David Brooks takes the pushback against the idea that Ronald Regan pandered to racists in Philadelphia, Mississippi and winds up dramatically overplaying his hand. But first let me just note that the specific charge has always struck me as oddly irrelevant. Look at the election map from 1980:

1980.png


This just wasn't a close election. The country's economy was performing poorly, Jimmy Carter's foreign policy was perceived (unfairly, I might add) as failing, and Carter was strongly disliked by his party's liberal base. Under the circumstances, he was almost certainly doomed. Carter's strategy, which actually worked pretty well given the unfavorable environment, was to try to paint Ronald Reagan as a dangerous extremist. Under the circumstances, whatever Reagan was or wasn't doing in Mississippi, it's just not plausible that coded appeals to segregationists was the foundation of his electoral success.

On the other hand -- and here's where Brooks overplays his hand -- the centrality of race and racism to American politics in general and to its unusually conservative cast in particular is really undeniable. This isn't really a partisan point at all. Obviously, electoral power is bound to swing back and forth between the parties no matter what. And it's actually a bit hard to find a particular election to point to and say "the Republicans won this one because of racism" (had Thurmond pulled enough votes from Truman in Virginia to throw the state to Dewey, that would be your candidate) because racial divisions systematically impact American politics in a way that both parties have always adjusted to.

For example, lots of people believe that it would be very morally wrong if we used progressive taxation to finance a system of high-quality health care for all Americans and don't ground this belief in racism at all. Still, it's empirically the case that the reason such a system wasn't enacted during the New Deal Era was that white supremacists who feared that federal involvement in health care would lead to integrated hospitals. More generally, the fact that the recipients of anti-poverty transfer payments are disproportionately minorities -- and even more disproportionately portrayed as such in the media -- plays a large role in casting them as "Other" and in reducing political sentiments of solidarity and the implementation of solidaristic policies.

Indeed, I think it's uncontroversial, even among right-wingers, to observe that the Nordic countries have such an egalitarian policy environment largely because they're so small and homogenous, imbuing their politics with a communitarian spirit that's largely absent from the US. Racial divisiveness' role in impeding social democratic policies in the United States is just the inverse of that.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.