My original intent with this series was to cite past incidents I recall clearly and recent ones I see almost daily, in which GOP members, eyes bugging, temples, pulsing, nostrils flaring, are caught with their exposed red necks barely concealing bulging blood vessels, as grinding teeth scarcely muffle words of hate toward minorities. I’ve kept a record for several weeks now and have ample resources to proceed…and I promised a series.
Form, however, stumped me. After ruminating considerably, I decided to provide perspective, because out of context, there are many quotes attributable to democrats before both parties passed through the looking glass that indeed –again, devoid of context– could seem credible rebuttal or at least “everybody does it” trivialization.
To avoid this, I think it’s important to review the history of both parties in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. To some, this may be a yawn. But for those who skipped or slept through history classes only to regret it later in life due to a keen, recent interest, this post may be worthwhile. If you’re already up to snuff on this stuff, move on. I’ll be posting another without this background later this week.
While the GOP loves to refer to itself and the “Party of Lincoln,” Lincoln’s true “party of record” shares little with the man they so frequently invoke as theirs. In fact, on the matter of race, today’s GOP is a photo negative of itself back in Lincoln’s day.
An Abbreviated History of Racism in America…
An “inconvenient” reality for a nation whose charter purports to guarantee personal liberty and equality is that slavery–quite common and in fact, essential at the time our founding documents were penned– isn’t mentioned in the Constitution...not even tangentially. Its omission boldly sidesteps the standard clearly stated in America’s Declaration of Independence; We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This simple omission effectively legitimizes or at least makes acceptable the denial of freedom and equality to an entire class of Americans. American freedom is inherently overarching. Like being pregnant, one is either free or one is not. Freedom isn’t a spectrum of hues on a palette. It’s black and white.
Not that Lincoln set out to be racial equality’s poster child. But being a product of anti-slavery parents, before running for president, he did point out the incongruity, “Slavery is morally wrong and it is contrary to our highest ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.”
Slavery was a fact of life in Colonial America, as integral to its economy as it was to its social structure. While the Civil War had myriad causes, its most lasting legacy is Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which put into motion an ongoing challenge to America’s stated principles that continues to this day.
Lincoln was an astute politician and a product of his times. His views had tempered somewhat by the time he ran for president. Although he still held that slavery was morally wrong , numerous influences: prevailing socio-political and economic conditions along with a dynamic, evolving pragmatism tempered his take on how America’s founding principles applied at that point in history.
He knew that success in Illinois demanded his understanding the needs of slave-owners. Mastering this, he applied lessons learned there to help him pursue bigger ambitions. Slavery continued to be a point of controversy. Although he campaigned against slavery, it was definitely “back burnered” on his agenda. Instead, he dwelled on preserving the union. Abolition of slavery could come later. But by 1862, that view had changed and Lincoln felt it was time to move on slavery, which he did.
This was the “party of Lincoln,” one torn by crossed purposes, conflict, a leader that initially tolerated situations he was deeply against. Southern Democrats of the day were clearly pro-slavery. Their northern counterparts were primarily against slavery. The Republican Party was split on slavery.
For his second term, Lincoln chose Democrat Andrew Johnson, running on a “unity ticket”. Upon Lincoln’s demise, the Democratic party essentially became the “pro-slavery” party. This held throughout the 19th century.
Why is today’s Republican Party so far removed from the one Lincoln embraced? In a word, race. Oh, sure, they talk tax breaks, religion, prayer in schools, pro-life, family values, patriotism, states rights, small government and so on but their entire genesis was racism.
The outcome of the Civil War forced a nation that had not merely long tolerated slavery but whose economy (especially in the south) depended on it to change its course. Old habits die hard. Bigotry easily survives generations. Cross-generational change occurs only as accepted biases are proven false by first-hand experience and even then, it may take many lessons before long-ingrained programming softens or relents.
Such was true of both major parties in the early 20th century. Having abolished slavery, Republicans floundered. Where did blacks belong? No one seemed to have a solid answer. Democrats became more progressive, eclipsing the Republicans on civil rights as Harry Truman included it in his platform in 1948. Republicans chose to oppose Civil Rights. Subsequent iterations, including the “Dixiecrats,” were against integration. No discussion of either would be complete without exploration of Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat’s Moses. Thurmond loomed large for decades, inviting turmoil even upon his departure from the planet. Suffice to say, his legacy was in good hands.
