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Volume III, Number 328 January 2003

Parody of Lincoln

Tim Francis-Wright

February may not be the cruelest month, but it features some cruel ironies. On the 12th, Americans will commemorate the 194th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, who ended America's horrible legacy of chattel slavery and quashed a civil war. Republicans have always claimed to be the Party of Lincoln, but the party's national vigor depends in no small part on voters who despise what the Republican Party of 1860 stood for.

To its shame, the Party of Lincoln come to depend on white voters who hate black people. While the party's official positions are not racist in the least, its political strategies and tactics have catered to racist white voters, particularly in the states of the Confederacy.

When Trent Lott stepped down as majority leader of the Senate, he may have put an end to his substantive political career, but he did not change the reality of national Republican politics. Since 1972, the Republican Party has catered to Southern white voters who miss the days of overt suppression of every aspect of black politics. The "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon successfully won votes from whites who had voted for George Wallace in 1968 and Strom Thurmond in 1948. Top Republicans in 1972 did not talk about reinstituting the poll tax or reviving Jim Crow laws. But they expressly targeted the southern white voters who had voted for the racist campaign of George Wallce four years previously. In 1980, Ronald Reagan expressed his public support in Mississippi for states rights. He was not hoping that voters would infer that he supported more state control over welfare policy. He was not promoting the right of states to opt out of the Interstate Highway System. He was, of course, echoing the words of segregationists from Thurmond to Wallace, who used the mantra of "states rights" to defend overt discrimination against black citizens without unseemly federal interference.

When Trent Lott remarked at Strom Thurmond's centenary that the country would have been better off had Thurmond won the presidency in 1948, he repeated a blunder from 1980, one that the press let slide at the time. At a rally for Ronald Reagan just before the 1980 election, Strom Thurmond declared that he wanted "that federal government to keep their[sic] filthy hands off the rights of the states." Trent Lott then told the assembled crowd that "if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." The platform of the States Rights Democrats in 1948 was Whether Lott believed in 1980 or in 2002 that President Thurmond would have been better than President Truman matters only when evaluating Lott's morality. More important is that Lott felt in both cases to let assembled Republicans know that he supported the legacy of 1948. Every trip that a Republican bigwig makes to Bob Jones University instead of several other colleges and universities in South Carolina is a message to atavistic white voters in the South that the Republicans care about their votes. Every Republican call to reinstate the Confederate battle flag to its supposedly honored place on a stage flag is at once an insult to black voters and an homage to voters who felt that the Confederate cause—slavery—was somehow just.

Only a few decades ago, Republicans could claim without irony that they were the Party of Lincoln, the party whose 1860 platform abhorred the existence, and particularly the possible spread of, slavery. Even after Franklin Roosevelt started to attract black votes to the Democratic Party, starting in 1934, the Republican stance on racial issues was relatively progressive. The Democratic Party Was split between its Southern wing, which supported the poll tax and overt racial discrimination, and its Northern wing, which did not. When Harry Truman began tentative steps to restore full civil rights to black Americans, starting in the armed forces, many Southern Democratic politicians, led by Strom Thurmond, began to revolt. Government policies toward civil rights improved under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1950s and 1960s, but the Johnson administration passed the most far-reaching legislation, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson faced a dilemma: alienate white Southerners used to decades of legal superiority, or fulfill the government's century-old promise to its black citizens. He chose the latter path, and the Republican party reacted in a politically correct, but not morally correct, way.

Certainly the former Confederacy has no monopoly on racism; indeed, racist attitudes pervade states throughout the country. In Northern cities, in order to attract the votes of racist whites, Democratic and Republican politicians have railed against the busing of students to integrate public schools. The South is unique in attracting generation after generation of politicians who echo the racist call of their forebears, in ever more abstract terms.

In addition, the official positions and platforms of today's Republican Party mark it as a political haven for homophobes. The Republican Party was instrumental in the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited restrictions on voting due to race or color, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the suffrage to women. Now, state and federal Republican platforms explicitly call for denial of legal rights to gay and lesbian Americans.

While Republican politicians mask their appeals to white racists with terms like "states rights" or issues like the Confederate flag, the appeals to homophobes are far less subtle. The 2000 national Republican platform was fairly muted in its opposition for equal rights, limiting itself to a disapproval of homosexual soldiers, a condemnation of gay marriages or their civil equivalents, and a statement that "we do not believe sexual preference should be given special legal protection or standing in law."

Many state platforms are far blunter. In California, the state platform opposes "any special privileges, rights, or accommodations based on sexual or behavioral preferences." Issues regarding heterosexual families, however, "should not be handed over to intrusive government bureaucrats." Yet the state party opposes "granting to homosexuals special privileges, including marriage, domestic partnership benefits, and child custody or adoption." The platform committee did not elaborate how heterosexuals are supposed to reconcile how their sexuality grants them these enumerated privileges with the proviso that sexuality is not supposed to generate special privileges.

The Washington state platform recommends that "public schools not promote or identify homosexuality as a healthy, morally acceptable, or alternative lifestyle." Strangely enough, the party has not demanded that the Washington Log Cabin Republicans, the state branch of the gay and lesbian Republican organization, remove its link to the party website.

But the Texas state platform may be the most egregious of any state. The Texas platform committee has the following in its plank on homosexuality:

the practice of sodomy tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country's founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.... We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, recognition, or privileges including, but not limited to, marriage between persons of the same sex, custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values. (emphasis added)

It is hard to know where to start with this pile of rubbish. The Texans fall into the trap of relying on the Bible to support their views on homosexuality. Relying on the Bible means that one might rely on the Bible for other things. Is slavery just because certain verses fail to decry it? Is sexual adventurousness okay thanks to Song of Solomon? Which parts of Leviticus still apply to Christians? The mandate for death by stoning for homosexuals? The dietary laws? The ban on linsey-woolsey?

A state party that proclaims over and over again its distrust of big government wants to mandate that gay and lesbian Texans cannot have custody of children (even if they are the natural parents), and cannot have the same insurance or retirement benefits that straight Texans have. The party even supports a legal free pass for opponents of homosexuality to do what they will without civil or criminal penalty, because both their conception of God and the majority of Texans believe homosexuality to be wrong. In much of the nineteenth century, many Christians and certainly a majority of white Texans believed slavery to be just and moral and right. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.