Who’s wrong on race?

WHO’S WRONG ON RACE?…. In one of the more transparently ridiculous campaign ads of the 2006 cycle, the National Black Republican Association ran radio spots in Baltimore insisting that African-American voters should back the GOP, because Democrats were responsible for Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and releasing vicious dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights activists.

The ad was almost comically inane, and was quickly rejected by voters. Regrettably, Bruce Bartlett, a conservative pundit and frequent Bush critic, has decided to devote an entire book to the same idea.

In a WSJ op-ed earlier this week, Bartlett pointed to “the 200-year record of prominent Democrats” who were “openly and explicitly for slavery before the Civil War, supported lynching and ‘Jim Crow’ laws after the war, and regularly defended segregation and white supremacy throughout most of the 20th century.” The piece included dozens of ugly quotes on race from “prominent Democrats,” drawn from Bartlett’s new book, “Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past.”

Ironically, Bartlett’s criticism of the Bush White House’s economic policies elevated his stature as a credible political commentator. The premise of his upcoming book seems intent on throwing that standing away with an argument that is both cheap and silly.

One need not have a doctorate in American history to know that the nation’s two major political parties have shifted significantly over the past couple of centuries. The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two competing constituencies — conservative southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and liberals and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled, ultimately siding with a progressive, inclusive agenda. Southern conservatives left the party, and joined the GOP.

Bartlett insists that the Democratic Party’s history must not be “swept under the rug as old news,” adding that if Dems believe Reagan’s racist appeals in 1980 still matter today, Democrats’ history has to matter, too.

As Yglesias noted, this misses the point.

I don’t think the history should be swept under the rug at all. What I think is that the history reflects well on present members of the Democratic Party. The political views of the Southern Democrats were unconscionably evil, and the corrupt bargain national Democratic Party figures struck with them was a terrible thing. But in a series of intense political battles, the Democratic Party eventually broke decisively with that heritage, prompting breakaway segregationist campaigns in 1948 and 1968 and eventually leading the bulk of the white supremacist constituency to drift to the Republican Party.

The significance of the history of race in America — and of the centrality of the Democrats’ corrupt bargain with white supremacy to American political history — really shouldn’t be minimized. But what it shows is that the Democratic Party’s decision to embrace the civil rights movement and the Republican Party’s decision to embrace opposition to civil rights has been integral to the Republican Party’s political successes toward the end of the 20th century.

If history ended in 1965, Bartlett may have a legitimate point. But given what we’ve seen over the last half-century, the more salient point is that Dems have been part of the solution on race, and the GOP has been part of the problem. In this sense, I’m far more concerned with the Republicans’ transparent present that the Dems’ not-so-buried past.