Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck's history lesson

I have studied and written history for some time now, but I was unaware — until Glenn Beck straightened me out — that the recent U.S. government assistance to banks and auto companies was the historical equivalent of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. I also did not realize that Glenn Beck, and his far-right followers, are the true heirs to the civil rights movement.

In laying the groundwork for his divinely inspired strictly nonpartisan rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, Beck vowed to "reclaim the civil rights moment," explaining, "We will take that movement because we are the people that did it in the first place."

If by "we" Beck means Republicans, as I think he does, he just possibly is forgetting a bit of the post–Abraham Lincoln history of the Grand Old Party. If by "we" he means conservatives, he definitely is.

For the very brief period following the end of the Civil War when members of the Republican Party did champion civil rights, they were known — almost always disparagingly — as "radical Republicans." The Southern Democrats who opposed them called themselves  . . . "conservatives."

Those were completely accurate political labels. The radical Republicans envisioned a sweeping transformation of the Southern social order, and along with such progressive (socialist?) reforms as the first public schools in the South, a progressive tax system, increased rights for women, and an end to the economic hegemony of the old planter class, they championed black voting rights and equality of economic opportunity.

The conservatives opposed them at every turn — and frequently with horrific violence, as I document in my book The Bloody Shirt.

But by 1876 the Republicans had all but abandoned the cause of civil rights, and so things remained until 1948 — when progressives in the Democratic Party dared to grab the bull by the horns. President Harry S Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, and the Democratic Party boldly adopted a platform calling for Federal action to outlaw employment discrimination and reestablish black voting rights (which had been taken away in all the ex-Confederate states first by white violence and fraud, and then by new state constitutions in the 1890s written for the express purpose of disfranchising African American voters).

In response, Strom Thurmond and his fellow Southern conservatives bolted the Democratic party, and Thurmond's States' Rights Party that year carried Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina on a platform that (aside from eerily echoing the rhetoric of today's Tea Partyniks on "states rights" and fears of a "centralized, bureaucratic central government") declared:

We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. . . . We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.

Thurmond himself declared in a campaign speech that year: "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

The historic realignment of the parties in the South was solidified when Southern whites abandoned the Democratic Party in droves following Lyndon Johnson's support for the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964, backing Barry Goldwater for president. Here's a graph (click on it to enlarge) which I made showing the percentage of the vote the Democratic candidate for president received in each of the former Confederate states, relative to the candidate's percentage in the country as a whole. (For example, in 1940 FDR received 54.7% nationally; in Alabama he received 85.2%, so the difference is 30.5%.) Points above zero mean a state is voting more Democratic than the nation as a whole; below zero, less Democratic.

Basic data: uselectionatlas.org

Were it not for the huge increase in African American voting in the South following the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the drop in the curve would be even more dramatic. (In 2008, only 10–15% of white voters in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example, voted for Obama — about a minus 40 on this graph.)

Another bit of history: Those few Republicans who did truly attempt to reclaim the GOP's century-old mantle of civil rights "radicalism" in the late 1960s and early 1970s found themselves cut adrift by the cynical calculation of the party's leadership.

Linwood Holton in 1969 became the first Republican governor of Virginia since Reconstruction by putting together a winning coalition of moderates, pro-business voters, and blacks — garnering probably 40% of the African American vote in the process, a stunning achievement. But as Holton sadly wrote later, "This was lost . . . on the national Republican Party, which was willing to accept the membership of Southern white supremacists as the price to pay for a hoped-for Republican Senate majority." Their tactic, Holton explained, "was simple: lace your speeches with coded appeals to racists in Southern states, dressing up the policies in the language of fiscal conservatism." It was, Holton argued in vain, a policy that "was not only morally bankrupt but short-sighted" politically.

Morally bankrupt, yes; but politically short-sighted? Sadly, probably not.