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How the GOP Became the White Man's Party

In this excerpt from <i>Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire</i>, Robert Perkinson shows how the Right embraced racial animus as a political strategy.
 
 
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Publisher's Note: In the latter third of the twentieth century, the United States built the largest penal system in the history of democratic governance. This exceptional prison buildup had surprisingly little to do with crime and a great deal to do with politics, particularly racial politics. Texas Toughtraces the entwinement of race, crime, and punishment all the way back to slavery. It argues that mass incarceration developed in the backlash against civil rights, just as Jim Crow took hold in reaction against emancipation and Reconstruction. On the national stage, the punitive turn in U.S. criminal justice policymaking gained forced in the second half of the Johnson administration, just as the civil rights movement cemented its historic gains. Leading the way were two arch-conservatives, a canny southern demagogue from Alabama and a belligerent anti-communist from Arizona. Not only did they help construct a prison nation; they polarized and racialized America's politics in ways that are still thwarting the task of governing two generations later.

No one understood the politics of backlash better than Lyndon Johnson, Texas's most legendary politician since Sam Houston and the White House's most determined champion of civil rights since Ulysses S. Grant. Although Johnson had started out as a segregationist, as president, his social programs extended the New Deal and went further toward alleviating economic inequality than any policy regime before or since. His deployment of federal power in the interest of civil rights retraced the footsteps of Reconstruction and for the first time gave genuine credibility to the age-old American credo, equal justice before the law. "I'm going to be the President who finishes what Lincoln began," Johnson pledged -- and to a certain extent he was. Even as his Great Society ushered new voters into the Democratic Party, however, Johnson increasingly antagonized his traditional white southern base. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he confided to Bill Moyers, "I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come."

The Great Society's fiercest critics indeed came from Johnson's own section of the country, often from his home state. In 1960, he and Lady Bird had been jostled and spit on by a right-wing mob in Dallas. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, J. Evetts Haley, a wealthy rancher and far-right rabble rouser, denounced the president as a "traitor" to the South whose policies would result in "race and national suicide."

By the mid-1960s, however, neo-Confederate obstructionists were in retreat. A strong majority of white poll respondents nationwide said they accepted the basic justice of civil rights demands; even whites in the South were no longer responding to racial venom with the same fervor they once had. Critics of the Johnson administration, therefore, had to refine and redirect their ire. Anticommunism remained at the ready, but with the president dispatching hundreds of thousands of combat troops to Vietnam, red baiting was losing its zing. A fresh issue on the home front, however, held unusual promise. Not only might it allow the right to tap into smoldering fears and frustrations without resorting to outmoded racist demagoguery, but it suggested a way to reclaim the populist mantle from redistributionist liberals. The issue was crime, and after 1964, it became one of the most divisive forces in American politics.

Since crime had traditionally been a mayoral or at most gubernatorial concern -- with the notable exception of Prohibition -- Johnson was slow to grab hold. "A visitor coming to America for the first time might have been forgiven for assuming that the President of the United States commanded all the city police departments and that control of the courts was his personal responsibility," he explained "[But] crime is a local problem. … The federal government has little or no power to deal with the problem … nor should it have." From the mid-1960s, however, Johnson's foes increasingly ignored his civics lesson. As the president himself was sabotaging his experiment in social democracy by diverting resources and attention to Southeast Asia, the New Right began ravaging it from within in the name of public safety and just desserts.

A pioneer in this effort was George Wallace, the sharp-tongued segregationist who ran four times for president between 1964 and 1976. When first elected governor of Alabama in 1962, he epitomized southern demagogy. In his first inaugural address, he lambasted federal enforcement of civil rights by invoking the Civil War. "From this cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland," he thundered, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." As most Americans accommodated themselves to legal equality, however, Wallace was one of the first Dixiecratic firebrands to figure out how to talk about race without hurling racial epithets. Instead of "White Man's Government," he championed states' rights, public order, and perceived white victimhood. Crime proved to be especially fruitful terrain, as it enabled him to stoke subterranean fears of integration while assailing what he called the fanciful theories of liberal elites. "If a criminal knocks you over the head on your way home from work," he complained, "he will be out of jail before you're out of the hospital and the policeman who arrested him will be on trial. … Some psychologist will say, well, he's not to blame, society is to blame."

Much of the trouble, in Wallace's view, stemmed from the federal judiciary. "The same Supreme Court that ordered integration and encouraged civil rights legislation," he blasted, is now "bending over backwards to help criminals." Affirmed by an outpouring of national support following a carefully choreographed standoff with the Justice Department over admissions to the University of Alabama, the governor believed he glimpsed the fuming, fearful soul of a nation. "They all hate black people, all of them," he mused, according to NBC news. "They're all afraid, all of them. Great God! That's it! They're all Southern! The whole United States is Southern!"

Crime served as a perfect surrogate for Wallace's brand of racial resentment. As an issue, it had the respectability that old-fashioned "Negrophobia" lacked. It was also an undeniable social problem, even if the ballyhoo surrounding it sometimes outstripped the reality. Over the span of centuries, most historians agree, U.S. crime rates had been steadily declining, culminating in a precipitous drop during World War II. In the 1960s, however, both property and violent crime rebounded. In 1960, there were 9,110 murders and 17,190 rapes recorded in the United States; by 1975, the toll had mounted to 20,510 murders and 56,090 rapes. In per capita terms, the national homicide rate increased by 88 percent. "Today, we are in the midst of a crime wave of unprecedented proportions," warned U.S. News & World Report.

