If you happen upon an end-of-the-year list of 2014’s biggest political bombshells, chances are Eric Cantor’s primary-election defeat to a right wing-backed neophyte named David Brat will make the cut. Because it took basically all of Washington by surprise, it has embedded itself in the psyche of the political establishment over the last six months as a seminal event. And for the last six months, I’ve been an evangelist for the theory that, while surprising, Cantor’s defeat ultimately proved to be pretty inconsequential.
In the end I was wrong, but not for the reasons everyone still reflecting on that story predicted back in June. Republican policy hasn’t moved substantially to the right since then. The hardline flank of the Republican Party is no more influential now than it was before. If anything, GOP leaders have become more willing and better equipped to tamp down rebellions than they were earlier this year.
But by beating Cantor, Brat shook up the leadership hierarchy in the House, and spooked the remaining leaders into welcoming one of those hardliners into their ranks as a token. That token was Steve Scalise, the Louisiana conservative who copped this week to addressing a David Duke–founded neo-Nazi group in 2002, after a local blogger found evidence of his participation, which had gone unnoticed for a decade, lying in plain sight on a prominent white supremacist website.
Scalise may survive this revelation. But another shakeup could be in the offing, and there lies the potential for real conflict among House Republicans. As an emissary to conservatives, Scalise represented a compromise between figures with closer ties to the leadership and more rebellious backbench members. If he has to be removed for this reason, leadership will feel burned and so will the right.
But the more important issue is what happened back in 2002, and what it says about Republican politics, especially in the South.
If more details emerge, and it turns out Scalise was closer to white hate groups than he’s let on—if he knew his audience and was speaking their language—he’s finished. But on the whole, and in a strange way, that might be a better outcome for the party than if Scalise muddles through, claiming ignorance.
Let’s assume that Scalise is telling the truth—that poor staffing explains his participation, and that he rushed in and out of the event too quickly to realize what was up, or that he was led in to the hotel conference center blindfolded, ears plugged, and fled the scene the moment his remarks concluded.
There’s a problem with southern Republican politics if an up-and-coming star stumbles heedless into a white supremacist convention in the course of his constituent outreach, and then doesn’t notice the mistake for more than a decade.
Conservatives have compared the Scalise revelation unfavorably to Chris McDaniel’s neo-confederate sympathies, which establishment Republicans happily deployed against him when he was poised to topple an incumbent senator in Mississippi; and to the Klan-curious comments that got Trent Lott, another Mississippian, ousted from Senate leadership in 2001.
But whether Scalise’s transgressions are worse than McDaniel’s and Lott’s is a subjective and unnecessary question. The appropriate question, whether Scalise stays or goes, is, Why does this kind of thing happen at all? Conservatives are much less interested in that kind of introspection than in making tu quoque allusions to Robert Byrd and New Black Panthers. But that’s because they’re confusing a structural argument for an ad hominem attack, and responding in kind.
White identity has always driven politics in the South, but where it once propelled Democrats to power, it now, with less outward vitriol, helps elect Republicans. The Byrd reference is unintentionally appropriate for this reason. In the last years of his life, Byrd became the exception that proved the rule. Whites fled the Democratic Party hastily, and it is now virtually impossible for white Democratic candidates to win statewide elections in the deep South (or even in Byrd’s West Virginia). But whites didn’t abandon Democrats because white identity politics changed; they abandoned Democrats because Democrats stopped reflecting the interests of those politics. And white voters aligned with Republicans because Republicans took up their mantle.
Today, that is mostly reflected in conservative rhetoric and Republican social policy, less in visible allegiance between politicians and white supremacists. Things aren’t as bleak as they once were. Under fire, and with 12 years of separation, Scalise and his staff are unafraid to denounce Duke and his hate group. Back in 1999, when Duke was considering a run for Congress, Scalise wasn’t able to be so blunt. "The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing."
There’s a generous and an ungenerous way to read that statement, though the generous read isn’t particularly exculpatory. Presumably Scalise wasn’t offering voters a delicate assurance that he or another Republican would submerge their white supremacism more skillfully than Duke. But if in 1999 you said “the first and most important thing” about Duke was merely that he couldn’t get elected, rather than his despicable racism, it says something important about the voters you were trying not to offend. Many of those voters are still alive today.