Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Conservative Roll-Back: "Restoring America" to A Not-So-Great Society

by Nomad

Former Vice-Presidential candidate, half-term Alaska governor and Fox News talking head Sarah Palin likes to tell  her audiences, 
"We don't need to fundamentally transform America. We need to restore America."
Like a lot of things she says-  which are always subject to revision, erasure, re-clarification or complete reversal- these words sound terrific until you think about them.
Palin apparently believes that America was once a perfect fairyland and all we need to do is to return to the past.
The question is: Restore it when exactly and back to what? 

In the photo above, taken in 1957, the man posing is Klans Imperial Wizard Eldon Edwards in his fancy duds. Edwards once said, "We white people are the inheritors of this country. We do not intend to surrender it."

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to claim that all Republicans (or Tea Party voters) are racists. On the other hand,  it is hard for many on the Left not to believe that the harsh judgement on most anything President Obama says or does is not in some way motivated by prejudice. In a recent editorial,
The majority of Americans are sick to death of the racial animus Republicans, former Confederate states, and particularly teabaggers are polluting this nation with. Many Americans believed, errantly, that the election of the first African American as President was a major turning point in this country’s long history of racism, particularly towards African Americans, but the only turning point was bringing the lingering hatred toward African Americans back to life.
The writer blames hate radio for stoking the white anger. But the problem goes straight to the heart of the two party system.
Republicans in Congress, particularly the leadership, are just as guilty as any white supremacist because their obstruction, even of their own ideas, is based on little else than opposing, at any cost, the African American sitting in the Oval Office.
In the year 1957, the very idea that a black man would ever hold the highest office was unimaginable. After all, for many in the South, the attitude was that blacks should know their place. And one place that a black person would never know, except as a guard or butler, was the White House. At one time, there was not even a question about that.

Restoring the Inequality of the Past
Before 1957, only about 20% of African Americans were registered to vote. Discriminatory voter registration rules and laws had effectively disenfranchised most blacks in Southern states, even in counties and districts where black comprised a majority. 
In Mississippi, for example, at the end of the 1950s, 45% of the state's population was African American, but only five percent of that population was registered to vote. The state also led the nation in beatings, lynchings and "disappearances" of African Americans.

In the last presidential election, according to one source, the Republicans were attempting to take the country back to those good old days.
a slew of Voter ID laws pushed by Republican legislators in several states are a transparent attempt to disenfranchise core Democratic voters, especially the poor, college students, and minorities.
In South Carolina for example, new voter identification laws. Critics of the law claimed that the law intentionally targeted minority voters in majority-black counties in the state who, as a general rule, are less likely to have proper identification . 
And South Carolina was not alone. As the Brennan Center for Justice a non-partisan legal think tank points out
In addition to Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin all passed new voter ID laws in their 2011, 2012, or 2013 legislative sessions.
The strategy was clear and it was not at all new. 
Looking at voter ID laws alone, we know that although 11 percent of Americans lack government-issued photo ID, 25 percent of African-Americans, 16 percent of Hispanics, and 18 percent of elderly voters do not have this form of ID. States have also passed restrictions on early voting and community voter registration drives. Communities of color are more than twice as likely to register to vote with these groups, and they use early voting days at a much higher rate than the general population.
Back in the Sixties, community voter registration drives proved to be a key weapon against states restrictive voting practices. Actual legislation came much later.
In the early 1960s, the drive for voting rights became a central part of the major southern-based civil rights organizations' strategy -- the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Bob Moses, John Lewis and James Forman.
In 1962, with a $5,000 grant from the Voter Education Project, SNCC went into Mississippi to organize a voter registration drive. SNCC, SCLC, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which launched the Freedom Vote campaign in 1963.
Today the one group that made progress in voter registration ACORN has been dismantled by the Republicans. Lessons, it seems, were learned on both sides.

So, it appears that Palin must be referring to a time before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Republican President They Don't Like to Mention
Even if Palin and the Tea Party had a time machine for the nation and really could transport us all back to the late 1950s, she would discover something amiss. 

The Republican Party of the Eisenhower years is certainly not the Republican Party today. Eisenhower is not a president that today's Republicans like to mention even in passing. But why?

He was a two-term Republican who was not forced out of office or in the depths of a sordid scandal. (That can't be said about Nixon, Reagan or Bush.)

Just look at these Eisenhower quotes and it is crystal clear why.
  • Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
  • How far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?
  • Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.
Clearly, Eisenhower was more liberal than Obama.

