Rand Paul’s Revisionist History

We’re still awaiting a thorough first-hand account of Rand Paul’s appearance at Howard University this morning; from Twitter, it appears there were some uncomfortable moments from the Kentuckian based on his lest-than-deft handling of his audience, particularly during the Q&A session following his speech. But we do have his prepared remarks, and it’s remarkable to me how much time and effort he spent on promoting a revisionist history of the relationship between the two parties–and his own self–and civil rights.

Paul goes to great and redundant length in documenting the well-known (particularly to this audience) pre-history of Republican support for civil rights, as though it’s highly relevant today. Where, he asks rhetorically, did things go wrong for the love affair between African-Americans and the GOP? In that all-purpose Fall From Grace era, the New Deal, of course:

I think what happened during the Great Depression was that African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights but they became impatient for economic emancipation.

African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty.

The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible–the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.

Interesting, eh? Black folk were “impatient” to escape from perpetual poverty and so just couldn’t wait around for the Republican formula of desegregation plus capitalism to do its magic. So they succumbed to the fool’s gold of government assistance.

For one thing, most white New Deal-era Republicans weren’t exactly crusading every day for an end to Jim Crow. So the practical political choice was Jim Crow plus the assistance offered by the New Deal (so badly needed that many of the worst southern racists supported it despite the risk it would make African-Americans “uppity”) or Jim Crow plus nothing. And even after the New Deal era, Republican “championship” of “civil rights and voting rights” was uneven; even Dwight David Eisenhower, who scandalized southerners and conservative Republicans by sending troops to enforce school desegregation in Arkansas, tended to think of voting rights as a cure-all, and never contemplated anything like the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (more about that provision later) that truly slew Jim Crow. By 1964, of course, Republicans were split between Goldwater Conservatives who opposed the Civil Rights Act (and were rewarded with the votes of virtually every southern segregationist in the 1964 presidential contest) and moderate-to-liberal Republicans willing to go most of the way with LBJ on the measure. The only Republicans really avid for civil rights were the ancestors of the RINOs who have now been hunted to extinction, and after 1964, Republican interest in the subject rapidly faded as the GOP gradually and then emphatically became the White Man’s Party.

But in any event, Paul’s attempted dichotomy between “civil rights” and “economic equality” is thoroughly bogus. What sort of meaningful civil rights were actually available in a regime where private property rights were thought to protect aggressive racism? What sort of economic empowerment was possible without “Big Government” measures to extend health care and public education to African-Americans? (Paul spent some time promoting vouchers as a brave Republican education initiative, but we all know the GOP abandonment of anything like support traditional public education was motivated not by solicitude for African-Americans but by hatred of teachers’ unions and “government schools”).

And this false dichotomy is best illustrated, again, by that moment when property rights collided with civil rights on the subject of desegregating privately owned “public accomodations.”

It’s no accident that Paul himself has on more than one occasion expressed doubts about the constitutionality of that crucial segment of the Civil Rights Act, which he whitewashed today:

No Republican questions or disputes civil rights. I have never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act.

The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.

Beats me how “civil rights” are going to be vindicated under “private purview,” but Paul’s slippery language here is reminiscent of Paul Ryan’s claim that we all agree on fighting poverty, and are just arguing about who should do the fighting (the states and the private-sector, of course, to whose charity the poor should be left).

In any event, I doubt much of anyone at Howard was fooled by Paul’s claim that absolute private property rights are compatible with racial equality. He was on stronger ground talking about the invidious racial impact of the War on Drugs and actual wars overseas, and should have made those themes his central focus.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.