Owning it: When ‘a rose, by any other name’ meets ‘it is what it is’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Owning it: When ‘a rose, by any other name’ meets ‘it is what it is’

STARKVILLE – Let me get this straight – Democrats who were “conservatives” from Reconstruction until over a century later in Mississippi weren’t really Democrats because the party has evolved.
But “conservative” Republicans today are both responsible for Mississippi’s state government woes after gaining full control of it only in 2012 and also are – in the same context – really Republicans not given credit for a corresponding evolution?
Oh, yes, and the state of Mississippi’s public education system, public health care, mental health care, transportation and infrastructure, corrections, and a host of other responsibilities of government were in really great shape before the GOP took control and ruined it?
Talk about whistling Dixie.
When I wrote recently about what I called “the Neshoba narrative” by high profile Democrats at the annual campground fair and in other political forums over the summer, I had no idea that it would engage some of my fellow scribes to the extent that it apparently did.
State Democrats have argued – and from a strategic standpoint it’s a smart argument – that if you have a problem in state government in Mississippi right now, blame it on the Republicans who are in power.
One forceful Democrat has argued that the state’s current Republican leadership should “own” the problems that have occurred on their watch. My column suggested that from a historical standpoint, such ownership of those problems was a far more complex and nuanced proposition.
Problems that confront state government today are neither ones that developed recently nor are they problems that didn’t exist when Democrats held total state political control. In reality, for a number of state Democrats now hewing to the “Neshoba narrative” line, the policies targeted are policies that a number of Democratic lawmakers actually voted to adopt.
But the more specious argument is the suggestion that while the Democratic Party has evolved and changed and that it’s “conservatives” rather than “Democrats” who should own their portion of responsibility for Mississippi’s policy problems of longstanding. Again, history suggests otherwise.
After the Republican Reconstruction government established in Mississippi in 1865 and led almost exclusively by black public officials was deposed by Mississippi Democrats in the 1875 elections, the Republican Party in Mississippi faded into irrelevance for a time.
But in 1924, enter an ambitious young black attorney from Ebenezer, Mississippi named Perry W. Howard who would dominate the Mississippi “Black-and-Tan” Republican Party for the next 35 years. Essentially, the state’s GOP operated out of a black lawyer’s mailbox during that time.
Mississippi authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart chronicled Howard’s leadership of the state’s GOP in their book “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008.” In that account, Nash and Taggart wrote: “Republicans in Mississippi during this time rarely fielded candidates for office, spending more time fighting among themselves than in recruiting candidates for public office.”
Between 1927 and 1960, Howard’s Mississippi Black-and-Tan Republican Party battled for recognition from the national GOP with so-called “Lily-White Republicans” — a battle eventually won by the Lily-White faction led by Mississippi Republican pioneer Wirt Yerger Jr. While the old Black-and-Tan GOP in Mississippi was about little more than controlling and brokering GOP patronage, Yerger’s group was all about growing a viable, credible alternative to the state’s formerly monolithic Democratic Party.
The truth is that both major political parties evolved and changed. The argument that the Democratic Party of today looks very different than the party that existed in 1890 or 1948 or even 1968 is absolutely true – but the same should be said of Mississippi’s GOP.
Poverty, insularity, racial mistrust, and an agrarian economy that was slow to change are non-partisan problems. The current Mississippi GOP indeed is in charge now and bears significant responsibility for the state’s ultimate destination. But it’s both fair and accurate to note that many of these vexing issues – at the core taxing and spending decisions –  are issues that weren’t solved under decades of Democratic leadership, either.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him sidsalter@sidsalter.com

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