Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"The Lesser of Two Evils": My Unrequited Romance with the Democratic Party

If Richard Nixon was a Shakespearean villain, Lyndon Johnson was a Greek tragic hero. Both men had overlapping flaws: deep emotional insecurity, an uncomfortable relationship with the truth, and complicity in a wrong-headed war in Vietnam. Both men as presidents let their concern over not becoming the “first” American president to lose a war overpower the moral imperative to not send soldiers to die in unwinnable, delusional causes.

There’s an important difference between LBJ and Nixon, however, and this difference illustrates my feelings about the Democratic and Republican parties and about the liberal Democrats of Johnson’s era and the party today. Nixon never took an action without his political self-interest in mind. Not so LBJ. If Johnson’s Vietnam policies represent the man at his most cowardly, his push to win passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 represent Johnson’s great moment of self sacrifice for the greater good.

Prior to the passage of this law, African Americans in the South had been stripped of their rights as citizens. Blacks were murdered in Mississippi, Alabama and other states of the Old Confederacy for attempting to register as voters or encouraging other African Americans to do the same. By 1964, African Americans made up 42 percent of Mississippi’s population, but only 6.7 percent of the registered voters.

The Voting Rights Act prohibited devices employed by Southern legislatures to keep African Americans from voting, such as literacy tests, which were supposedly equally enforced for black and white voters but were manipulated to systematically deny African Americans the ballot. The law also empowered the U.S. Justice Department to monitor elections in order to prevent intimidation and harassment of black voters in districts with a history of such behavior.

Implementation of the law sometimes required rough methods not sanctioned by political science textbooks. Arch segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party because of “liberal” civil rights legislation, tried to prevent enforcement of the law by boycotting a key subcommittee meeting, provoking Texas’ last liberal Senator, Ralph Yarborough, to literally drag Thurmond into the hearing room. The two wrestled each other to the ground. The incident was not pretty, but voting rights in the South was literally a life and death matter. States like Mississippi were unwilling to prosecute white men guilty of murdering African Americans who tried to assert their 14th and 15th Amendment rights and federal monitoring of elections would end this election day terrorism.

Johnson knew the political dangers of pushing for such revolutionary change. “I have signed away the South for a generation,” he is said to have commented after he signed the bill into law. Johnson had no way of knowing if African Americans would vote in significant numbers after the bill’s enactment. He could count, however, on an angry Southern white backlash and he would live long enough to see his sad prophecy come true as former segregationist Democrats essentially became segregationist Republicans across Dixie.

Johnson was completely a political animal but at least in this case, he put justice and fairness ahead of wining points. Flash forward now to 2010. Democrats are struggling to pass a health care reform bill that will lower costs for patients and expand coverage for the millions who have jobs but have no insurance. Obama and company, led by Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, have bent over backwards to accommodate conservative Democrats like Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and former Democrats like Joe Leiberman. The Obama team gave up on the public option, which is supported by a majority of Americans according to almost all opinion polls. The White House has sold out to major pharmaceutical firms and declined to include provisions in any reform bill that would empower the federal government through Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate for lower prices on prescription medicines. The White House has focused on passing a bill, any bill, even a bad bill, so the effort doesn’t become a political liability. There seems to be no bottom line that has been drawn, no line in the sand that the White House refuses to cross. For Emanuel in particular, the health care debate is about not losing position in the polls rather than fighting for a worthy cause.

Emanuel showed his total contempt for loyal Democratic voters by calling liberals who vowed to field candidates against party conservatives “fucking retarded.” Politicians like Emanuel are too clever by half. With all their dithering and capitulation, they might be signing away not just the South, but the whole country.

The Democratic Party has betrayed its history. This is not our grandparent’s Democratic Party, the party of Franklin Roosevelt. For all its flaws, the liberal New Deal reforms dramatically improved the lives of poor, working class and middle class Americans.

The average manufacturing wage tripled from 1933 to 1949. Wages for “Rosie the Riveter,” the women who filled in for men at factories, rose 50 percent just between 1943 and 1945. More families than ever could make a living on one wage. More children finished high school, more young adults attended college, and more young couples owned houses than any previous period in American history. Americans were healthier, better fed and had more job security than any previous generation. And the voting public awarded the Democratic Party for its successful liberal programs by giving the party the White House 28 of 36 years between 1933 to 1969 and control of Congress for all but four of those years.

The New Deal coalition collapsed in the late 1960s because of the disastrous war in Vietnam, white backlash over Civil Rights legislation, urban riots, and middle class squeamishness over the excesses of the decade’s counterculture. Party leaders would wrongly assume that the party splintered from an excess of liberalism while, in fact, it declined because the Johnson administration diverted money better spent fighting poverty, improving health care, and expanding research at universities in order to support imperialism in Vietnam.

The Democrats nominated a true liberal, George McGovern, in 1972, and the candidate got buried in a Nixon landslide. Again, leading Democrats concluded that McGovern was too far left to win, ignoring how incumbency during wartime, rising urban crime, the ruthlessly corrupt Nixon political machine, and the president’s surprise agreement to end the Vietnam War killed McGovern’s chances of victory. Jimmy Carter became the first party nominee to present himself as a “new Democrat,” a moderate conservative committed to reduced federal spending and increase privitization of government services. The Iranian hostage crisis destroyed Carter’s presidency.

After Carter’s departure from Washington and former Vice President Walter Mondale’s humiliating defeat by Ronald Reagan, Democrats increasingly portrayed themselves as Republican Light – rejecting the harsh anti-abortion politics of the GOP and tepidly supporting civil rights for African Americans, Mexican Americans, gays and women while pushing conservative priorities like government efficiency, balanced budgets, harder treatment of criminals, continued expansion of the military, and engagement in the so-called “culture wars.”

Hence, instead of big ideas like Social Security, the GI Bill, and federally backed student loans, we got Al and Tipper Gore’s campaign against smutty rock records in the late 1980s and Bill Clinton’s support of mandatory school uniforms, the death penalty, and his smacking of the rap performer Sista Soldjah. There was no Democratic Party constituency—African Americans, the poor, gays, and the union movement – that Bill Clinton didn’t enthusiastically throw under the bus so he could position himself as the moderate center opposed to Newt Gingrich’s right-wing congressional leadership and the supposedly leftist Democrats in the House and Senate. Misinterpreting the past, Clinton led the Democrats rightward, and in the process Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades, as well as most governorships and state legislatures. Conservative Democrats like Clinton and other members of the “centrist” Democratic Leadership Counsel became the party’s ebola virus, killing everything it touched.

Since Clinton, Democrats love running against the Democratic Party. And party leaders undermined their most important base of support – the working class. The North American Free Trade Agreement, so loved by Clinton and Republicans, has resulted in a sharp decline in income and benefits for American families, and turned Mexico into a narco state, without creating those foreign markets eager for American-made goods as was promised by Washington insiders. Wages rose when union membership increased in the first half of the twentieth century and have declined sharply as unions have declined. Those unions were the glue that held the New Deal coalition together for so long. With union households amounting to only 9 percent of the population, the now more conservative Democrats achieve success only as a result of Republican incompetence and corruption.

By appointing Emanuel as his chief of staff, embracing Bush policies regarding Guantanamo Bay, by refusing to investigate Bush-era war crimes, and by continuing our endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has sadly signaled he shares the “me too” attitude of the Clintonistas. I’ve voted mostly for the Democratic Party since I first cast a ballot in 1978, but they are losing me. I loved the idealism of so many Democrats of the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era. But the Democrats today clearly no longer love “retarded” people like me.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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