Monday, November 21, 2011

The Tragedy of the Republican Party: How the Republicans Went From Honest Abe to Cynical Newt

I have long thought that one of the most interesting historical transformations that has taken place since World War II was the transformation of the Republican Party from the once upon a time party of anti-slavery, free labour, and progressivism into a somewhat kinder and gentler, or at least more politically correct, version of the Dixiecrats, a transformation that is clearly on display for all to see in the Republican primary at the moment.

There were two major events which turned the Republican Party into the Dixiecrats. The first was Harry Truman's integration of the military after World War II. The second was Lyndon Baines Johnson's push for and eventual passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation in 1964 and 1965. Both events led to challenges to the Democratic coalition that Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had built in the early and mid-twentieth century, a coalition which included Northern ethnic machine Democrats, reformist progressive Democrats, and the Dixiecrats.

The Dixiecrats were, of course, a Southern White Supremicist party that governed the American South where slavery by another name continued under the guise of Jim Crow laws which, to paraphrase singer Randy Newman, kept Blacks down by segregating Blacks and Whites and criminalising certain Black behaviours (the law in the service of racial apartheid). It was all justified by White Supremicist Dixiecrats on the basis of notions of White superiority and "states rights", and "law and order" rhetoric. Truman's integration of the military and LBJ's civil rights and voting rights legislation struck at the heart of the Dixiecrat apartheid system in the South and their ideological justifications for their racist system. Both played major roles in alienating the solid White Democratic South from the broader Democratic Party. Truman's decision to integrate the military led directly to Democratic Strom Thurmond challenging him for president in 1948, one of the reasons that most pundits didn't give Truman much of a chance to win the election, on the States Rights Democratic Party ticket. Truman surprised almost everyone when he defeated Dewey and Thurmond despite Thurmond taking 39 electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.

The revolt of the Dixiecrat South from the national Democratic Party did not end with Thurmond and Truman. Illinois liberal Democrat Adlai Stevenson recovered most of the South for Democrats in 1952 and 1956 winning the electoral votes of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1952 and the electoral votes of Arkansas, Mississippi, all but one of the electoral votes of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in 1956. In 1960 former Virginia governor and Virginia senator Harry S. Byrd, a segregationist who was never an official candidate for president, took the electoral votes of Mississippi and more than half of the electoral votes of Alabama. Democrat John F. Kennedy won all of the Southern states save Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. In the 1964 election Republican Barry Goldwater, in a foreshadowing of things to come, won the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

LBJ's attempt to put an end to Jim Crow likewise led to challenges within the Democratic Party from the Dixiecrats. This challenge and its role in bringing Johnson down has been masked, at least in popular understanding, by another factor which helped bring Johnson crashing down, the Vietnam War and the growing animosity toward that war in the United States. Vietnam and Johnson's Second Reconstruction both helped force Johnson, the man who helped revive the New Deal, out of the 1968 race for the Democratic nomination for president.

Johnson's mantle was picked up by his surrogate in the 1968 Democratic primaries, vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey was a politician who had long been a proponent of civil rights and who helped get Johnson's civil rights bill through the US Senate. After winning the Democratic nomination for president (one of his main rivals, the anti-war and anti-segregationist Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June) was, like Truman, challenged not only by a Republican candidate for president, in this instance Richard Milhous Nixon, but also by a Dixiecrat, Alabama governor George Wallace, the man probably most famous for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in order to turn back a Black man who had, thanks in part to the federal courts, been admitted to the university. Remember Brown v. Board of Education (1954) had made the separate but "equal" segregation of the US unconstitutional but also remember that the South simply ignored the rulings of the Supreme Court related to segregation. Wallace, of course, was the man who once promised that Jim Crow segregation in the South would exist now, tomorrow, and forever. In one of the closest elections in terms of popular vote in American history Nixon defeated Humphrey by 43.$5 to 42.7%. Wallace took 46 electoral votes all of them in the solid Democratic South.

Wallace's success in the South, one that paralleled Thurmond's, is not, at least in my mind, the most interesting aspect of the 1968 election. The most interesting aspect of the election is that except for Texas, which went for Humphrey, Nixon took the electoral votes of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina,and Florida as well as the lions share of North Carolina's electoral votes (12 of 13).

Nixon and Republican strategists took note of the problems the Democrats, now seen as the party of anti-war and civil rights, the latter a position the Republican Party, the party of the First Reconstruction, the party Southerners, in the wake of the Civil War, once regarded as the party of carpetbaggers, had once held. As a result Nixon and in particular Republican strategist Kevin Phillips developed a strategy that would lead to the Republican conquest of the South and, as a result, take them into national political dominance.

The strategy worked at least in part. Today the Republican Party, the party that had led the attempt to desegregate the South after the Civil War, the party that had once been the party of American blacks, the party that once had a significant progressive wing, has become the second coming of the Dixiecrats and has been transformed into a party of states rights, law and order, damn those liberal courts which keep legislating from the bench, and White evangelicals and today the party dominates political culture in the South just like the Dixiecrats once did from 1877 to the 1980s.

The former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, symbolises well this transformation. Gingrich was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1979 at the height of the Southern backlash against one of their own, the evangelical Democrat Jimmy Carter. Today there is a lot of Dixiecrat George Wallace, before his conversion, in Gingrich's recent statements that Occupy Wall Street protestors need to go home, take a bath, and get a job. Wallace had once said the same thing about hippies in the 1960s. Nixon, of course, took Wallace's sentiments and translated them into a more highbrow and dignified form, if that is the term for it, in his references to the "silent majority" and the "silent majorities" demand for "law and order" in the streets, code words, of course, for getting tough on hippies, anti-war activists, and Black power activists. Republicans in the wake of Nixon have become very good at uttering code words and phrases.

Gingrich and other Republicans continue to play the Nixon law and order card for the simple reason that it seems to work. Presumably Gingrich thinks that by following the Wallace and Nixon and Archie Bunker playbook by telling Occupy Wall Street and education activists to go home, take a bath, and get a job (does he know that some of them are in college?) that he thinks it can take him to the promised land of the Republican nomination.

This strategy may work. Gingrich, however, does have a potential problem on the horizon with his attempt to sell his right wing populist message to the Republican masses and this problem says much about who Republicans on the national level really are. Like Nixon Gingrich is, at least in part, a Washington insider. Gingrich for all his reform Washington rhetoric has benefited financially from his Washington insider status. For instance, Gingrich was apparently paid a "consulting fee" of $1.6 million dollars by one of the institutions that helped bring yet another bust to America in 2007 and 2008, and one of the institutions that right wingers in the Republican Party have long railed against, the home mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Additionally, Gingrich's dealings with the elite jeweler Tiffany's--he once owed them some $500,000--may raise questions among the Republican faithful about just how populist Gingrich is. On the other hand, Gingrich's cynical strategy may, as is often the case, work because the American voting public and Americans in general have often shown themselves to be more than willing swallowers again and again of the demagogic populist rhetoric that now dominates the Republicrats. I guess only time will tell whether Gingrich's strategy will work.

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