A man from Mars — or from Europe — might expect Mississippi voters to favor progressive taxation and generous social programs. After all, the state benefits immensely from the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson: it doesn't pay a lot of federal taxes because it has the lowest per-capita income in the nation, and it does receive a lot of aid. Unlike, say, New Jersey, which pays far more into the U.S. Treasury than it gets in return, Mississippi is a major net recipient of federal funds.
But Mississippi is, in fact, the home of Trent Lott — a leader of a party determined to roll back as much as it can of the Great Society, perhaps even the New Deal. Why do Mississippi and its neighbors support politicians whose economic policies seemingly run counter to their interests?
Do I really need to answer that?
Fifty years ago the politics of race in America weren't at all disguised. Jim Crow laws both impoverished and disenfranchised Southern blacks; Southern whites voted for politicians who promised to keep things that way. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act ended overt discrimination. Yet race remains a major factor in our politics.
Indeed, this year efforts to suppress nonwhite votes were remarkably blatant. There were those leaflets distributed in black areas of Maryland, telling people they couldn't vote unless they paid back rent; there was the fuss over alleged ballot fraud in South Dakota, clearly aimed at suppressing Native American votes. Topping it off was last Saturday's election in Louisiana, in which the Republican Party hired black youths to hold signs urging their neighbors not to vote for Mary Landrieu.
Still, nobody now misses the days of overt racial discrimination. Or do they?
Last week, at Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party, Mr. Lott recalled Mr. Thurmond's 1948 race for the presidency. "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
What, exactly, did Mr. Lott mean by "all these problems"? Mr. Thurmond ran a one-issue campaign: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race," declared his platform.
Is it possible that a major modern political figure has sympathy for such views? After all, the Bush administration includes figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice; some of Mr. Lott's best friends . . . Yet during the 1990's he was extensively involved with the Council of Conservative Citizens — a descendant of the White Citizens Council — telling them at one point that they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." When this came to light in 1998, Mr. Lott declared himself ignorant of the group's aims. Was he also ignorant of the aims of the 1948 Thurmond campaign? Or was he just, in the excitement of the moment, blurting out his real views?
It's unlikely that Mr. Lott will be forced to explain himself. The "liberal media," which went into a frenzy over political statements at Paul Wellstone's funeral, have largely ignored this story. To take the most spectacular demonstration of priorities, last week CNN's "Inside Politics" found time to cover Matt Drudge's unconfirmed (and untrue) allegations about the price of John Kerry's haircuts. "Just two days after moving closer to a presidential race, John Kerry already is in denial mode," intoned the host. But when the program interviewed Mr. Lott the day after the Thurmond event, his apparent nostalgia for segregation never came up.
From here, though, Mr. Lott's retroactive endorsement of a frankly racist campaign seems more important than Mr. Kerry's hair. The question is, who will make something of it? Not the media, apparently — but maybe it's time for the Democrats to make an issue of Mr. Lott's views.
In the midterm elections, Democratic candidates carefully avoided doing anything to mobilize the black vote, fearing that this would just encourage turnout by rural whites. But the rural whites turned out anyway, while blacks didn't. In Louisiana, black turnout — the result of a determined get-out-the-vote operation, perhaps helped by Mr. Lott's remarks — was the key to Ms. Landrieu's unexpected victory. Might I suggest that this tells us something?
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.10.02