Tuesday, March 14, 2017
WHEN AND WHY THEY LEFT RANT
I began my recent post – Laissez Fair to New Deal and Back Again Rant – with the following: “I make the somewhat absurd claim that there rose, once upon a time, a political coalition so powerful that politicians finally considered the good of the common man (and to a lesser extent the common woman).” I gave this coalition a title, the New Deal Coalition, named its founder, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and identified its constituents: white southerners, white workers in the north, African-Americans and progressives of all stripes, including feminists.
I devoted the rest of my post to naming the benefits, president by president, that flowed from the government to ordinary Americans. Now I turn to when and why the coalition disintegrated.
Let me begin with a quote from Lee Atwater. A Republican strategist who worked for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Atwater was the force behind the infamous Willie Horton ad. Later elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee, he made this statement in the course of a 1981 interview with Alexander Lamis.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, `Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say nigger – that hurts you, backfired. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites…. This is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of lot more abstract than nigger, nigger.”
Atwater got the year right. The Republican’s yellow-brick highway runs, straight as an arrow, from the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Ed decision to the presidential year of 1968 when George Wallace, the candidate of the American-Independent Party, faced off against Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. On its way, it passed the presidential year of 1964 when the fissures inside the New Deal Coalition first became obvious. That year, Barry Goldwater, who’d voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won five states in the deep south. Goldwater captured 83.% of the vote in Mississippi. The same Barry Goldwater who lost to Lyndon Johnson in the electoral college, 486–52.
If Goldwater cracked the New Deal Coalition, the George Wallace campaign in 1968 blew it to smithereens, ushering in a profound rightward shift from which Republicans profited enormously. A glance at the current Republican political dominance on the state and federal levels provides more than enough supporting evidence. If, however, that’s not enough for readers, you might consider that Republican appointees will have a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court once the Senate confirms Antonin Scalia’s Federalist Society-vetted replacement. Given the ages of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer, that majority is likely to increase.
The questions jump out at you. Who, when and why? Who left Roosevelt’s coalition, when did they leave and why did they leave?
If you accept my analysis of the New Deal Coalition, the “who” part is obvious. White southerners finalized the divorce thirty years ago when they voted, en masse, for Ronald Reagan. The white working class waited longer, vacillating between the two Bushes and Clinton-Obama. My contention is that it’s over now. Donald Trump didn’t merely use race to win an election. Donald Trump has been a racist all his life, an assertion I’ll support in a later post. His core voters can’t be lured back with progressive policy positions. If they return - and I’m fairly certain they will – the return will be driven by Republican policies so repugnant to their interests, they’ll be left with no choice.
I’m going to shift now, to the breakup’s early stages, and to chart its course over the decades. And while I know that race wasn’t the only issue on the table for the last fifty years, I contend that the profound rightward shift over those decades could not have been accomplished without the use of race to win elections.
When the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional (overthrowing the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that in 1896 affirmed the constitutionality of segregation), the southern states responded with a massive resistance. In Little Rock, Arkansas, resistance took the form of an outright refusal to obey the Court. An attempt to admit eight black students to Little Rock High School produced days of rioting before President Eisenhower responded with troops, forcing the students’ admission. Even so, for the remainder of the year, Federal Marshals accompanied the students to class every day.
In that same year, 1957, William Buckley, a founding father of modern conservatism, published an essay in his magazine, National Review, entitled Why the South Must Prevail. “The NAACP and others,” he wrote, “insist that the Negroes as a unit want integrated schools. What if the matter comes to a vote in a community in which Negroes predominate?”
Buckley answers the question in the next paragraph. “The central question that emerges …is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Later, he adds, “It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, then to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.”
Later, Buckley permitted out-front racists like James Kilpatrick and Ernest van den Haag to publish long articles on racial inferiority, making the same arguments that justified slavery, the slaughter of the American Indian, the exclusion of the Chinese and the internment of the Japanese. Bear in mind, the articles were published in 1957, before the modern Civil Rights movement got started, before the race riots of the 60’s, before the Black Power movement, at a time when crime rates were extremely low and the country prosperous.