Partisans blamed their favorite villains. Social critics on the left labeled property crime "reparations" and depicted rising illegality as the result of pent-up frustrations in the face of persistent injustice. On the right, Wallace and other foes of social liberalism blamed legalistic permissiveness, moral degeneration, and a "culture of welfare." Academic criminologists put little stock in such explanations. They pointed out that local and state crime reporting became more systematic during the 1960s, thus inflating the numbers. They also noted that the first baby boomers hit their teens and twenties in the 1960s, thereby expanding the most crime-prone demographic. Two other factors stand out to crime researchers in retrospect. First, during the wartime and postwar economic expansion, millions of Americans, many of them low-wage African American workers from the South, moved to cities in search of jobs; more affluent white Americans, in turn, followed the new interstate highway system out to the suburbs, taking resources with them. Second, starting in the late 1960s, the phenomenally productive U.S. economic engine started to sputter, wracked by increasing competition from Japan and Germany, declining profits, inflation, rising unemployment, and finally the oil crisis. Together, stagnation and suburbanization concentrated poverty in the inner cities, where crimes rates climbed most steeply.

Most experts believed that the expansion of civil liberties by the federal courts had little to do with the baby-boom crime wave. Court decisions like Miranda have had as much of an effect on crime rates "as aspirin on a brain tumor," argued a former prosecutor. But public perception was another matter. Opinion polls showed that Americans were becoming increasingly concerned about crime in the 1960s, especially as politicians spotlighted the issue. They also disagreed sharply about what should be done. Ironically, those groups that were most vulnerable and most often victimized, notably women and African Americans, had the least punitive attitudes; they tended to favor preventative and rehabilitative solutions to crime. White men, although they were less often victimized and less personally fearful of crime, favored the harshest penalties.

Such differences help explain George Wallace's potency. His hyperventilating style never got him elected to national office, but Wallace secured a legacy by splitting votes, by coaxing white voters, especially in the South but also in northern cities with growing black populations, away from their traditional homes in the Democratic Party. Wallace mapped out a racially charged "southern strategy" that his ideological heirs followed to victory. The ultimate beneficiary, of course, was not the party of Jefferson Davis, where Wallace began and ended his career, but that of Abraham Lincoln.

Barry Goldwater, the archconservative senator from Arizona was one of the first Republicans outside the South to recognize the potential of Wallace's right-wing racial populism. The Democrats increasingly had a lock on the black electorate, he acknowledged, but this represented an opportunity rather than a liability. "We're not going to get the Negro vote," he told a southern audience, "so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are." To Goldwater, this meant bagging frustrated, fearful white voters not by hurling racial slurs but by honing a message of states' rights and crime control. "The abuse of law and order in this country is going to be an issue," Goldwater pledged at the start of his rousing 1964 presidential bid, which ultimately won Wallace's endorsement. "At least I'm going to make it one."

Goldwater placed crime fighting front and center when he accepted the Republican nomination at San Francisco's Cow Palace. "Security from domestic violence, no less than from foreign aggression, is the most elementary and fundamental purpose of any government," he bellowed, "and a government that cannot fulfill this purpose is one that cannot long command the loyalty of its citizens." Here the candidate privileged martial over social governance and chained street crime to the cold war. In both cases, he argued, the enemies were socialist ideas. "If it is entirely proper for the government to take away from some to give to others," he mused, conflating progressive taxation with theft, "then won't some be led to believe that they can rightfully take from anyone who has more than they? No wonder law and order has broken down, mob violence has engulfed great American cities, and our wives feel unsafe in the streets." Goldwater thus wielded crime as a dagger to strike at the heart of social democracy. In his view, Johnson's myriad antipoverty programs not only failed to prevent crime; by cultivating a pathological culture of dependency and permissiveness, they actually caused crime.

Such obdurate pronouncements proved too ideological for the 1964 electorate. When a journalist asked Goldwater what it might feel like to become president one day, he had replied, "Frankly, it scares the hell out of me." Voters agreed, and he picked up just 52 of 538 electoral votes. Even as the Arizona senator fell far short in his drive for national power, however, he proved an able revolutionary within his own party. Unlike any politician since Prohibition, he made crime a galvanizing national campaign issue. By winning five ex-Confederate states plus his own, he proved that Republicans could compete in the "solid South," and he shifted the party's center of gravity to the Sunbelt. Proclaiming famously that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," he drove liberals like his primary opponent Nelson Rockefeller into Republican exile. Within a single election cycle he repositioned the Grand Old Party as the standard bearer of opposition to civil rights. Only two years earlier, poll respondents had perceived almost no difference between the two major parties when it came to race. By late 1964, however, Americans overwhelmingly identified Democrats with civil rights and Republicans with a go-slow, states' rights approach. The sea change was apparent at party gatherings, where the conservative journalist Robert Novak was dismayed to hear a new cadre of GOP activists conversing freely about "niggers" and "nigger lovers." Under Goldwater's leadership, he concluded, the Republican Party "was now a White Man's Party."