Lessons of Duke's success

Anthony Lewis

October 28, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

WHEN A former Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi has a good chance to be elected governor of an American state, it is time to TTC think about what is going wrong in the politics of this country.

David Duke came a close second in the Louisiana gubernatorial primary, finishing just two percentage points behind former Gov. Edwin Edwards.

Because it happened in Louisiana, there was a certain tendency to put it down as another example of that state's eccentricity. But it is not a joke.

The Duke phenomenon is extremely serious, and its implications are not confined to Louisiana. The votes for him were a cry of political resentment, a cry that I think was aroused by economic pain manipulated by the factor of race.

Millions of Americans -- many millions -- are suffering from a prolonged and devastating economic recession. Real wages have fallen for three straight years. Unemployment has hit not only wage-earners but many middle-class people. And there is no convincing sign of a meaningful recovery.

The physical conditions of life are becoming more and more unpleasant for Americans. Highways are crowded and crumbling, cities unable to cope with the homeless, schools and myriad other problems. Even medical care is priced out of the reach of many ordinary people.

Sixty percent of those reached in a New York Times/CBS Poll released last week said things had got "pretty seriously off on the wrong track" in this country.

They said the most important problem was the economy. Yet President Bush offers no program for economic recovery or reconstruction. He says, essentially, that nothing can be done.

In the circumstances, a historian would expect political repercussions -- would have expected them, indeed, before now. And here they are, in the vote for David Duke. It is the vote of people who have lost faith in established political leaders.

Bush's spokesmen tried to distance themselves from Duke. He was not a real Republican, they said.

But Duke has remodeled himself in the image of the contemporary Republican Party. Not so long ago, in the 1980s, he celebrated Adolf Hitler's birthday and told an interviewer that the Nazi death camps had been built not to kill Jews but to kill lice that infested Jews.

But he has muted that kind of talk, as he has remade his face by plastic surgery.

Nowadays Duke talks to his political audiences about affirmative action, "quotas," welfare abuse, crime. The same rhetoric has been used by Bush and his people. It can be -- it often is -- a genteel code to evoke anti-black feelings.

A few days after the Louisiana primary, White House spokesmen rejected a compromise Senate civil rights bill on the ground that it would encourage racial "quotas."

It is a charge that practically no one else supports. But by all signs Bush wants not a bill but an issue: the issue of race.

One lesson of the Duke phenomenon is that when national leaders use race for short-term political gain, as Bush has repeatedly done, the country is likely to pay a price.

Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., who led the fight for Clarence Thomas's confirmation and has worked diligently to get a civil rights bill passed, has given his own party exactly that warning.

On the racial question, there is not much to be done now except to hope that George Bush's better instincts will somehow overcome political temptation.

But there is a way for our system to deal with rising public resentment over the economy. That is for the opposition, the Democrats, to offer an alternative.

An alternative means, first, a policy. The broad outlines are in view, put forward by a number of Democrats already in the race for 1992: Rebuild our physical infrastructure, care for our cities, have a rational system of health care and so on.

But in this country change requires a candidate. Franklin Roosevelt offered not a program but hope, in his voice and his person. As the times look more like 1932, Democrats have their eyes on another governor of New York.

Perhaps David Duke and the politics of resentment will be enough to make Mario Cuomo face the challenge.

Anthony Lewis writes a column for the New York Times.

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