Flash forward to 1964 when Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona voted against the Civil Rights Bill, one of only seven northern Senators to do so. A Libertarian, Goldwater embraced the Declaration’s “unalienable rights”, particularly the part about the pursuit of happiness. Your property was yours, to do with as you saw fit. The government had no right to demand that you provide your goods and/or services to black Americans. Yet even while Goldwater claimed the high ground, the Republican National Committee was assembling the elements of the southern strategy and signs were appearing in restaurants across the country: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.
Nominated for President, Goldwater won every state in the deep south, from Louisiana thru South Carolina. In Mississippi, as noted, he received 83% of the vote. At a time, of course, when African-Americans couldn’t vote in Mississippi.
The Emerging Republican Majority by Kevin Phillips was originally scheduled for publication in 1968, The printing was delayed until 1969 because Phillips worked as a political analyst on Richard Nixon’s campaign team and the book’s content was too explosive. That it was also prescient became more and more obvious, election by election, as time passed. Termed “The Political Bible of the Nixon Administration” by Newsweek, the book is largely forgotten now. But it was a best seller in 1969 and most historians consider it a classic work of political analysis. Still in print, it’s currently being published by Princeton University Press.
The delay in Emerging Republican Majority’s publication provided Phillips with enough time to include an analysis of the 1968 campaign. The presidential field that year, in addition to Nixon, included Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, and Alabama Governor George Wallace, running as an independent. This was the same George Wallace who, at his gubernatorial inauguration in 1963, proclaimed, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Wallace went on to win five, deep-South states in 1968. That comes as no surprise because white southerners were in full rebellion over the Civil Rights movement by then. No, it’s what he managed outside the deep south that caught the eye of wonks like Kevin Phillips. In border states, like Tennessee, he garnered up to 34% of the vote. Further north, in the rust belt states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Wallace’s totals ranged from 7.9% to 11.8%. These votes came mainly from white blue-collar workers who’d been voting Democratic for many decades.
Had these Wallace Democrats taken a time out? Would they return to the Democratic fold? Was George Wallace a novelty they’d soon discard? Kevin Phillips had an answer, along with some advice for his fellow Republicans.
“Generally speaking, the South is more realistic than its critics believe, and nothing more than an effectively conservative Nixon Administration is necessary to bring most of the Southern Wallace electorate into the fold against a Northeast liberal Democratic nominee. Abandonment of civil rights enforcement would be self-defeating. Maintenance of Negro voting rights in Dixie, far from being contrary to GOP interests, is essential if southern conservatives are to be pressured into switching to the Republican Party – for Negroes are beginning to seize control of the national Democratic Party in some Black Belt areas.
“Successful moderate conservatism is also likely to attract to the Republican side some of the Northern blue-collar workers who flirted with George Wallace…. Although most of Wallace’s votes came from Democrats, he principally won those in motion between a Democratic past and a Republican future.”
Appropriately, given The Emerging Republican Majority’s thesis, there are more references in the book to George Wallace than to Hubert Humphrey.
I began this post with a quote from Lee Atwater: “By 1968, you can’t say nigger. That hurts you, backfires.” Richard Nixon took this to heart. In 1972, when he ran for reelection, he had the code words in place: welfare, law-and-order, anti-bussing, anti-quotas (which morphed to anti-affirmative action). The Moral Majority was there as well, promoting a myth still in vogue: there exists a pool of virtuous, hard-working, law-abiding (and very white) American citizens who never took - and never would take - a government handout. In toto, they constitute the real America.
Nixon won every state in the Union except Massachusetts.
George Wallace also entered the race in 1972, running this time as a Democrat. In a primary race with Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, Wallace garnered 50.9% of the vote in the Michigan, an absolute majority. How far he might have gone if he hadn’t been shot by a sicko named Arthur Bremer is open to speculation. Even paralyzed in a wheelchair he won 13% of the delegate votes at the Democratic Convention. Even paralyzed in a wheelchair, he was twice reelected Governor of Alabama.
I’m going to close with three short quotations. One from John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon. One from H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff. One from Nixon, himself.
John Ehrlichman: “Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them to be, but it was such a perfect issue… that we couldn’t resist it.”
H. R. Haldeman: “Nixon emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to recognize this while not appearing to.”
Richard Nixon: “When you call on the nation to be strong, on such things as drugs, crime, defense… the educated people and the leader class no longer has any character, and you can’t count on them. We can only turn for support to the non-educated people.”
Welcome to Trump World.