The New White Primary

Day Eight, America Held Hostage. As Professor Ubertaccio has argued here and here, President Obama cannot and should not negotiate with minority Tea Party in the Republican House. There is a majority in the Senate and a majority in the House willing to vote for a clean Continuing Resolution to reopen the government. The ransom note is being held by the Tea Party. Presidents aren’t supposed to negotiate with hostage takers, right?

Yet Speaker John Boehner and sensible Republicans are being held in check by an institutional arrangement that reminds me a bit of the old white primary system.

White primaries were adopted in some Southern states to prevent African Americans from gaining any political power. The Democratic Party in many states refused membership to African Americans, and the Democratic controlled legislatures closed primaries to non-party members.  At that time victory in a Southern Democratic primary was tantamount to victory in the general election. In 1944 the Supreme Court found white primaries unconstitutional, but for over two decades they assured that only race intransigents got to Congress from those states.

We don’t have white primaries but we do have a well-planned and abundantly funded effort to assure that only health care and tax cut intransigents get out of a Republican primary. You can be a reliable conservative, you can have had a long and distinguished career, but show some evidence of thought on taxes or Obamacare and you will face a fierce attack in a primary. Since primaries attract the most ideologically rigid voters within a party, the Tea Party has had notable success in defeating Republican legislators who hurtle off course and stray into the orbit of reality.

One group engaged in threatening Republican legislators is the Senate Conservatives Fund. As the Boston Globe reported recently “Borrowing a tactic from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which asks candidates to sign a no-tax-increase pledge, the Senate Conservatives Fund also is asking all 2014 candidates to sign a broadly worded pledge to never vote for a bill that provides funding to implement any part of President Obama’s health care law.”

President Lyndon Johnson reportedly used to say “when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” But this is an extreme application. These are not representatives; these are robots.

It isn’t all that easy to find out who is presently active in the House Tea Party Caucus, but in 2011 CNN ran a list of the sixty official members. Thirty-six of them came from states that made up the Confederate States of America; three others came from states that had slavery during the Civil War.

The Advisory Board Company printed a map of states participating, not participating, or leaning in either direction toward Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. Accepting Medicaid expansion is a key measure in assisting the poor, and as The New York Times recently reported, “A sweeping national effort to extend health coverage to millions of Americans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of the low-wage workers who do not have insurance.” A quick look at the map – son of a gun, all the states of the Confederacy are leaning toward or declining to participate.

White primary, indeed.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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11 Responses to The New White Primary

  1. Brad Lovoi says:

    It truly is two Americas in some respects. As a self-described “Libertarian Republican-Oriented Independent”, I fear that the ultra-conservative wing of the GOP is bringing about the age of a one and a half party system, at least on the presidential level. The Democrats, if they play their cards right, may end up as a catch-all party leaving the conservatives split, dispirited, and out of office except in certain regions.

    The Northeast moderate GOP wing is all but extinct and the GOP brand is further tarnished among middle of the road voters. Young people and minorities are not enamored of the Tea Party, far from it. A national party cannot rely on older white males with southern accents.

    Ironically, Gov. Christie of NJ, perhaps the GOP’s best hope in 2016, is actively disliked by large segments of the conservative true believers and may run into the same primary trouble that you have pointed out. I don’t see a Rand Paul or Ted Cruz winning a national election.

    I appreciate having an ideology that is distinguishable and fighting for it. However, by not compromising and pushing electable Republicans out in primaries (Senators Engle, O’Donnell, and Akin will attest to this) they are manufacturing the rope to hang themselves…

    • Tony says:

      Brad,
      I thought it was the established Republicans that pushed out and/or worked against Engle, O’Donnell and Akin since they felt these Tea Party
      candidates. In addition, the Tea Party is far more than just Southern white males. That distinction belongs to the established Republicans.

  2. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Brad,

    I agree with you: “I appreciate having an ideology that is distinguishable and fighting for it.” We need a vibrant two party system. But we need two party’s that are each responsible and willing to play by our traditions of governance. How are the radical tactics of the Cruz-Tea Party faction defined as “conservative.” It is very damaging to the GOP nationally and all the more so in New England where politicians like Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe hold on by their fingernails, if at all.

