coverLet’s cut to the chase: This orchestrated grass-roots anger over health care reform is a flat-out hoax, and the equally phony political debate going on in Washington is just as spurious. Neither one is about how much reform will cost, personal choice, or how many government bureaucrats will come between a patient and his or her doctor.

This is about race, pure and simple.

And since nothing scares the right-wing-nuts in the Republican Party more than the prospect of racial equality in anything, health care reform has become the latest outrage for their talk-radio stooges and, in turn, their never-ending search for higher ratings.

In the absence of facts that support the health care status quo, the radio ranters have been forced to reveal the outlines of the alternate universe in which they exist, that scary place where American voters last November elected a black Muslim born in Kenya who is using reform of this nation’s perfect-as-is medical care system as a way to usher in a Marxist-Leninist state.

Those who agree—but who want to remain socially acceptable—cloak the issue in different terms. They torture arguments into discourses on socialized medicine, cutting taxes, smaller government, market-based solutions and personal liberty. This bunch would never say aloud that President Barack Obama wants to convert Americans into Godless Communists, rather they imply that he would do something worse: turn them into single-payer-loving Canadians.

Tragically, large segments of the American public have bought into this reactionary nonsense and honestly believe that health care reform is a singular issue, a one-time thing that understandably divides the political left and the political right over the question of who should control a major sector of the American economy, private enterprise or the federal government.

But the argument is much broader and markedly more insidious. The debate has nothing to do with the cost of drugs, rationing medical care, or that constantly flogged waiting list for elective surgery. Its tap root reaches deep down into a steaming pile of racial muck dropped more than 60 years ago.

After President Harry Truman desegregated the military following World War II and the Democratic Party inserted a strong civil rights plank in its 1948 platform, southern segregationists walked out of that year’s convention and formed the States’ Rights Democratic (Dixiecrat) Party. Meeting later that summer in Birmingham, Alabama, that party picked South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to head its ticket, and the upstart organization succeeded in winning four Southern states that November. The effort was not enough to keep Truman from being re-elected, but the wound in Democratic circles festered for years.

Observing this fracture up close was a young man from St. Matthews, S.C., named Harry Shuler Dent. A devout Southern Baptist who graduated from nearby Presbyterian College, Dent went on to get a degree from George Washington University Law School in 1957, and a master’s of law from Georgetown University in 1959. By the time he graduated, Dent had long been an aide to Thurmond, who by then was a U.S. Senator.

In addition to his expertise in the law, which he used to help his boss thwart civil rights legislation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dent had a sensitive ear for the political stirrings of the folks back home. And they were uneasy. When the Republican Party nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, Dent caught a glimpse of the future. At his urging, Strom Thurmond switched parties, which leads to the other thread of the health care reform story.

After losing the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy and the 1962 California gubernatorial contest to Pat Brown, former Vice President Richard Nixon was dismissed as a viable political candidate by pundits on both the left and the right. ABC News commentator Howard K. Smith even hosted a 30-minute, prime time television program titled “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon.” But while others were dismissing him as a has-been, the Dark Prince of the GOP was plotting a return.

Nixon joined a New York law firm for cover and quietly spent years traveling the back roads of America, speaking at fund raisers and kick-off rallies for obscure Republican candidates seeking the most minor of offices. Over a period of time, he appeared in countless VFW halls, addressed hundreds of small-town coffees and endured thousands of photo-ops, all the while building up a huge cache of political IOUs. More importantly, Nixon was picking up on the vibe emanating from what would soon be called The Silent Majority. He and Harry Dent were destined to get on the same page.

Meanwhile, the nation was undergoing a revolution. In response to almost constant pressure from African-Americans, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed a Democratic-controlled congress into enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which gave black folks access to public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed them access to the ballot box. Federal courts were ordering school systems to abide by Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka and desegregate their facilities, even if that meant bussing students from one district to another, and Stokley Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was talking about something new and scary called “black power.”

racism-1Resistance to the civil rights movement was violent. During the “Freedom Summer” of 1964, members the Neshoba County Mississippi sheriff’s department, in cahoots with the local Ku Klux Klan, murdered three young civil rights workers and buried their bodies in an earthen dam holding a farm pond. James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were guilty of registering black people to vote.

In California, Nixon’s home state, Cesar Chavez was leading the United Farm Workers union into a series of strikes and boycotts against corporate agricultural interests, feminists were publicly burning bras and demanding their own rights, and anti-war activists were marching in the streets to insist on an end to the nation’s involvement in Vietnam.

The six o’clock news was dominated by angry people: the poor, the black, the foreign, pushy women and sloppily dressed young people. Lurking in the background and reveling in every minute of the chaos were hundreds of thousands of rock-and-rolling, free-loving, dope-smoking “flower children.”

Something had to be done, and Richard Nixon believed himself the man to do it.

Seeking vindication for his election losses in 1960 and 1962, Nixon desperately wanted to become president in 1968, but the electoral map held little promise; the traditional GOP strongholds would not get him to the White House. He needed a strong showing in the states that historically voted Democratic, many of which were in the South.

For help in getting those Southern votes, he called on a man who had carried parts of the region in a general election 20 years before, the arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond, who turned the job of electing Nixon over to his right-hand man, Harry Dent.

