Some may not remember, but the Republican Party was founded to oppose slavery. Some may not remember, but for generations Southern conservatives remained Democrats because they wanted nothing to do with the Party of Lincoln. Some may not remember, but those grand Democratic majorities supposedly enjoyed by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson included many racist conservatives who remained Democrats precisely because they remained racist, and still couldn't forgive even the increasingly conservative Republican Party for what they deemed to have been the sins of its past, such as the Civil War. Some may not remember, but the moderate Republican of the recent past was met and perhaps surpassed by the truly conservative Democrat of that recent past.
Some may not remember, but in 1948 Strom Thurmond was a Democrat. That year's Democratic National Convention was torn apart by a platform plank calling for passage of a Civil Rights Act. The turning point, both for the plank and the Democratic Party, was an electrifying speech by Minneapolis Mayor and Senate candidate Hubert Humphrey.
My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.
After the plank was passed, some Southern delegates walked out. The Dixiecrat Party was formed, with Thurmond as presidential candidate. In that famously volatile election year, Thurmond won the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. But the realignment of the parties was only beginning. A lot of Southern conservatives hated Republicans that much. When President Johnson succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he told aides they had lost the South for a generation. But it still took time. A lot of Southern conservatives hated the Republicans that much.
Nixon's Southern Strategy was designed to capitalize on the evolving loyalties of racists, and segregationist George Wallace ran for the American Independent Party and won five southern states in the 1968 presidential election; still, changes in party affiliation continued to lag. Reagan cynically and despicably launched his 1980 campaign by invoking "states' rights" in racist fire zone Philadelphia, Mississippi. That helped his party quite a bit, as more and more conservative Southerners finally made the switch. In the 1988 presidential election, the kinder, gentler Poppy Bush nakedly race baited his way to victory. The last major wave came early in the Clinton administration. After that, the transformation was largely complete. Some may not remember, but modern Republican stalwarts Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby first went to Washington as Democrats. They always belonged in the Republican Party, but it had been very hard for some Southern conservatives to make that leap. No longer.
The increasing polarization of the political parties has been a long time developing. In some ways, it has been a natural realignment along ideological grounds that was forestalled only by the bitter vindictiveness of Southern racists, including those who like to pretend that their bitter vindictiveness isn't about racism. But it is. And the now obviously racist undercurrent of so much modern Republican politics and right wing media should not be a surprise. Racism is not incidental to the modern conservative movement. It has been one of its defining characteristics.
In a nation with shifting racial demographics, the Republican strategy wasn't the smartest, and the moral vacuity is now revealing itself in the ever more desperate Republican drive to the extremes, but the process wasn't accidental. This is the political grave the Republicans have dug themselves. They and their enablers in the traditional media can and will do all they can to distract from the truth, but the history is there. The facts are there. The rabid anger of a disintegrating demographic is proof of its desperation. And it is every bit as desperate as it is rabidly angry. Certainly not all Republicans are racists, but the Republican Party deliberately exploited and exacerbated racial tensions for political gain for decades. Those Republicans now being shoved to the party's new margins have no standing to complain. Where were they when they and their party were benefitting from the extremism that now is taking control of their party? Where was their sense of civic duty and basic morality? In the short term, politics can take strange turns, but in the long term the Republican Party's decades of embracing racists has doomed it. Hoist on its own political petard, the current Republican Party is experiencing the unintentional consequence of its intentionally debased design.