Amanda Marcotte has a must-read post about Rand Paul, and why we shouldn’t just sweep his libertarianism under the rug. I’ll get to Amanda in a bit, but, to explain the title, I want to first provide some context by way of deceased Republican political operative Lee Atwater:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N-gger, n-gger, n-gger.” By 1968 you can’t say “n-gger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N-gger, n-gger.”
One of the things that first got libertarian rhetoric off the ground in the Goldwater era was the ability to dress up racism in ideological clothing. Back to Amanda (boldface mine):
It strikes me as highly unlikely that many average white Americans suddenly discovered they favored a very narrow reading of the commerce clause in the mid-to-late 60s just because there was something in the drinking water that woke them up….
However, a lot of average white people did and still do believe that they should be able to keep other people who aren’t white from using the same spaces as them, living next door to them, or having the same access to jobs and education and health care. And they have to be forced by the federal government not to gang up on non-white people to deprive them of equal access. The power that the federal government used to stop them is the very same power that the federal government uses to regulate businesses on their labor and environmental standards. And because of this, a lot of people who otherwise would think the commerce clause is just common sense are highly motivated to believe arguments in favor of a more narrow reading. Libertarians are the ones who exploit this motivation. But it is, for the people who buy their philosophy, a self-destructive thing. To echo Thomas Frank: Buy into the belief that you can keep black people out of your public bathroom, sign on to allowing BP to turn your coastline into pure oil and dead birds. Buy into keeping black people from buying in your neighborhood, sign on to economic collapse when big finance creates a housing bubble with shady accounting. Buy into allowing your workplace to discriminate in its hiring practices, sign on to having a dangerous and dirty workplace without any recourse.
I think the one other thing to add is that ideologies take own a life of their own–and this is how libertarians today can protest so strongly that they’re not racist. What started out as a rhetorical ploy to defeat a not-for-whites-only New Deal has now become a self-sustaining ideology. Granted, as an ideology, it doesn’t really make much sense and is internally inconsistent, in largely because this operational* libertarianism was designed to fill a very specific role (to enable bigoted whites to retain their prerogative without openly embracing segregation), not to be a consistent governing ideology.
Having embraced this rhetoric, Republicans are now intellectually trapped: either they admit the racist consequences (if not intentions) of their policies, or they admit they appeal to a racist base.
Forty years after the advent of the Southern Strategy, they finally are beginning to reap what they have sown.
*Some libertarians will start engaging in “No True Scotsman” hooey. Libertarianism, as enact as policy by the Republican Party, is what really matters, not some idealized (if utterly unrealistic) version.