Archie Bunker syndrome

Posted: Dec 30, 2002 12:00 AM
With a new year almost here, and a new majority leader in place, what have we learned about America and American politics in the last few weeks?

Hillary Clinton thinks she knows: "I mean, what (Lott) did was state publicly what many of them have stated privately over many years in the back roads and back streets of the South. I'm looking to see what kind of new leadership the Republican Party will have, not in terms of names and faces, but in terms of commitment to equal justice under the law."

Call it the Archie Bunker syndrome. Many people, right and left, would like to believe that their political opponents are not only misguided or wrong, but also evil and ugly. To many, Trent Lott's remarks were not an aberration, but a revelation. If you do not support a particular left-wing political agenda (critics presented everything from Lott's vote against protection for sexual orientation to his votes on tort reform as evidence of his bad faith on race), you are mean-spirited at best, and probably racist.

Expect to see this liberal nostalgia repeated endlessly every time a GOP political leader stands up for equal justice under the law and against racial preferences.

But before the history of recent events is cast in the stone of endless media repetition, let us note for the historical record: Two groups were the earliest and most vocal critics of Trent Lott -- African-Americans and conservatives, especially social conservatives, aka the Christian right. Huh? For people who have not been paying close attention, this may seem deeply counterintuitive. Are not white, Christian evangelicals the very racist voters to whom Lott was trying to appeal?

No, actually. Not at all. Racial reconciliation has been one of the leitmotivs of Southern evangelicals for the past decade, but because it does not take the shape of a political agenda, the press has been slow to recognize it. At the end, nearly every responsible GOP leader recognized that Lott had to go. But what about at the beginning, when most commentators believed Lott would survive and that criticizing the Senate majority leader carried real political risks?

On Dec. 11, the Houston Chronicle was reporting that Family Research Council President Ken Connor was already urging GOP senators to withdraw support: "Sen. Lott's ill-considered remarks will only serve to reinforce the false stereotype that white conservatives are racists at heart. Republicans ought to ask themselves if they really want their party to continue to be represented by Trent Lott." William J. Bennett, Bill Kristol and Cal Thomas, among other conservative pundits, were similarly fast out of the box condemning Lott's remarks.

By Dec. 14, The Washington Post noted, "Lott Faces Continuing Resentment From Conservatives," crediting the early, stiff condemnations from National Review, Southern conservative newspapers and The Wall Street Journal, and columnists such as Peggy Noonan and Linda Chavez, for keeping the controversy alive. Black conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Deroy Murdock were particularly harsh.

"If the only people raising doubts were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, this story would have died of its own weight," GOP pollster Whit Ayres told The Washington Post. "It's the anguish from conservatives that has kept the story going." And gave moral support and political cover to the Southern GOP senators who, in the end, decided Lott's political fate.

Of course, many other conservative voices disagreed, urging Republicans to circle the wagons around Lott. (The constipated gray lady managed to run a full story on the conservative split over Lott -- "Conservatives Are Differing Over Roles in Controversy" -- without working in a single quote from one of Lott's many voracious conservative critics.) But what is newsworthy is what is new. And what is new is the determination of Christian and other conservatives not to let politics trump decency.