We are supposed to be in the middle of a “culture war” but it is really a conflict about how we define social solidarity in this country. It is predominately about race.
In June 1963, prominent conservative syndicated newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak penned a rather startlingly candid piece about a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Denver.
They noticed “a self-conscious lack of support, either private or public, for Negro rights” at the meeting. They said: “Substantial numbers of Party leaders from both North and South see rich political dividends flowing from the Negrophobia of many white Americans. These Republicans want to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party.”
However, there was a reluctance to speak too bluntly. They continued: “Obviously, this is not the kind of political theory suitable for shouting to the world.” Evans and Novak said opposition to civil rights could be “legitimately” opposed by invoking “states’ rights” and “law and order” and “limited government.” The best messenger would be Senator Barry Goldwater, who was “no segregationist.”
Just a few weeks earlier on June 11, Alabama Gov. George Wallace attempted to stop black students from registering for classes at the University of Alabama. President John Kennedy mobilized the state’s National Guard to force Wallace to step aside. Then Kennedy asked the three national TV networks for airtime to deliver a talk on racial equality. At midnight in Jackson, Mississippi, local NAACP leader Medgar Evers returned home and was assassinated in his driveway by a KKK member.
History sped up. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was in August. Then Kennedy was assassinated at the very beginning of his re-election campaign.
Lyndon B. Johnson was elected in 1964 by the largest popular vote landslide since 1820. He was challenged in the Democratic primaries by George Wallace, who did well in Northern states riding an anti-civil rights backlash. Goldwater, the Republican candidate, talked about lawlessness and crime in the big cities and said nuclear weapons could be used in the Vietnam War. He had voted against the Civil Rights Act. He won his home state of Arizona but also swept the Deep South. A Republican hadn’t done that since Reconstruction in 1877. The 1964 election was the last time a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of the white vote.
While Goldwater and Wallace lost that year, they showed that racial fear might be a potent weapon. From Nixon onward, Republicans used dog-whistle racism to undermine social progress enacted over decades since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The victories of the civil rights movement happened when the economic prospects for most Americans declined and the real wages of workers started going down. Conservatives convinced many whites that the struggle over racism was a zero-sum game.
The election of Ronald Reagan was a turning point. Reagan summed up his philosophy with the witty but fatuous comment, “The nine most dangerous words in the English language are, ‘I am from government, and I’m here to help.’”
Now we are faced with the dire emergencies of the pandemic, economic crisis and climate change. Damn it, we need a competent and responsive democratic government.
Progressive Congressman Ro Khanna (D-California) told the New York Times in January that Joe Biden “has a huge opportunity to finally get our nation past the Reagan narrative that has still lingered. And the opportunity is to show that government, by getting the shots in every person’s arm of the vaccines, and building infrastructure, and helping working families, is going to be a force for good.”
It’s going to be hard. The Democrats have a narrow majority in both the U.S. House and Senate.
The Republicans are mobilizing for the 2022 midterms by doubling down on voter suppression. Voting rights was once a bipartisan issue. It no longer is. The Brennan Center for Justice reports that 253 bills by Republicans to restrict voting access have been introduced in 43 states so far this year.
In their first act, the Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate introduced the “For the People Act” (H.R. 1 and S.1). It would institute automatic voter registration, expand early voting, allow vote-by-mail for all who choose to vote that way (with postage prepaid) and restore voting rights to people with prior felony convictions. It would prohibit voter purges that kick eligible voters off the registration rolls. It would enhance election security with increased support for a voter-verified, paper-based voting system. It would end partisan gerrymandering by establishing independent redistricting commissions. It would prohibit providing false information about the election process. It would establish a small donor public financing system for elections funded by penalties on corporate wrongdoers.
We can create an egalitarian multi-racial democracy or we can increasingly become an authoritarian plutocracy.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.