20080519DailyKosSouthernStrategy-1Dent, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, is credited with devising the “Southern Strategy,” the infamous effort by the GOP to cash in on the anger of white Southerners upset with the Voting Rights Act in particular and the leftward drift of the nation in general. Nixon, who had been on the road for years listening to voices from the heartland, recognized early on that the strategy would play just as well outside the South.

The campaign devised by Dent had several recurring themes. The first was a promise of a new era of “law and order,” a direct challenge to the blacks, women, organized labor and anti-war activists out in the streets.

Another theme was support for “states’ rights,” an echo of Thurmond’s old Dixiecrat Party. There was no need to define the term in public; everyone of voting age remembered that when the states were in control of things, schools were segregated, blacks drank from separate water fountains, and poor people of any color had difficulty exercising their right to vote.

Dent’s Nixon was also opposed to “forced busing for the purpose of racial integration.” Inclusion of the word “forced” in this phrase allowed rednecks to deny that they were rednecks. If a local community wanted to voluntarily bus children across district lines to achieve integration, it was fine with the Nixonites. Of course, the odds of any majority white town adopting such a scheme were off the board.

Nixon also promised to name “strict constructionists” to the federal courts. He wanted people who would stick to the Constitution as it was originally written, not appointees who would rummage around in the nooks and crannies of the document and find new rights that “tied the hands of the police,” such as in Miranda vs. Arizona, which was handed down just two years earlier.

And, as icing on the cake, Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War.

To the delight of Strom Thurmond and Harry Dent, Nixon narrowly defeated Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, the man who, as mayor of Minneapolis, led the successful floor fight to include a civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform, the effort that led Strom and his segregationist allies to walk out and form the Dixiecrats. In 1968, there was vindication and pay-back all around.

Meanwhile, back in South Carolina, a state famous for firing on Fort Sumter long ago and more recently for its ubiquitous “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards, a young Lee Atwater was making his way through Newberry College and rising to the top of the College Republicans National Committee. When he left that position to go to work for Thurmond and Dent, Atwater orchestrated a successful campaign that allowed his protégé to replace him as head of the group. That young man’s name was Karl Rove. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

After the disaster of Watergate and Gerald Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976, the GOP got back to its winning ways in 1980 by reverting to form. Advised in part by Atwater, the party eagerly dipped into its bag of racially charged campaign tricks constructed with just enough wiggle room to allow its followers to pretend that they weren’t really prejudiced against black people at all.

For example, after the GOP nominated Ronald Reagan for president, his very first campaign stop after the convention was in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair, the very same Neshoba County where Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were slaughtered earlier.

“I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan told the gathered crowd. “I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to (the) federal establishment.” He went on to promise the cheering Mississippians that he would “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”

Note the insertion of the word “properly” in that sentence. Its immediate antecedent was the word “forced” in Richard Nixon’s old school busing rant. Both provided racists with cover. In America, people have rights; they shouldn’t be “forced” to do anything they don’t want to do. And what citizen in his or her right mind would argue against “properly” balanced Constitutional powers?

But everyone understood the code.

After Reagan was elected, Atwater joined the new administration.

In 1981, he was interviewed about the Southern Strategy by the historian Alexander P. Lamis. Portions of the interview were published that year in The Two-Party South, without naming Atwater as the interviewee. Atwater died of a malignant brain tumor in 1991, and when the interview was reprinted in Southern Politics in the 1990s, his identity was finally revealed.

ATWATER: As to the whole Southern Strategy thing that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now…all you have to do to keep the South for Reagan is to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964, and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes…

QUESTION: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the (George) Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, cutting food stamps…?

ATWATER: You start out in 1964 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, all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is (that) blacks get hurt worse than whites.…I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, 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.”

And so, there it is in the words of one of the great right-wing GOP political operatives of all time, Harvey Leroy Atwater. The Southern Strategy is to use phrases like fiscal responsibility and cutting taxes as code for the totally economic things that hurt blacks worse than whites. And the racial problem is done away with one way or the other, because conservatives no longer have to say the word “nigger” to get their point across. With a straight face, they can talk about free markets and small government while pretending to be color-blind.

No person has been so vociferously opposed to President Obama and his effort to reform health care than fact-challenged, talk-radio showman Rush Limbaugh. Big Rush is a man of many words, so let’s allow his own words to tell us where he stands on the issues that really matter. Writing on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, Limbaugh typed, without a trace of irony:  “I love being a conservative. We conservatives are proud of our philosophy. Unlike our liberal friends, who are constantly looking for new words to conceal their true beliefs and are in a constant state of reinvention, we conservatives are unapologetic about our ideals.”

And what are the ideals Limbaugh and his conservative friends are so proud of? Well, he wrote, “limited government,” “tax cuts,” “welfare reform” and “a color-blind society.”

Without once using the word “nigger,” Limbaugh admits to adhering to virtually every aspect of the Dent-Atwater Southern Strategy by endorsing all the “totally economic things” through which “blacks get hurt worse than whites,” and the racial problem is done away with because conservatives really want a color-blind society.

And his listeners thought Rush was only worried about socialized medicine.

Cliff Green

Cliff Green

Cliff Green is a former writer for The Atlanta Journal. He worked there when it was a real newspaper. His accomplishments since include the fact that he has never watched a minute of reality TV, and he has never been inside a Starbuck's. He owns no device onto which he can download music, nor does he know how to record a television show. He is not sure what an iPhone is. He is proud of all the above.