Ugly Face of Populism

Posted: May 28, 2010 12:01 AM
Ugly Face of Populism

Are the likes of Rand Paul and Russell Pearce becoming the face of the Republican Party? Let's hope not. Paul, an ophthalmologist who recently became the Senate nominee from Kentucky, has already embroiled himself in controversy over his comments about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Pearce, the Arizona legislator who sponsored the state's tough anti-illegal immigrant law, has now decided to target not only illegal immigrants but their U.S.-citizen children as well. Both men represent the soft underbelly of the populist movement that catapulted them to fame -- and a danger to the future of the Republican Party.

Paul's comments on the Civil Rights Act, which he has tried to soften in the ensuing days since he uttered them on the left-wing Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, were no mere faux pas. His simple answer to Maddow's direct question, "Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?" was "Yes." He went on to try to qualify his affirmative answer by saying he personally opposed discrimination of all sorts -- including by private businesses. And he has since assured everyone that he doesn't want to repeal the act's public accommodations section (or presumably Title VII of the act, which prohibits discrimination in hiring).

But Paul's clarifications miss the point. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- especially its prohibition against private discrimination -- is one of the most important and affirming pieces of legislation in our nation's history. The act and its successors, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, represent the our nation's highest principle: the guarantee that all persons are equal under the law, a promise made explicit by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

And the 14th Amendment appears to be the next target of Republican populists. Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce, in an e-mail sent to supporters, recently said that he would offer legislation "that would refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen."

But the 14th Amendment is unambiguous on the issue: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Pearce believes that the language "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" provides a loophole. He's unequivocally wrong. The qualification originally applied to diplomats and to Indian tribes, who at various times and to varying degrees have been considered sovereign. Sadly, Pearce is not alone among Republicans attempting to gut the 14th Amendment. Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress, the latest version of which has more than 90 co-sponsors, all but two of whom are Republicans.

Pearce is a nasty piece of work. In the e-mail to supporters on citizenship, Pearce forwarded a supporter's view that the bill might be deemed sexist, but that "we need to target the mother. ... Men don't drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do." When asked by a reporter what he thought of the language, Pearce said he didn't see anything wrong with it.

And it wasn't the first time Pearce said or did something unsavory. When a photograph of Pearce with a local neo-Nazi surfaced in 2007, he claimed not to know the fellow's affiliation. He made the same defense in 2006 when he sent out an e-mail to supporters that included an attachment from a white supremacist organization.

The Republican Party cannot allow extremists to become its public face. The party's history in promoting civil rights is an honorable one, from the time of its founding as the anti-slavery party to the passage of the very civil rights law Paul criticized. If not for Republicans, there would be no Civil Rights Act of 1964. A larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats, 82 percent to 66 percent, supported the bill in the key Senate vote, which led to its final passage.

It's time the GOP got back to its roots and disavows these ugly sentiments.

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