By Barbara Frankel
The answer is analyzed in a fascinating and important new article in The New Republic, "Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people." The author, Sam Tanenhaus, is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and an astute observer of political history and the ramifications of ideology.
Tanenhaus was interviewed on CNBC's Squawk Box this weekend and his controversial ideas were put to the test. "This article is going to get some people a little crazy," said Squawk Box host Andrew Ross Sorkin. He cited the GOP's "new diversity" and rising stars such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio as a means of disagreeing with Tanenhaus' central point. Sorkin was joined by co-host Joe Kernen, former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Dr. Howard Dean, and CNBC commentator Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who described herself as a conservative Hispanic.
Tanenhaus contends that the GOP dominated U.S. politics from 1968 to 1988 through "a strategy of polarization that essentially gathered up much of the population against … African-Americans." He noted that before the November election, there was great concern by political analysts about how President Obama might not receive even 40 percent of the white male vote. "Three or four election cycles ago, that would have ruined him. Today, that is the minority in this country. It's not just African-Americans; it's Asians, it's Latinos, it's women who see themselves as an outsider group—this is the new majority that Republicans have to deal with," Tanenhaus said on the show.
Actually, according to The Atlantic, Obama's voters were 56 percent white, 24 percent Black, 14 percent Latino and 4 percent Asian, while Romney's were 88 percent white, 6 percent Latino, 2 percent Black and 2 percent Asian.
Tanenhaus agreed with the view of Wall Street Journal political reporter Neil King, who spoke at DiversityInc's Innovation Fest last week, that the changing demographics of the electorate are making white people—and the white people's party—an anachronism quickly. That point was also stressed by DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti in his column Diversity Wins: Demographics, Psychographic Shifts Decided Election. Tanenhaus delved deeply into the reasons why the GOP has failed to understand the changing electorate and why it may just put itself out of business shortly. Watch the video.
Asked by the hosts about the business angle, since CNBC's main audience is business executives, Tanenhaus noted that corporate America "has been pretty good on race," specifically with affirmative action and corporate diversity programs.
Caruso-Cabrera also took exception to Tanenhaus' theories. "As a Hispanic conservative I reject some of the underlying premise in terms of rejection of affirmative action. Republicans are not necessarily rejecting affirmative action because they're anti-minority; it's because they don't want to tell businesses how to do their business," she said.
The Republican party's issues, Tanenhaus argued, are more ideological. "These are the two oldest parties in Western democracy, and one of them has a long history of not being so great in civil rights," he said.
Dean disagreed, noting that he believes the Republican Party does have a future but that it's been captured by a hard-line conservative minority and its leaders need to stand up to that group.
When asked if Lincoln was the last nonracist Republican president, Tanenhaus became irritated and asked the hosts "if anyone actually read my article?" They responded that they had, indeed, read it.
What He Really Said About the GOP
You can read Tanenhaus' eloquent but very lengthy article for yourself, but to summarize: He notes that while President Eisenhower advocated for civil rights (and Brown v. Board of Education occurred on Eisenhower's watch), the GOP in the early 1950s drew on the theories of 19th century politician John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina slavery apologist who believed in "institutional democracy" and states' rights that "became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority." Calhoun basically said that states can ignore federal actions by saying they are not valid, which Tanenhaus refers to as "nullification."
Calhoun "called slavery 'a positive good' and ridiculed the Declaration's 'all men are created equal.'" ("Taking the proposition literally," Calhoun once said, "there is not a word of truth in it.") Years later in The National Review, William F. Buckley's editorial "Why the South Must Prevail" defended voting restrictions as the region's right.
The era of Barry Goldwater and Democrat George Wallace of Alabama heightened the racial politics, which went "into remission" under Richard Nixon, Tanenhaus indicated, but came back full force under Ronald Reagan, under whom efforts were made to roll back affirmative action. George W. Bush's success with Latinos was attributed directly to tax and educational initiatives he supported while governor of Texas. In the era of Romney—and after—Tanenhaus contends that better recruitment of Blacks and Latinos isn't enough.
The image of the "angry black man" still purveyed by sensationalists such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D'Souza is anachronistic today, when blacks and even Muslims, the most conspicuous of "outsider" groups, profess optimism about America and their place in it. A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP's dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its "middle-aged white guys." They now form the party's one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country's developing ideas of democracy and governance.