Like California resting on the San Andreas Fault, the United States stands astride major geologic fault lines that course through the political landscape. In the strata that lie deep beneath the republic are major tectonic plates that slowly move as the society grows. Tension builds up along these fault lines and at seeming regular intervals political earthquakes occur. These earthquakes at times force a realignment of the political coalitions that govern the country. At other times, like the political earthquakes of 1860 and 1932, they shake the very foundations of the republic itself.
Generally speaking, as new coalitions were formed to govern the country after each upheaval, the country moved to the left. That is the country adopted greater regulation and added additional fetters to the growing power of capital in order to ensure not only the survival of the middle class but to advance the process of including additional groups into the mainstream of political and economic life. There have been exceptions, most notably the stolen election of 1876 when the Democrats, then representing the Old South, bargained away a presidential victory by not contesting the electoral votes from Florida in exchange for ending reconstruction in the South. In an era when the Republicans had briefly stolen the populist mantle from the Democratic Party, the Democracy chose to honor its rural roots by instituting Jim Crow. The other example that springs to mind is the upheaval of 1968 in which the Great Society was broken up on the rocks of racism by the breaking away of Southern Democrats toward George Wallace and Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy. The patterns these tremors reveal is that if the earthquake runs along the economic fault lines the country generally shifts left; if the earthquake runs along the racial fault lines it generally—though not always—shifts right. And so the progressivism that was Lincoln and Reconstruction ended with the establishment of Jim Crow and the progressivism that was the New Deal and the Great Society ended with Nixon and Reaganomics.
The movement along the economic fault line generally shifts left because the middle class must constantly re-address the distribution of wealth in order to ensure its survival and, by extension, the health of the Republic. After a period of adjustment capital, as it continually reconfigures itself, discovers ever more novel ways of circumventing the evolving constraints. New disparities appear and the country finds in times of economic upheaval the need to redress the equation usually in the form of anti-trust action, regulation, or changes in the tax code. The period roughly from the Civil War to 1932 witnessed several ages of reform largely because each successive downturn in the economy brought greater and greater misery until, in 1929, the whole edifice collapsed. Each depression brought a response of more reform which served not only to stabilize markets, secure investments and regulate commerce but also addressed the maldistribution of wealth through the abolition of child labor, the empowerment of union organization, the introduction of the minimum wage, the establishment of the 40 hour work week and the creation of Social Security.
The movement along the racial fault line generally shifts right. One cannot begin to understand politics in America unless one immediately confronts the racial issue. American politics has always been about race. From the time the Spaniards arrived in the New World it has always been about race. The wholesale genocide perpetrated by the Europeans as they made their way on this continent is one of the great crimes against humanity and the long bloody tale of our theft of this country from the Native Americans is one of the darkest chapters in the history of this planet. In our unselfconscious boldness we declared it our “Manifest Destiny” to take possession of the entire continent. Given sanction by a benevolent Providence to take all that lay before us we were quite unapologetic as we went about the business of claiming our place in the sun. In fact the Governor of Minnesota issued a public proclamation in the Centennial Year of 1876, in the very same year that the Democrats moved to end Reconstruction and institute Jim Crow, for the “extermination” of Native Americans. Imagine an elected official in these United States actually uttering such a word.
Then, of course, there was slavery. Beginning in 1619 with the introduction of slaves into Virginia the American democratic experiment would find itself entangled in a bitter and deeply divisive internal economic and political contradiction that would nearly tear the republic apart. Much of the first half of the nineteenth century was consumed in bitter battles over slavery, ranging from the abolition of the slave trade in the early century, to the debate over the extension of the institution into the new territories, to wrangling over the fugitive slave laws, the ability to send abolitionist publications into slave territory via the U.S. Postal Service, the controversy over the Dred Scott Case, to the battles in Bloody Kansas, and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. Recently I discovered a book at the local bookstore. It was published in 1958, marking the centennial of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. The book is a virtual transcript of all the debates. Newspapers had sent stenographers to the debates and jotted down every word, even including descriptions of the reaction of the audience and the performances of the principles. I expected a free-flowing series of discussions on issues ranging from trade to protection to taxation to the incorporation of the new territories into the United States. What I found was that the debates were about nothing other than slavery. Every word of the debates was about nothing other than the resolution of this issue, so commanding was the issue just two years before war broke out and all hell broke loose.
