It’s best to come of age when then nation is coming of age too, but that’s a crap-shoot – you don’t get to choose when you were born. It’s just that coming of age in the sixties was, as they said back then, a trip. The decade opened with the Civil Rights movement exploding, except that was all about peaceful resistance and quite civil disobedience. It was Bull Conner and George Wallace who exploded. William F. Buckley didn’t explode – he popped and burbled, eruditely. But things were changing. Under that big statue of Lincoln in Washington, Martin Luther King told us all about that dream he had, and then Lyndon Johnson twisted what arms needed to be twisted and the Voting Rights Act was passed, and then the broader Civil Rights Act of 1964, having to do with employment and housing and accommodations and anything else that might fall under the Commerce Clause. The nation changed – and that was the year before high school finally ended. That made up for listening to the news coverage of the Kennedy assassination over the tinny school speakers in tenth grade chemistry class. Something went right for a change, or not, depending on your point of view. Things were changing. It wasn’t just the Beatles popping up on Ed Sullivan’s show one Sunday evening.
That was just the start of it. It was off to college in June 1965, to Denison – a fine little liberal arts college in a sleepy little town in the empty middle of the perpetually sleepy state of Ohio – but the next four years wouldn’t be sleepy. Vietnam was the issue, and the systematic rejection of the Ozzie and Harriet world of the fifties, and yes, questioning what supported that world – consumer capitalism itself. All that reached Ohio. There was the Free Speech movement at Berkeley, and the kids at Columbia took over the school, and there were riots in Paris in early 1968 followed by the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago a few months later – and somewhere in there Martin Luther King was shot dead, then Bobby Kennedy, and then there was Woodstock and the Beatles split up and Nixon got elected – and then it was sort of all over. The only thing that remained was the civil rights stuff. The law was the law. The nation had changed.
Nothing is that neat and clean however. Denison, in those years, was a bit of a party school – fraternities and sororities were everything, homogeneous groups with self-reinforcing standards for dress and behavior and general attitude. The fifties lived on there. The sorority girls were giggly and peasant and in search of that perfect future husband. The frat boys were crude and smug but usually not intentionally cruel – they were just supremely aware that what they thought about anything at all was what should be thought about that, and only fools would think otherwise, because there was nothing to think about, really. Those of us who didn’t join up just shrugged. The frat boys were harmless enough. So they didn’t show up for late night bull-sessions about the world and the meaning of life and whatever – that was no big deal. That’s an acquired taste, like Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. It’s just that none of the civil rights stuff seemed to take with them. They were almost Southern in their casual racism. They had nothing against black folks – they were just Those People. Others said Those People were lazy and shiftless and dumb and all the rest, and probably smelled funny because they were subhuman, but the frat boys didn’t know one way or the other. They just didn’t think of them at all. They had no reason to. They’d never met any. They couldn’t even imagine them. Martin Luther King was probably a communist anyway. They’d heard talk of that.
Then that all changed. Diana Ross and the Supremes showed up on campus for a concert, and back in the day she and the other two were drop-dead gorgeous. Suddenly you’d hear frat boys say, man, I could so date a black woman – but of course that didn’t last. Most of those frat boys went on to be good Republicans, doctors and dentists and midlevel executives, with the white wife – one of the sorority girls of course. The race issue wasn’t a race issue ever again. There was nothing to think about.
Diana Ross and the Supremes should have been a warning. Change was in the air then. Now the change is here, as Sam Tanenhaus notes here:
With Barack Obama sworn in for a second term – the first president in either party since Ronald Reagan to be elected twice with popular majorities – the GOP is in jeopardy, the gravest since 1964, of ceasing to be a national party. The civil rights pageantry of the inauguration – Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and Martin Luther King’s, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s swearing in of Joe Biden, Beyoncé’s slinky glamor, the verses read by the gay Cuban poet Richard Blanco – seemed not just an assertion of Democratic solidarity, but also a reminder of the GOP’s ever-narrowing identity and of how long it has been in the making.
Tanenhaus is editor of the New York Times Book Review and working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. at the moment, and that was the opening paragraph of his long article Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People – the new cover story from the New Republic under its new owner. The cover of the new issue is entirely white, in a nod to the Republican Party, and that cover had conservatives quite upset – that’s just not fair. They have Marco Rubio and Herman Cain, after all.
