In 1948, a segregationist political party called the States’ Rights Democratic Party or better known as the Dixiecrats was formed. The party was a breakaway faction of the Democratic Party, and its ultimate goal was to protect the Southern way of life from a federal government that many in the South felt to be overbearing. Although the party was short-lived, historians agree the party began the weakening of the old Democratic South. After 1965, as the old school segregationists began to die off or retire, they were replaced by the new kids on the block such as Trent Lott and Thad Cochran who joined the Republican Party partly in an effort to put the segregationist label that plagued Southern Democrats behind them, and primarily because the Republican Party of the time stood for local or small government in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.
In an interesting parallel, 2009 saw the beginnings of the Tea Party Movement. Like the Dixiecrats, the Tea Party focuses on downsizing the federal government and putting more control back in the hands of local and state government. Like the Dixiecrats, the Tea Party advocates government in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson. The Movement can be also described as a breakaway faction of an established political party – this time the Republican Party. In the eyes of the Tea Party, the Republican Party no longer stands for limited government, nor does it stand for the best interests of the people. Therefore, their goal is to take back Washington by ousting the “Republican establishment.”
Although these parallels could be argued as coincidental, the similarities in ideologies are nevertheless there. There is nothing wrong with an ideology that supports less big government and more local and state control; however, there is a disturbing parallel that may exist between the Tea Party and the Dixiecrats that should make all Mississippians cringe. The parallel that I am referring to is the old segregationist ideas of the Dixiecrats and the intentional or hopefully, unintentional racial division the Mississippi Tea Party seems to promote.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 the Tea Party backed candidate, Chris McDaniel, lost a very close Republican senate primary runoff to Thad Cochran, the incumbent who represented the “Republican establishment.” On that night, race became an issue once again in Mississippi. In a state, where since 1965, politicians have for the most part tried to separate themselves from the Southern image of racism, June 24, 2014 could be looked upon by many as the night the Mississippi Tea Party seemingly took a dramatic step in the opposite direction by turning the runoff into a heated racial debate. For someone watching the runoff election from the outside, it would have been easy to assume, especially in light of the online and post-election comments about liberal Democrats, that the Republican Party is reserved for white voters and the Democratic Party is reserved for black voters.
WLOX television in Biloxi, Mississippi broadcast a live stream of the election results throughout the night. During the live stream, viewers could go online and submit comments about the results as they were reported. As the voting results came in and the viewer comments were posted, two things became very obvious: (1) The Tea Party’s hope for the Mississippi Republican nomination for US Senate was in trouble, and (2) Racism is alive and well in Mississippi. The racism issue was of course troubling, but it is even more troubling when you stop to think about all the hard work so many Mississippians have done over the years to erase the state’s image of being a racist state. However, whenever you open the airways to public comments, you are bound to get a fair share of unsavory remarks including those with racial overtones. The crowning moment came when an angry Chris McDaniel accused liberal Democrats, many who are black, of crossing party lines to vote illegally in the runoff; intentionally or unintentionally, his words turned the night into a race issue.
It is open for debate as to how big an impact crossover voting actually had on the runoff results. The real reasons for the Tea Party loss could just as easily be blamed on McDaniel’s reckless comments on state education funding, the fact that many supporters of Thomas Carey, who finished third in the June 3rd primary, gave their support to Cochran in the June 24 runoff, or voters woke up to the obvious realization that a junior senator was not likely to have much impact or clout in Washington. In Mississippi, where crossing party lines is legal, a losing Republican candidate crying foul over Democrats, black or white, crossing the line to vote in a Republican runoff is about as ridiculous as a football coach crying foul because his team did not prepare for the play that led the other team to a game winning touchdown – like a coach, the candidate should know the rules and be prepared for whatever his opponent throws his way. Doing whatever it takes to win within the rules/law is just good political smarts, and reaching out to all eligible voters was politically smart on Thad Cochran’s part. By reaching out to Democrat voters who had not voted in the June 3rd Democratic primary, Cochran showed the kind of political savvy it takes to get things done in Washington, and he showed his willingness to embrace all people regardless of their politics or race. For whatever reason, Chris McDaniel did not reach out to Democrat voters as his opponent did, but when he realized those voters may have cost him the senate nomination, he was quick to cry foul and point his finger at liberal Democrat crossover voters for swaying the election in favor of his opponent. However, his apparent lack of interest in Democrat voters prior to election night poses an interesting question. Was not reaching out to Democrat voters a political miscalculation on McDaniel’s part, or was it a deliberate act of a political cleansing along racial lines that backfired? I would like to believe that McDaniel’s failure to reach out to Democrat voters was more of a political miscalculation than an intentional act to promote segregation of voters by party. Unfortunately, based on McDaniel’s angry comments and his refusal to concede gracefully, the Tea Party in Mississippi may have become in the minds of many, especially blacks, the party of the white middle class. If that proves to be the case, then sadly the Tea Party and the Dixiecrats have more in common than Mississippians, Republican or Democrat, can afford to embrace.
For Mississippi to continue to move forward, it is paramount that we constantly remind ourselves of the words Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” For the people of Mississippi to ultimately find and embrace the life, liberty, and happiness they deserve, we must forever be reminded of and hold tight to Jefferson’s words, “all Men are created equal,” regardless of the color of their skin or their political beliefs. Our history is filled with our failure to acknowledge and hold these words dear to our hearts, and we as a state have the ugly scars to show for that failure. Therefore, let’s hope that the parallels seen between the old Dixiecrats and the Tea Party are merely coincidences; Mississippi has come too far to take a step backwards.
©Jack Linton, June 28, 2014