Campaigning for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush said that non-southerners, like his primary opponent John McCain, should “butt out” of the South’s racial politics. In South Carolina, telephone callers asked thousands of voters if they would support McCain if they knew he’d fathered a black child. These things did not happen because Bush is a racist. They happened because Bush, like decades of Republican candidates before him, wanted to benefit from the racism of some southern voters. Today's Republican Party is made of free-traders and low-taxers, war mongers and evangelicals, yes, but it also contains the residuum of the segregationist South, which once infested the Democratic Party.

This is a simple story, and yet in the past few days, some New York Times columnists have managed to make it seem complicated. David Brooks wrote about Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, when Reagan declared, “I believe in states’ rights.” Now, “states’ rights” was the rallying cry of racist southerners. But Brooks thinks that saying so is “a slur.” The truth is more “complicated,” he says, than Republicans taking advantage of “the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy.” Well, there’s no evidence unless you count the opinion of the actual Klan, who, as historian Joe Crespino points out, believed that Reagan’s platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.” Mississippi’s white voters were, Crespino says, “a carefully courted constituency,” and two-thirds of them voted for Reagan against Jimmy Carter.

This is not complicated. If you go to Mississippi and use the same words used by every redneck desirous of pulling an ever-so-thin cloak over his bigotry, you’re either stupid or you’re courting the bigots. In 1980 Reagan could not yet benefit from the defense of stupidity or dementia: He was courting the bigots. Just as, when he declined the Klan’s endorsement, he was not acting stupid, either: He couldn’t be seen as the candidate only of bigots.

Paul Krugman takes Brooks's bait by pointing out other instances when Reagan opposed civil rights. But this too makes the story needlessly complicated. We cannot know whether Reagan was personally racist, nor is it interesting or important -- no more than it is interesting or important whether the 2000 episode makes Bush a racist. What is interesting and important is the Republicans' long battle to use racism to stop class politics.

This was a tactic first used in the U.S. over a hundred years ago by the Democratic Party. In the 1890s, southern states began to amend their laws and constitutions to keep black people from voting, in part because they wanted to stop poor whites from joining the Populist Party, which sought to implement an income tax and break up business monopolies. Democrats, then the reigning political power in the South, figured that they could keep some large number of poor whites from worrying about their economic status by appealing to their racism. They proved correct. Thus the South solidified behind the Democratic Party and white supremacy.

Cracks opened in this sectional foundation when the Democrats nominated Al Smith for the Presidency in 1928. The multi-ethnic, Catholic, Manhattanite Smith represented “card playing, cocktail drinking, poodle dogs, divorces, novels, stuffy rooms, dancing, evolution, Clarence Darrow, overeating, nude art, prize fighting, actors, greyhound racing, and modernism,” as one Protestant minister raved. As H. L. Mencken noted, these fears would get "Methodist Ku Kluxers of every state south of the Potomac ... building forts along the coast to repel the Pope." The Republicans benefited, and picked up a few southern states.

These cracks opened wider in 1948 and 1960, both close elections in part because white southerners punished Democrats for taking small steps toward civil rights. In 1948, Harry Truman’s effort “to secure these rights” prompted Strom Thurmond to run on a “states’ rights” ticket, costing Truman electoral votes he could scarcely afford. In 1960, some southern electors fled the Catholic and tepidly tolerant John Kennedy for a ticket with states’ righters Harry Flood Byrd and Strom Thurmond on it. These southerners whose votes had kept Democrats in office--southerners who for generations had been poorer than their northern counterparts--nevertheless let race-baiters woo them away from the New Deal, whose political programs had done them so much good.

By the 1960s it had become clear that the white South would bolt the Democratic Party under the right circumstances. As Barry Goldwater told fellow Republicans in 1961, owing to the New Deal, the GOP would never “get the Negro vote ... so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” The trick was to bag those ducks without losing bigger game elsewhere. In 1964, Goldwater failed because he ran too openly, in Richard Nixon’s estimation, “as a racist candidate.” Nixon thought he could do better by appealing openly to the increasingly wealthy southern suburban class, offering them a low-tax message, while appealing secretly to the increasingly angry southern racist class. Nixon’s mixture of subtlety and sponsored demagoguery carried the day, and the South, for him and his party.

As Wallace said in 1964, “Today ... we hear more states’ rights talk than we have heard in the last quarter-century [and] I was the instrument through which this message was sent.” In the wake of politicians like George Wallace, Thurmond, Goldwater, and Nixon, when Ronald Reagan said "states' rights," whatever the complicated reasons for it, he was, like his fellow Republicans, claiming the banner George Wallace had planted on the nation’s battlements.

Brooks and Krugman appear to think this is a story about Reagan’s legacy. But it is bigger, and simpler. For a generation the Republicans have benefited from keeping Mississippi burning, just as the Democrats did before. Both hoped that racist populism would trump economic populism. The coming year will likely bring more of the same, and the results will tell us whether Americans will be so simply fooled again.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.

By Eric Rauchway