Yes, they do – but Beyoncé is drop-dead gorgeous and Obama is black and there are Hispanics and gays out there too – in power. This is not 1969, the year Kevin Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority which Kirkus Reviews summarized at the time:
According to this young lawyer, who recently joined the Nixon administration, the upcoming cycle in our politics will match a majority Republican party composed of Northern blue-collar workers, Catholic and “”Sun Belt”" suburbanites, Southern whites, and Midwesterners, against a minority Democratic party drawn from Northeastern and Northwestern liberals and Negroes. His prediction is based on a theory which shows American politics moving in thirty to forty year spans dominated by one of the two parties, and on a careful historical survey of regional and ethnic voting patterns since the Civil War.
He was wrong, as Tanenhaus notes:
“Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of eleven Southern states?” Kevin Phillips, the prophet of “the emerging Republican majority,” asked in 1968, when he was piecing together Richard Nixon’s electoral map. The eleven states, he meant, of the Old Confederacy. “Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don’t need the big cities. We don’t even want them. Sure, Hubert [Humphrey] will carry Riverside Drive in November. La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?”
Forty-five years later, the GOP safely has Oklahoma, and Dixie, too. But Phillips’s Sunbelt strategy was built for a different time, and a different America. Many have noted Mitt Romney’s failure to collect a single vote in 91 precincts in New York City and 59 precincts in Philadelphia. More telling is his defeat in eleven more of the nation’s 15 largest cities. Not just Chicago and Columbus, but also Indianapolis, San Diego, Houston, even Dallas – this last a reason the GOP fears that, within a generation Texas will become a swing state. Remove Texas from the vast, lightly populated Republican expanse west of the Mississippi, and the remaining 13 states yield fewer electoral votes than the West Coast triad of California, Oregon, and Washington. If those trends continue, the GOP could find itself unable to count on a single state that has as many as 20 electoral votes.
What happened? The inevitable happened:
It won’t do to blame it all on Romney. No doubt he was a weak candidate, but he was the best the party could muster, as the GOP’s leaders insisted till the end, many of them convinced he would win, possibly in a landslide. Neither can Romney be blamed for the party’s whiter-shade-of-pale legislative Rotary Club: the four Republicans among the record 20 women in the Senate, the absence of Republicans among the 42 African Americans in the House (and the GOP’s absence as well among the six new members who are openly gay or lesbian). These are remarkable totals in a two-party system, and they reflect not only a failure of strategy or “outreach,” but also a history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation’s diverse constituencies – blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.
This is the problem that Joan Walsh, Salon’s editor-at-large, explored in her recent book, What’s the Matter with White People: Why We Long for a Golden Age That Never Was – all about her family and how the sixties pitted Americans against each another in new and oddly destructive ways. Everyone has fallen behind economically, except the wealthy, but those on the right blamed the decline on the moral shortcomings of “other” Americans – black folks, feminists, gays, immigrants, union members – and liberals tried, but mostly failed, to make the case that we’re all in this together. It split her family in two. It split America in two – and when you speak of those “other” Americans, the split is often racial. Diana Ross and the Supremes didn’t help at all. Racial Resentment won the day. It was useful to the Republican Party – or it used to be useful.
It was what they had. In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall presents extensive evidence that racial resentment has increased in the Obama years, mostly among Republicans, and Jamelle Bouie offers this:
Edsall sees this as a crucial through-line in the ongoing story of GOP extremism. Growing racial resentment has deepened the conservatism of right-wing Republicans, and contributed to their total rejection of President Obama and the Democratic Party in 2010 and 2012.
It’s worth noting the real disputes over the racial resentment scale. Over the years, a growing group of political scientists have questioned the actual influence of ideology on anti-black attitudes… In this narrative, opposition to race-conscious policies has less to do with outright animus, and more with a belief in equal opportunity and a desire to treat people fairly.
But the divide between racism and ideology isn’t so neat – as has been true throughout American history, beliefs about race are hard to separate from political ideology.