The Southern Strategy and Why it Transformed American Politics
Nixon, Goldwater (and later Reagan) changed the face of the Republican Party completely in the 1964 and 1968 elections when they cynically developed and applied what became known as the Southern Strategy. That strategy was best summed up in a New York Time article which describes the politics of the 60s in a single sentence:
When Democrats revolted against racism, the G.O.P. rallied to its banner.
The strategy was explained in greater detail in a 1970 New York Times interview with Nixon's political strategist Kevin Phillips. He said:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that...but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
Basically, they would appeal to the American society's worst instincts. If Nixon called his true supporters "the hidden majority" there was a reason why they chose to remain under the radar. Their ideas were so backward, so discriminatory and out of step with a progressive society that few voters would admit to them.
(That was the inside joke of the 1970s TV show "All in the Family." Archie Bunker was epitome of that mentality and voting bloc. Today, Bunker sounds like an expert on Fox News. )

In his 1980 run for the White House, Reagan, under Lee Atwater's guiding hand, was far less shy or vague about his support of the angry white man.
*   *   *
The Republicans core voters of today are the last surviving remnants of that demographic. The strategy may be at the point of collapse but, with the help of wealthy donors like the Koch brothers, it anachronistically hangs on.

After Nixon was forced out of office in disgrace, the tide might have briefly turned under Carter. (Clearly Palin is not referring to those four years.) It was no accident that Carter was not only a Southern but a born-again Christian. The Democrats were playing their own Southern Strategy.
But under Reagan, the Republican Southern strategy was revived with a vengeance. 
Ronald Reagan, the G.O.P.'s biggest hero, opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960's. And he began his general election campaign in 1980 with a powerfully symbolic appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers were murdered in the summer of 1964. He drove the crowd wild when he declared: ''I believe in states' rights.''
Meaning that states could dictate their own civil rights policies no matter how discriminatory, sexist or homophobic or just plain insane. And in 2012 that's exactly what they attempted to do when it came to Voter rights.

The Republicans of 1960s were more interested in winning elections than with making America society greater or reducing poverty. And they used the South and its animosity against racial equality to do it. According to one source:
The 1964 campaign also foreshadowed the Republican resurgence in the South, where whites backed Goldwater and later Reagan because they opposed civil rights bills on what both men said were constitutional grounds.
In other words, state's rights superseded Big Bad Government. That's a fatuous notion one still hears from mouths of Tea Party leaders today.

The Reagan Roll-Back Continues Today
In 1958, the leader of the John Birch Society, Candy-maker Robert Welch made a famous speech in which he made dire predictions for the future of America.

Today, the Koch brothers, sons of one of the founders of the JBS, have underwritten a Tea Party organizations around the country. They have given contributions to people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, whose campaign speeches mirror Robert Welch's speech from a half century ago.

In his first campaign for California governor, Reagan found himself in a quandary when the John Birch Society offered either an endorsement or an attack, (whichever would give him more political advantage.) Reagan's long time friend, John Rouselet, was in fact, the public relations director for the JBS, 
It was an embarrassment for the candidate who was forced, when confronted directly, to state he was not a member of the organization. He didn't share their view (except that he did). However the confusion between Reagan and the JBS was only natural. 

Like the JBS, Reagan in his California days was seen as an extremist. He was, like the organization, opposed to the civil rights movement and called for America to abandon the "Great Society" domestic programs of Lyndon Johnson. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Environmental Protection laws, programs to reduce unemployment, and forty different programs aimed at fighting poverty. Today, the conservatives make no secret about their attempts to roll back those very programs in the name of budget savings. 

For example, one of the most successful of the the Great Society programs, Head Start- which offered early education, health, nutrition and parental liaison services for low income children and their families- saw the hardest budget cuts in its history last year. As a result of the disastrous sequestration an estimated 57,000 children will be denied a place in Head Start program. 
Call it a victory for Reagan.

Hopeless as it is, this then is the year that people like Palin dream of returning to and the America that they want to restore.

Taking Us Back or Backwards?
The UK Guardian seems to have found a partial answer to my question: 
When Tea Party supporters talk about "taking our country back", they are – in part – expressing nostalgia. They literally want to take it backwards to a past when people had job security, and a couple on a middle-class wage could reasonably expect their children to have a better life than their own.
But those conditions in America were, for the most part, restricted to white America. Today, many in the Tea Party are angry because they are now afraid of being at the same level minorities lived at back in the 1950s. But, as the Guardian observes, they are aligned with the very party that is selling them out to the 1%.
The party they have been voting for and the candidates they are supporting now have actively and openly worked to undermine those aspirations. Their frustration at the Democrats' inability to deliver on their promises should be eclipsed only by their fear that the Republicans do manage to deliver on theirs. No wonder they are so angry. They keep treading on their own toes.
Most of us on the left have been aware of this sad fact since the Tea Party arrive on the scene. It has been hard to hide our contempt and far easier to laugh. Every day it gets harder and harder to laugh.

Isn't it time to ask how much longer the rest of the nation can endure this pathetic political nostalgia for a mythic time that is, thankfully, long gone?