  3. Patrick Johnson says:

    I don’t know why you brought up “white primaries.” It has nothing to do with anything.

    White primaries were adopted in some Southern states to prevent African Americans from gaining any political power. The Democratic Party in many states refused membership to African Americans, and the Democratic controlled legislatures closed primaries to non-party members. At that time victory in a Southern Democratic primary was tantamount to victory in the general election. In 1944 the Supreme Court found white primaries unconstitutional, but for over two decades they assured that only race intransigents got to Congress from those states.

    Is anyone refused membership into the GOP? How many of the red states have closed primaries? How does this compare to blue states?

    One group engaged in threatening Republican legislators is the Senate Conservatives Fund. As the Boston Globe reported recently “Borrowing a tactic from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, which asks candidates to sign a no-tax-increase pledge, the Senate Conservatives Fund also is asking all 2014 candidates to sign a broadly worded pledge to never vote for a bill that provides funding to implement any part of President Obama’s health care law.”

    I’m not familiar enough with left-wing organizations to say which ones would be comparable to Americans for Tax Reform or the Senate Conservatives Fund, but are you saying that no comparable organizations exist on the left? There are certainly organizations that pose litmus tests to candidates on abortion such that their lack of support could torpedo a candidate. Are these different in some way?

  4. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    There are organizations on the left that probably aspire to the influence held by Grover Norquist et al. A pro-life Democrat has no chance for national office or much of a future in certain states, say like Massachusetts. And since I know you read MPP every day you recall my argument that Ed Markey was chosen as our senator by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and only ratified by the voters. On the other hand none of these organizations have managed to shut down the government or advocate for so abrogating our constitutional and political traditions.

    Obviously, white primaries were legal devices designed to assure elected officials of a certain outlook. The primary system in the Republican Party is not a legal device but is evolving to attempt to eradicate independence of thought among elected officials. Money, not law, all but assures that anyone deviating from the “pledge” is at grave risk.

    Isn’t there at least a bit of irony in the geographic concentration of Tea Party House members and states that are not participating in Medicare?

    • Patrick Johnson says:

      Is the fact that none of these left-wing organizations have managed to shutdown the government in exchange for stuff simply because they aren’t as good at their job as Norquist is at his? To say that they don’t do this because of reverence to the constitution and political convenience seems to be just a convenient excuse.

      For sake of argument, let’s point the finger squarely at Norquist and say “On this man’s shoulders all blame rests.” Is there actually a solution to this problem that you’ve identified? What would need to change for Norquist to have less influence than he does?

      • Patrick Johnson says:

        Meant to say, “that they don’t do this because of reverence to the constitution and political tradition seems to be just a convenient excuse.

  5. Patrick Johnson says:

    Yes, of course I recall your argument that Ed Markey was chosen as our senator by the DSCC. For those unfamiliar however, here is the link:
    www.masspoliticsprofs.com/2013/01/29/will-steve-lynch-buck-the-party-central-committee/

  6. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    My take on the present matter is that a goodly number of Republicans would be willing to vote on a clean CR. I think many of them find the present affront to the constitutional plan and political traditions problematic. Many folks on both sides of the aisle are decent and hold our constitution and traditions in high regard, high enough that they would deny themselves expedient means to undermine a law they do not like. But that is not the present situation in the House. And I’ve been unfair to Norquist who has expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the shutdown.

  7. Maurice T. Cunningham says:

    Tony raises a good point about the identity of the Tea Party members. In fact I looked for a current membership list but couldn’t find one and there were reports earlier this year that the Tea Party Caucus in the House was largely inactive. The list I used from CNN in 2011 had 60 names, but about 10 of them subsequently lost their seats and news reports now have the TP contingent in the House estimated at 35-40 members. It was pretty southern and white (but get to the front of the picture taking, Allen West)in 2011 though.

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