That the Civil War brought emancipation and the 14th, 15th, and 16th amendments extending citizenship and outlawing involuntary servitude is clear. And for a brief time the country shifted a bit left along the racial fault line but then abruptly fell back to nearly its former position in the reaction of 1876. This was true a century later when the Civil Rights Movement, another earthquake along the racial fault line, moved the country a bit to the ‘left’. But as in 1876, so in 1968, when confronted with the prospect of allowing those of color total admission into the body politic, the country recoiled and shifted ‘right’.
Let there be no mistake. The primary reason the country shifted ‘right’ was not due to Goldwater’s conservative conscience, nor was it due to the reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe V Wade. It began in 1966 with the “white backlash” that swept huge numbers of Democratic Congressmen and Senators from the Congress; men who had voted for the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Housing Act. Suburban America, who had fled the cities to segregate themselves along racial lines, was now confronted with the might of the Federal Government threatening to allow the minorities to follow. What is instructive here is that for the first time since FDR put together the coalition that was the New Deal, middle class working white families—people identified much later as Reagan Democrats—were voting Republican, and were doing so not because they had embraced “free-market” economics but because they would no longer associate with a party that embraced persons of color.
There had been premonitions. Strom Thurmond leading a walkout of so-called “Dixiecrats” and running independently for President in 1948 when a young Hubert Humphrey forced a Civil Rights plank unto the Democratic Party Platform. But here, in 1966, saw the emergence of a full-blown revolt in nearly all-white suburbia. A revolt running the length and breadth of the entire land. A revolt in which whole segments of white America said that we have gone this far, we shall go no further.
Richard Nixon, on the advice of his young strategist Kevin Phillips, saw an opening. Remember Nixon always sensed opportunity whenever he could smell fear. So in 1968 he adopted Phillips’ strategy of campaigning against busing and affirmative action, and making calls for ‘law and order’. These were understood at the time to be racial code words, a thinly veiled appeal to racial prejudices in the name of Conservative Principles.
Things were complicated by the emergence of George Wallace as a third party candidate making his own racial overtones, but for the first time the Democratic Party—here represented by the self-same Hubert Humphrey who had outraged the Dixiecrats a generation before—lost its hold on what was once the “solid” South. The earthquake of 1968 forged a realignment of the constituent elements of the republic that cost the Democrats not only the “Solid South” but, in effect, the Presidency for the last 40 years.
It is difficult to remember but when I was young the South was considered “yellow-dog Democratic” country. It was said to be so solidly Democratic that one could put a yellow dog on the Democratic ticket and have it elected. After 1968 this was no longer the case. It took a generation or more, beginning in 1948 with Thurmond and continuing with defections of John Connolly and Phil Gramm of Texas, George Wallace bolting the party in 1968, Zell Miller in Georgia…the list goes on, elected Democrats following the electorate began to shift parties. There were a few brief interruptions in this trend, the nominations by the Democrats of Southerners Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 in which the Democracy was able to carry several Southern States, but beyond that the region has become “yellow-dog” Republican.
Let’s be clear about this. This seismic shift in the political landscape was not about Roe and abortion. It was not about ‘Supply-side’ economics as the Reaganauts would have us believe. It was about race and playing the race card. The revolt that first became nation-wide and would reshape the political landscape in suburbia as well as the South began in 1966, a full six years before the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on abortion. Long before the Republicans used abortion as a wedge issue to advance their economic agenda, there was race. There has always been race, they are not the first nor, as the Clinton’s have so recently demonstrated, will they be the last to exploit it.
Today the political landscape is beginning to shake along both of its major fault lines. An earthquake, of sorts, is coming and for the first time since the Civil War the Republic is about to come to terms with forces seeking to reshape our economic as well as our racial landscape bringing not only fear and uncertainty but the promise of a new day.
There are at least two possible outcomes. The first is that the establishment wins. Either Hillary gains the nomination and wins the election or McCain wins the election in which case nothing changes and the screws get a few more turns. The second is that a new coalition is forged capable of transcending the deepest divisions of our historical experience. At that point we will find ourselves in such a place that when we collectively look into the mirror we will see the face of Barack Obama.