Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's comments on Meet The Press regarding the need for change within the republican party are both welcome and not unexpected coming from him. He has been one of the few republicans to openly state what every marginally astute political observer knows for certain - that the once Grand Old Party is in danger of permanently marginalizing itself if it cannot adapt to an increasingly diverse and more socially tolerant America. I do take issue, however, with some of the details. Secretary Powell acknowledged that the more extreme component of his party's coalition has become dominant, pulling the party away from its leadership legacy embodied by Senators Richard Lugar, John Tower, and, yes, President Ronald Reagan. I concur that the far-right wing dominance has rendered the party far less capable of finding working solutions to our public policy challenges and the brinksmanship employed by republicans to force priorities not embraced by the majority of Americans is crippling to our collective progress. But with all due respect to the Secretary, I believe that some of those who he mentioned were also part of his party's intolerance problem - particularly President Reagan.
The irony of republicans in states throughout the south proudly defending the flag of sedition and moral bankruptcy that their party was founded to fight against does not occur by accident. Any clear-eyed, unbiased observer of American political history must acknowledge that Reagan was indeed a catalyst of the conversion of the confederate states from blue to red. After becoming the republican nominee for president in 1977, then Governor Reagan headed to Philadelphia, Mississippi, the hamlet where civil rights workers Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered and buried in an earthen dam for the unpardonable sin of attempting to advance voting and civil rights for black Americans. Reagan's speech paid homage to states rights - the argument invoked by southern states to maintain the institutional trappings of white racial hegemony in the face of federal intervention. At the direction of his campaign manager and Southern Strategy practitioner Lee Atwater, Reagan aggressively appealed to racial resentment on the part of whites. He railed against a non-existent "welfare queen" and made sure that she had a black face. In his stump speeches he expressed empathy for hard working Americans frustrated at the sight of a "strapping young buck" (yes, those were his words) using food stamps to buy steaks. Secretary Powell didn't mention republicans like Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond. He didn't mention operatives like Pat Buchanan and Roger Ailes who built their political bonafides and careers on racial resentment. He didn't mention that Lee Atwater was quite blunt in his endorsement of race-baiting political tactics.
"You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger.""
Though his military service prohibited him from expressing political views, I don't doubt that Secretary Powell was a republican when all of this was going on. While his interview may not have afforded the time to delve into the evolution of his party's embrace of social wedge politics, I am struck by the implication that this brand of republican social extremism is somehow new. Perhaps he needed to invoke President Reagan to maintain his cred within the party. But there is no doubt that the Southern Strategy, as practiced by the presidential campaigns of Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, was the progenitor of the social wedge messaging that occurs today. Republicans have been telling stupid people who to resent, who to begrudge, who to envy, who to fear and who to hate for nearly a half century. Though it started with black people as the boogeyman from whom republicans would protect "real Americans", anyone not white, Christian and hetero will do today. The problem is that by embracing the carcinogenic politics of resentment, the GOP developed a social cancer that would eventually metastasize throughout a significant portion of the party. Republicanism has become a caricatured coalition of the ignorant, the vacuous, the xenophobic, the racist, the misogynistic, the homophobic and the religiously bigoted, fused together to serve the political needs of the avaricious.
Secretary Powell is correct that the republican party has become more extreme, but I would suggest that it's extremism isn't a new phenomenon. The republican drift from the American mainstream has been years, even decades in the making and some of the persons Secretary Powell lists with reverence were indeed part of the problem.