Why Does GOP Continue To Be 'The Party Of White People?'

Robert Siegel speaks with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, about his article on the Republican party and why it is and will remain the party of white people.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat the incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover with over 57 percent of the popular vote. FDR had majorities of Southern white Protestants, Northern Catholics and Jews.

The groups that remained faithful to the GOP were Northern white Protestants and blacks. Two years later, in congressional races in 1934, Democrats won a majority of black votes for the first time, and they have been winning them ever since.

Well, this week, Sam Tanenhaus writes about whites, blacks and the Republican Party in The New Republic. The title of his article is "Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People."

Sam Tanenhaus, welcome to the program.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh, good to be with you again, Robert.

SIEGEL: Let's pick up the story of black voters and the GOP in the 1950s. As you write about it, that was a time when Republicans were at least as committed, if not more committed to civil rights than Democrats. And President Eisenhower did pretty well with the black votes.

TANENHAUS: Yes, you know, Eisenhower himself was not, shall we say, the most ardent civil rights activist, but he certainly recognized that there was work to be done. And in his administration, several important things happen. One, of course, he appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, chief justice that gave us the remarkable Brown decision in 1954. Then in 1957, the country passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. Not one Republican opposed that bill. The dissenting no votes came almost exclusively from Southern Democrats.

Then shortly after that bill was passed, there was the remarkable episode in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the governor tried to intervene to keep the Little Rock Nine from integrating Central High School. And Eisenhower sent troops in, the 101st Airborne.

SIEGEL: So at the very least, there was no natural antagonism between blacks and the Republican Party. But what you argue, in your article, is that what changed was a kind of coincidental conservative intellectual revolution that opposed the power of the federal government, not expressly for racist reasons but the audience for that argument was in the white South.

TANENHAUS: Yes. What happened, Robert, was the conservative movement came into being almost at that precise moment through National Review, the great conservative magazine founded, published, and edited by William F. Buckley Jr. Initially, Buckley himself was quite sympathetic to the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote an editorial supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But once the federal government got involved through the Civil Rights Act and then through the Little Rock incident, National Review sided defiantly with the white South and its massive resistance.

Why? Because to National Review's intellectuals, this seemed an instance of overreaching statism. And while it was fine if the South found its own way to integrate, the government had no business getting involved. And this led them to repeated defenses of segregation in the South and arguments based on the brilliant, but unusual constitutional writings of John C. Calhoun, the Great Nullifier.

And at this point, conservatism and eventually the Republican Party adopted Calhoun's approach to democracy which said: An outnumbered minority, if it feels its interest is threatened, can nullify actions by the federal government. And this - in my interpretation - is what set the Republican Party on the course it's still on today.

SIEGEL: Your article in The New Republic is titled not just "Why the GOP Is," but why it "Will Continue to be the Party of White People." This is a season of introspection among Republicans, we're told, self-examination, what went wrong. Marco Rubio is giving the answer to the State of the Union. Nikki Haley is the governor of South Carolina. She's an Indian-American. Bobby Jindal is a star in the party.

Why don't they at least have half a chance of escaping this nullification view of politics?

TANENHAUS: Well, one hopes they do. It's not simply a question of disparate or diverse racial and ethnic groups the parties having trouble connecting with. It's also an idea, an approach to governance itself. What the country has seen throughout Barack Obama's presidency so far is a handful of extremely conservative Republicans in the House who oppose everything he does.

There seems to be a kind of disrespect or indifference to the notion of majority rule. And when you have as diverse a country as ours, the notion of belonging is really important. And until the moment comes when the party itself, not just by presenting attractive candidates, but until they stop portraying the federal government as this invasive, predatory force, they're going to continue to alienate large segments of this population, many of whom are people of color who've profited from government or who found government to be helpful and useful in their lives.

SIEGEL: And then you're also saying that when you hear people speaking of taking back the country, the country that they say we built, minority groups - who are part of the Obama majority - hear people who are using what you see as the politics of nullification try to undo the reality of America today.

TANENHAUS: That's right. Yeah, as I say in the story, when they say take back America, they seem to mean take America back to some earlier, better time.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thank you very much for talking with us today.

TANENHAUS: Always a pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, who is the editor of The New York Times Book Review, wrote the article "Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to be the Party of White People" for the current issue of The New Republic.

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