By the 60’s, the tables had turned. Most conservative southern democrats couldn’t tolerate Civil Rights. Blacks were inferior, period. They did not deserve equal treatment under law. “States Rights” became a code phrase for “segregation.” No nationally imposed law should regulate how a state dealt with education, housing, use of public and commercial facilities; all of these were to be the sole purview of the states. As a democratically led federal government pressed its case in the south, opposition mounted. Staunch southern dems started to change alliances in droves, a trend that intensified due to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which aimed to pull democrats into the GOP primarily on their opposition to racial integration.
Ultimately they morphed into today’s GOP, which expanded its reach by incorporating other wedge issues. The GOP consistently and methodically worked to keep racial minorities from voting. “Jim Crow” laws and practices, community and state-sanctioned organized terror, rape, murder, lynching, racketeering, destruction of property, theft, jury nullification, gerrymandering and even ethnic cleansing failed as the South tried desperately to subjugate black citizens. Such practices continued largely unchallenged until the Federal Government took notice of criminal reactions to a growing Civil Rights movement.
Although Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke out against racism, his words wrought little. Racially motivated violence and discrimination, while common and even flagrant in the south were far from limited to it. Racism was a national problem. Enforcing the promise of our Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration of Independence was failing miserably in deference to “states rights”. We were failing to deliver basic freedoms upon which our nation was built. In 1957, the Federal Government under Eisenhower mandated that public schools be segregated.
In the 60’s, a growing, highly publicized Civil Rights movement demanded Federal attention. Democrats, then in power, made it a pivotal issue. Employing Federal resources, they started to enforce current law and passed new legislation that forced integration, abolished “Jim Crow” and unleashed a whirlwind that continues in may forms to this day. In the south, the reaction was swift and violent. Federal presence exacerbated tensions. Violence dominated the southern political landscape.
When JFK was assassinated, the War in Vietnam became Lyndon Johnson’s responsibility. Surrounded by hawks, LBJ escalated the War. Although Lyndon B. Johnson continued to pursue determined actions to enforce new Civil Rights laws and indeed made great progress, as he ratcheted up troop strength, bombing and aggression in Vietnam, public focus shifted to the war.
As much as we escalated, we lost. Our mission was murky. Troop morale was low. Drug abuse was widespread and troops were bringing drug habits home. Eventually, the public came to see Vietnam as a debacle, one that claimed the political career of LBJ, who refused to run again.
Seizing opportunity, Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” used race as a wedge issue to draw disgruntled Democrats and “Dixiecrats,” to the Republican Party. Richard Nixon’s rise marked the beginning of what would be a trend for the Republican Party, where the south became a republican stronghold, as it once had been for Democrats. The result was two parties that had essentially switched sides. Republicans were reliably conservative, democrats, predictably liberal.
After Nixon‘s fall from grace and transition to Ford, who summarily pardoned him, a backlash based on reform led an honest ineffectual Democrat to the Oval Office for one one term before he was bludgeoned by Ronald Reagan, who reverted to and refined the GOP’s tried and true racial formulas (introducing, among others, “Welfare Cadillac Queen” into our lexicon). Willie Horton haunted Dukakis at the hands of Bush Senior’s spinmeisters.
If you’re naive or brainwashed enough to think governance isn’t sinister, consider Bush senior, an ex-CIA head. No skeletons in that closet, right? Can one run the CIA and NOT know where the bodies are buried? I’d love to know what really went on while that effete son of a bitch had his finger on the button.
And I don’t use “bitch” casually here. I’m describing the matriarch who, upon viewing Hurricane Katrina evacuees relocated to the Houston Astrodome, chirpily opined: “This is working very well for them…And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them” -Barbara Bush at the Astrodome after Katrina, referring to evacuees).
Until recently, Republicans dominated American governance even when not in power, by railing on ethics and values, despite the fact that the GOP record is far from enviable when it comes to what most organized religions define as sin and debauchery. Fancy that.
Coming Soon: Episode 3: GOP Racists, In Their Own Words.