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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