Publius at Obsidian Wings asks, "why defend Reagan on race?" He writes:
Reagan’s race-baiting is beyond dispute. It happened too often, for too long, and too systematically. The more interesting question is why modern-day defenders of the Order of St. Reagan (like David Brooks) continue to whitewash it. Why not just say, “Yes, that part was shameful, but that’s not the complete picture.” Let’s just be honest about it.
The answer, I think, hits upon a much larger and more interesting theme. Modern conservatives – the majority of which are certainly not racist – have successfully ignored the racist foundations of much of modern conservative political power and even thought. It’s not so much that the doctrines remain racist today – or that they lack non-racist interpretations. It’s that they are historically rooted in racist backlash. In this respect, Reagan’s dark side is simply one part of a much larger pattern.
Okay, I'll say it, and I'm sure Brooks would as well: Yes, that part was shameful, but that's not the complete picture. But the second half of the sentence matters more than Publius allows. One reason conservatives are defensive about the race issue is that any concession on the subject is immediately seized on by liberals as proof that conservative policy on any issue related to race (which is more or less the whole run of domestic issues) is so irredeemably tainted that it need not even be argued against. It's true of contemporary controversies over affirmative action and immigration; it's particularly true of historical debates over what caused the collapse of the Roosevelt-LBJ majority, and the conservative realignment that followed. That's what the argument over Nashoba and other moments of possible Republican race-baiting is really about, in many cases: The extent to which we understand "the complete picture" of the Republican realignment as a story of racist backlash, full stop, end of story (which is how Paul Krugman understands it), rather than a story of liberal misgovernment on an epic scale, in which race played an important but ultimately subsidiary role (which is how I understand it).
You can see how this works in Publius' post. He repeatedly exonerates contemporary conservatives from the charge of racism, which is nice of him, but then offers this analysis of the Nixon-to-Reagan realignment:
Most obviously, Republican political power today rests on the race-based realignment that George Wallace first exploited. That’s why the term “Reagan Democrats” should actually be “Wallace Democrats.” Nixon and then Reagan both ruthlessly exploited white resentment to reshift the map. If you think these efforts don’t matter, check out how the bloc of Southern states voted in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
But more abstractly, much of modern conservative doctrine has foundations in racial issues. The clearest example is state rights and federalism ... Same deal for welfare and “law and order” slogans. This stuff was a bit before my time (I’m a post-Kaus Democrat), but I think Nixon’s law and order message was lost on no one. Neither was Reagan’s “welfare queens.”
Okay, but ... that's not the complete picture. The first politician to "exploit" the race-based realignment of the Deep South was Barry Goldwater, and you may recall how that worked out for him. The GOP traded the black vote (and the votes of many liberal Republicans) for the ex-Confederate vote in 1964, and it was an enormous net loss for the party. That's because the initial wave of civil rights legislation was extremely popular outside the Deep South: Seventy percent of Americans supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and even in the Border South Lyndon Johnson cleaned up, winning fifty-six percent of the vote in North Carolina, fifty-five percent in Tennessee, fifty-six percent in Arkansas, and so on. In the aftermath of the Johnson-Goldwater race, a "southern strategy" in which the GOP turned to the right and race-baited its way into the hearts of southern whites looked like a sure political loser.
It would have been, too, had other developments not intervened. Goldwater, it's worth noting, didn't just oppose the Civil Right Acts; he also played many of the same cards that Nixon and Reagan did, talking up law and order, critiquing welfare, and so forth. He did so because these are perennial conservative themes, not because he was a racist, and he lost anyway because they weren't themes that resonated with most American voters in 1964. They started to resonate in '68 and '72 and '80, though - not because white Americans in the Border South and the Midwest and the Mountain West suddenly figured out that they were code for hating black people, but because crime rates exploded over the quarter-century that followed Goldwater, and the (liberal-run) government seemed helpless to do anything about it.
Publius is right: "Nixon’s law and order message was lost on no one." It was lost on no one because violent crime went up three hundred and sixty-seven percent between 1960 and 1980. (Frankly, it's remarkable that Republicans didn't do a better job of exploiting the issue than they did.) So too with welfare, where conservative attacks on the system resonated as a national issue not because racist voters didn't want to give poor blacks handouts (though they didn't), but because the system really didn't work. And the proof is in the pudding: We still have a costly welfare bureaucracy that caters more to minorities than to whites, but it's no longer a political liability for liberals because the system is no longer the disaster that it became in the Seventies and Eighties.
Yes, you can argue that no civil rights movement would have meant no Republican realigment. But I think it's much, much more persuasive to say no crime wave, no Republican realignment. Or no urban collapse and welfare-system failure, no Republican realignment. Or no disastrous consequences of high-tax statist economics in the 1970s, no Republican realignment. Or no Roe v. Wade, no Republican realignment. Or no leftward shift in Democratic foreign policy, no Republican realignment. And the list of realigning factors goes on - with conservatives having far more to be proud of than to be ashamed of, I would argue, where the politics of the era are concerned.
Particularly since Republicans didn't take advantage of racism's political potency, but of its weakness. Southern whites were, and are, natural conservatives who happened to find themselves in the more liberal of the two parties; once Democrats associated themselves with the civil-rights movement, there wasn't anywhere else for white Mississippians and Alabamans to go except the GOP. Gerard Alexander's essay on "The Myth of the Racist Republicans" goes further than I would in downplaying Republican racism, but I think his point on this score is basically right:
Liberal commentators ... assume that if many former Wallace voters ended up voting Republican in the 1970s and beyond, it had to be because Republicans went to the segregationist mountain, rather than the mountain coming to them. There are two reasons to question this assumption. The first is the logic of electoral competition. Extremist voters usually have little choice but to vote for a major party which they consider at best the lesser of two evils, one that offers them little of what they truly desire. Segregationists were in this position after 1968, when Wallace won less than 9% of the electoral college and Nixon became president anyway, without their votes. Segregationists simply had very limited national bargaining power. In the end, not the Deep South but the GOP was the mountain.
Second, this was borne out in how little the GOP had to "offer," so to speak, segregationists for their support after 1968, even according to the myth's own terms. Segregationists wanted policies that privileged whites. In the GOP, they had to settle for relatively race-neutral policies: opposition to forced busing and reluctant coexistence with affirmative action. The reason these policies aren't plausible codes for real racism is that they aren't the equivalents of discrimination, much less of segregation.
... Kevin Phillips was hardly coy about this in his Emerging Republican Majority. He wrote in 1969 that Nixon did not "have to bid much ideologically" to get Wallace's electorate, given its limited power, and that moderation was far more promising for the GOP than anything even approaching a racialist strategy. While "the Republican Party cannot go to the Deep South"—meaning the GOP simply would not offer the policies that whites there seemed to desire most—"the Deep South must soon go to the national GOP," regardless.
So the GOP ended up bidding race-neutrality - which a conservative party would have naturally favored anyway, and which is not racism - and symbolic gestures like Reagan's opposition to MLK Day, his support for Bob Jones University's tax exemption, and so forth. These code words and gestures were real and shameful, and contemporary apologies like Ken Mehlman's mea culpa are entirely appropriate. But more often than not, I would submit, pundits who harp on this shame tend to do so because it's an easy way to leap to Krugman's conclusion that race explains everything he doesn't like about contemporary American politics, when in fact an awful lot of it is explained by the fecklessness of his liberal forebears.