Conservatives, Steve Scalise, and the Endless Racism Debate

Why Robert Byrd started trending on Twitter when conservatives saw the Scalise story.

.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) leaves after a House Republican Conference meeting August 1, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Robert Byrd, the former Democratic senator from West Virginia, has not made news in a few years. That makes sense, once you realize that he died in 2010. What might not make sense, on first glance, is why Byrd's name surged as a Twitter topic on Monday and Tuesday., which tracks all matter of social media, found that Byrd's name was tweeted less than 50 times per day for the whole month previous. On Monday, his name was tweeted nearly 700 times.

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What happened? Media outlets started chasing the story of Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise's 2002 speech at a hotel hosting white supremacists. Conservatives asked why these reporters, and the liberals who'd gotten so compelled, were not as furious that Robert Byrd led his party in the Senate after joining (and later renouncing, but we'll leave that aside) the Ku Klux Klan. A sample of what conservative writers and radio talkers were saying:


To conservatives, Byrd's ability to be elected and re-elected without incident is one of the ultimate proofs of liberal double standards. It made for an awkward over-response to the Scalise story, like a trump card brought to a roulette table. But whether Scalise hangs on (as is likely, given the support from his fellow Republican leaders) or resigns, this incident is assured full membership in the Pantheon of Double Standards. Conservatives seem to be condemned and linked to outbursts of racism; Democrats are always forgiven.

The most famous example of this, before today, was an all-Senate affair. In 2002, bloggers Josh Marshall and Dan Perkins helped force Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's resignation from leadership by finding multiple instances of Lott wishing  that South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond had been elected president. Lott, the incoming Senate majority leader, quit that job. In 2010, my now-colleagues Mark Halperin and John Heilemann reported in their book Game Change that Nevada Senator Harry Reid had cited Barack Obama's lack of "Negro dialect" as a reason he was electable. The chairman of the Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee called on Reid to quit because, as then-NRSC Chairman John Cornyn put it, "Trent Lott resigned." Reid didn't quit.

This cycle of Democrats' survival and Republican subjugation keeps happening because liberals and conservatives simply disagree about what racism is. Democrats typically win more than 90 percent of the black vote, generally favor policies like affirmative action and criminal justice reform, and elect most of America's black politicians. The politics that bail out Democrats in racial controversies were explained succinctly by Tessa Thompson's character Sam, from the 2014 film Dear White People. "Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can't be racist, because we don't stand to benefit from such a system."

Republicans have elected some black politicians who disagree with this–three in 2014, at the federal level, from South Carolina to Texas to Utah. But they're unable to change the narrative. That's why the criticism of Scalise seemed so tired and excessive to them. For the umpteenth time, right before a slightly more diverse Republican Congress took power, Democrats were trying to tar conservatives by association to a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center was amplifying them, with its spokesman, Mark Potok, calling on Scalise to quit.

That was doubly irritating, because conservatives increasingly see the SPLC as a pressure group that focuses on them and lets liberals off easy. In 2010, the SPLC added the Family Research Council and other groups that opposed gay marriage to a list of hate groups. In 2012, after a gunman attempted to attack the FRC's Washington headquarters, its president Tony Perkins said "he was given a license by a group such as the Southern Poverty Law Center." It rankles that the SPLC– and, ironically, David Duke–get to be quoted by the media as arbiters of whether a Republican leader can be tied to racists.

"It seems to me that in this case that there is no dispute, remotely, about whether this group was a hate group," Potok said in an interview with Bloomberg Politics. "This is not the FRC or some anti-gay organization. This is a group that counted among its organizers real neo-Nazis. The GOP is making an awful lot of noise about reaching out to minorities, and this is not the way to do that."

The SPLC's critics are not all conservative; in 2010, investigative reporter Ken Silverstein spoke at a panel hosted by an immigration restrictionist group condemned by the SPLC, then wrote for Harper's that "the SPLC shuts down debate, stifles free speech, and most of all, raises a pile of money, very little of which is used on behalf of poor people." And the SPLC doesn't actually share the progressive definition of 'racism' and limit its focus to white supremacist groups, as the New Black Panthers have learned.

But conservatives see the SPLC as an unelected arbiter of racism and bigotry that always seems to be piling on them. The media cites them in order to discredit them. The Scalise story is going in the books as yet another case of the media and liberals trying to ruin a conservative by accusing him of racism. The next time something like this breaks out, you can expect to hear a lot about Robert Byrd. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Senator John Cornyn's first name.

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