Politics

05.06.13

Yes, Democrats Can Be Racist

And at the moment, they appear to be in denial about it. Peter Beinart on an outrageous Democratic attack on Nikki Haley—and why Democrats need to strongly denounce it.

If Dick Harpootlian were a Republican, liberals would be jumping over one another to call him a bigot. In 2002 Harpootlian called Lindsey Graham, then running for a South Carolina Senate seat, “light in the loafers,” thus fueling a nasty whispering campaign about Graham’s sexual orientation. Last Friday he struck again, telling activists to “send Nikki Haley”—South Carolina’s Indian-American governor—“back to wherever the hell she came from.”

But Harpootlian isn’t a Republican. Until he retired last Saturday, he was chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. He made his comments about Haley at the party’s annual dinner, just before Joe Biden took the stage. And as a result, the liberal response has been muted. So far, neither Biden nor Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, whose candidacy for a South Carolina congressional seat has gained national attention, has repudiated Harpootlian’s comments. And for now, at least, conservatives are just about the only ones asking them to.

That’s a problem, because unless offenses like Harpootlian’s are slapped down hard, Democratic Party bigotry is likely to get worse. The reason is simple: the Republican Party is getting more diverse. Stung by its disastrous electoral showings among Americans who are neither white, Anglo, straight, nor male, the GOP has finally begun to broaden its candidate base. The party now boasts an African-American senator from South Carolina, Cuban-American senators from Florida and Texas, Indian-American governors in South Carolina and Louisiana, and Mexican-American governors in Nevada and New Mexico. In all likelihood, 2016 will witness the first-ever serious minority candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. And it’s a good bet that either a minority or a woman will find a place on the Republican ticket. Prominent openly gay Republican politicians are only a matter of time.

Faced with increasing GOP diversity, the Democratic Party will be tempted by bigotry for the same reason Republicans long have been: there are votes there. The Democrats’ own heavy minority representation may prevent the kind of crude racial and religious attacks leveled last year by Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann. But there are subtler ways of playing on the same prejudices and fears. In 2012, for instance, the Obama campaign never directly attacked Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. (According to BuzzFeed, the GOP was so afraid it would that the Republican National Committee prepared material on polygamy in Obama’s extended family as a way of hitting back against potential attacks on polygamy in Romney’s.) Still, Montana’s Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, suggested that women would not back Romney because his father was “born on a polygamy commune in Mexico.” And conservatives claimed that a group named Catholics for Obama called Pennsylvania voters asking, “How can you support a Mormon who does not believe in Jesus Christ?”

In politics, bigotry isn’t always connected to ideology; sometimes it simply stems from opportunism.

Given the increasing diversity of the American political scene, future race, religion, and ethnicitybaiting may come in unusual forms. Imagine, for instance, a Democrat linking Marco Rubio’s lack of support for programs that benefit African-Americans to white Cuban prejudice against their darker skinned co-islanders. Or a group of South Asian Americans slamming Bobby Jindal for abandoning his Hindu heritage.

The point is that liberals need to realize that Democrats aren’t immune from racism. In politics, bigotry isn’t always connected to ideology; sometimes it simply stems from opportunism. And with more minority Republicans seeking high office, Democrats will have more opportunities in the years to come. Dick Harpootlian’s slur against Nikki Haley offers liberals the chance to show that Democrats won’t get away with it.