TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, the Republican Party made a Faustian bargain with Southern antecedents and national implications. On Saturday, the bill almost came due. David Duke lost, which saves the day, but did not end his political career. More to the point, his emergence as a national figure was the logical result of decisions repeatedly made by Republican mainstream leaders ever since Barry Goldwater went "hunting where the ducks are" in the presidential election of 1964.
The road from Goldwaterite opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Duke's overt, though slickly packaged, racism is a straight line. The party of Abraham Lincoln, the GOP has become the party of white reaction and Southern Redemption. Its most recent presidents, with the honorable exception of Gerald Ford, the accidental chief executive, have repeatedly driven their policies and campaigns deep into the racial fault lines of American society. David Duke is the first, but he won't be the last, political atavistic consequence.
Richard Nixon developed a "Southern strategy," which, as his biographers Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote at the time, sent a clear message to the new Republican constituency: "He was on the side of the South, the white majority and the status quo." Ronald Reagan never met a civil rights law he liked or a racist atrocity he could condemn. George Bush ran against Willie Horton and affirmative action in 1988, just as he had betrayed his father's heritage by running against the Civil Rights Act in his unsuccessful Texas race for the Senate in 1964.
And the returns came rolling in, adding up to two decades of virtually unbroken presidential success and a near-mortal lock on the newly solid South. Actually, while the ostensible target was the South, it was a message without regional borders. The Republican Party was deliberately refashioned as the white man's presidential party, North and South, and with a clear understanding of the consequences. Those were as politically beneficial for the GOP as they were morally troubling and socially destructive.
Lee Atwater, the late chairman of the national Republican Party, was a native of South Carolina, but he practiced what he instinctively knew -- what would polarize the white electorate in the Carolinas would polarize it in the Middle West and along the Pacific Coast as well.
Which brings us back to David Duke and Louisiana. Duke is a twisted bigot, but a very bright one. He learned quickly and adapted even more quickly. He watched Republican respectables run code-word campaigns from the local level to the presidential and knew a good thing when he saw it.
Rather than being some exotic shrimp in that old cliche, the "rich gumbo of Louisiana politics," he fashioned himself as the undeniable heir of modern Republican tradition. The national party disowned its bastard child; the state party never could or would summon the hypocrisy to do so. When George Bush finally, reluctantly, washed his hands of Duke in public less than two weeks before the election, the image of Pontius Pilate was inescabable.
There has been too much analysis of what the Duke
phenomenon meant and may mean to Louisiana, or to the South. Such a regional focus is both myopic and misleading. The politics of race is national. The business of pandering to white fears and exploiting white grievances is business as usual for people who make decisions at the highest level of American governance today. The exceptions to that indictment stand out starkly against a dispiriting background.
David Duke's landslide defeat was a good thing for Louisiana, the South and the nation. His ability to pull in over 50 percent of the white vote is a sobering reminder of the racial chasm that divides America.
It has been more than 20 years since an American president spoke directly to the American people about the enduring American dilemma of race. It was only the other day that George Bush played a demagogic game with the pending civil rights bill. Given that vacuum of leadership and that calculated divisiveness, a David Duke was as inevitable as he promises to be durable. Given nothing better in the months ahead, he will become legion, and we won't need to look away to Dixie to find him.
T Hodding Carter is a columnist and president of Mainstreet TV