Jason Stanford: Why are Republicans playing the victim on civil rights?
Republicans used to be the bullies, but now they can’t stop whining about how everyone’s picking on them. They’ve volunteered for the losing side on every single civil rights fight facing America and seem happy to whine about their woeful circumstances. When did the Republicans decide playing the victim was a good idea?
This week three ex-presidents are joining Barack Obama in Austin at the LBJ presidential library to mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Beyond focusing on the struggles of the struggle for racial equality, the Civil Rights Summit featured panels on immigration, gay rights, social justice and feminism. On all of these issues, Republicans find themselves cast as the bad guys in the ongoing American struggle to form a more perfect union.
“How could they not?” asked former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who spoke in favor of immigration reform at the Civil Rights Summit. “The media’s already said, decided and said, if this [immigration reform] doesn’t pass it’ll be the Republicans’ fault. Most Republicans would not take that point of view, but they think, well, the media wants to blame it on us. What’s new?”
Being on the wrong side of history has created a strange sense of aggrieved victimhood among Republican candidates and rank-and-file voters. The Republican platform has become a symphony of dog whistles, but Republicans think the real problem is the angry snarling of the attack dogs. In his much-discussed New York Magazine cover story, Jonathan Chait wrote, “This is the only context in which they [Republicans] appear able to understand racism.”
Republicans’ vision is so clouded that they can only identify their heroes after they’ve been martyred. Conservatives didn’t make Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson their poster boy until A&E suspended his show when he made anti-gay remarks in GQ. Republican politicians didn’t bring bags of Chick-fil-A to photo ops until liberals boycotted the restaurant, again over anti-gay remarks.
Not long ago, conservatives were not just offensive but on the offensive. In 1988, Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton’s ad was less a dog whistle than an air raid siren warning white voters that Michael Dukakis was letting black rapists out of prison. In 2004, 11 states passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. And as recently as 2011, Alabama passed the toughest anti-immigration bill in the country, cracking down on unauthorized immigrants in schools, the workplace, and in rental housing.
But now conservatives are playing defense. It years to turn the tide for blacks, women, and Hispanics, but attitudes about gays and lesbians flipped in an instant. In 2010, Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. A year ago June, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, and now same-sex couples can get married in 17 states. America got religion on gay rights in a hurry, making it unique among the civil rights struggles.
“One of the things that is different is how fast we have moved and how far we have moved so quickly,” said marriage equality attorney David Boies at the Civil Rights Summit, who noted it took a decade after Brown v. Board of Education to pass the Civil Rights Act.
Atwater apologized on his deathbed in 1991 for using racial prejudice to inflame voters, but present-day conservatives make a virtue of finding themselves on the wrong side of history. They flaunt their victimhood to rally their troops to yet another lost cause. These conservatives would sooner cast themselves as heroic victims than apologize for resorting to bigotry.
Republicans believe so deeply in their own victimhood that the world only makes sense in the reflection of a fun house mirror. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed anti-gay legislation, Rush Limbaugh said she was “being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona and elsewhere.” When you’re afraid of gay bullies, you’ve already lost.
When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he said that the South was lost to Republicans. The Democrats might have lost the South, but by seeing itself as the victim of every single civil rights battle the country—and not the last defense of discrimination—the Republican Party has lost its mind. But even bullies need a hug every now and then.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.