the state had voted Republican in its history. Soon, the entire red/blue map was reversed.

This Southern strategy may have sold the Party of Lincoln's soul, but it contributed to four decades of political gain. Between 1968 and 2004, Republicans won seven of 10 presidential elections. Before 1968, the opposite was true -- Democrats won seven of 10.

Now the bill for this Faustian bargain has come due. Demographics are destiny, and America is becoming less white and rural and more diverse and urban.

Barack Obama's historic victory changed old political dividing lines, winning states (like Virginia and Indiana) that hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964. While Obama played offense, making inroads into virtually every major demographic group -- and winning swing voters decisively -- the McCain-Palin ticket increased its vote totals only in a narrow band of districts stretching from Appalachia to Oklahoma, and demographically winning decisively only voters over age 60 and towns with populations under 50,000. The costs of preaching to a shrinking base of what Palin characterized as "real Americans" will only become more apparent in the future.

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