Kevin Drum agrees with that and offers an excerpt from an email he received from a friend, about the limited options the conservative movement has for getting lots of votes, and the options Fox News has for helping them out:
Certainly one suggestion would be to replace the morning crew (they’re stale, unreformed, a standard SNL joke, and a limitless font of offensiveness) and cut out the -ist comments that emanate daily from their shows. And maybe stop being a one-stop shop for inane stories featuring everyday black people doing or saying dumb things. This is a huge attraction to Fox. (When conservative colleagues / family mention Fox to me, it’s usually in the context of a wide-eyed explanation of a story on Fox showing how stupid minorities or minority individuals are.)
This stuff really animates the base and Fox knows it. It’s bigotry porn. And it just helps to makes conservatives radioactive to the groups that Republicans need to broaden their appeal. So, if you want to rebrand and broaden the appeal of Fox (and the Republicans) while keeping it conservative, aggressively ditching the cheap and not so veiled bigotry might be a productive place to start. I’m open to hearing arguments that bigotry is not an intrinsic value of the conservative ideology (and God knows Goldberg, Lowry, Ponnuru, Douthat, Brooks, Frum and others breathlessly try to advance this argument despite actual and continuing evidence to the contrary), but that’s a big sales job. But a necessary one…
Is this “ideology”? Is it pandering? Is it pure commercialism? It’s not easy to say. In the end, it’s sort of a mushy blend of all those things. But I’d submit that to the extent we’ve truly seen an increase in racial resentment, a good part of it is due not to either pure ideology or to pure racial animus per se, but to active editorial decisions made by Fox News. The summer of hate in 2010 was the most jaw-dropping example of this, but in more modest form it’s been visible during Obama’s entire first term. And of course, Drudge and Rush Limbaugh play the same game.
When does it end?
Here’s Drum on that summer of hate:
July and August of 2010 were a festival of xenophobia and racial rage from the news organs of the right. Among the topics that generated wall-to-wall coverage on a serial basis that summer were (1) the New Black Panthers, (2) Arizona’s new immigration law, (3) the “anchor baby” controversy, (4) the “Ground Zero” mosque, (5) the Shirley Sherrod affair, (6) a new upwelling of birther conspiracy theories, (7) Glenn Beck’s obsession with Barack Obama’s supposed sympathy with “liberation theology,” and (8) Dinesh D’Souza’s contention – eagerly echoed by Newt Gingrich – that Barack Obama can only be understood as an angry, Kenyan, anti-colonialist. Plus I’m probably forgetting a few.
Yeah, there was all that, and it won’t end. Bigotry porn is addictive, but Tanenhaus say it’s more ideology than bigotry:
The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.
This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to “starve government,” curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents.
There is a strong sectionalist bias in these efforts. They flourish in just the places Kevin Phillips identified as Republican strongholds – Plains, Mountain, but mainly Southern states, where change invites suspicion, especially when it seems invasive, and government is seen as an intrusive force. Yet those same resisters – most glaringly, Tea Partiers – cherish the entitlements and benefits provided by “Big Government.” Their objections come when outsider groups ask for consideration, too. Even recent immigrants to this country sense the “hidden hand” of Calhoun’s style of dissent, the extended lineage of rearguard politics, with its aggrieved call, heard so often today, “to take back America” – that is, to take America back to the “better” place it used to be. Today’s conservatives have fully embraced this tradition, enshrining it as their own “Lost cause,” redolent with the moral consolations of noble defeat.
They’re all Southerners now:
Today, Calhoun is often described as a kind of crank – and with some reason. He called slavery “a positive good” and ridiculed the Declaration’s “all men are created equal.” (“Taking the proposition literally … there is not a word of truth in it.”) But in the early cold war years, when so many intellectuals, left and right, rebelled against the numbing dictates of consensus and conformism, there was a Calhoun revival. He became “the philosophic darling of students of American political thought,” Louis Hartz wrote in The Liberal Tradition in America, published in 1955. A liberal like the historian Richard Hofstadter was stimulated by his bold theories on class and labor (“the Marx of the master class”), and conservatives were drawn to his protest against encroaching big government.
Calhoun, Russell Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind (1953), was “the most resolute enemy of national consolidation and of omnicompetent democratic majorities” and had valiantly uncovered “the forbidding problem of the rights of individuals and groups menaced by the will of overbearing majorities.” The Calhoun apostle James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, wrote a defense of segregation, The Sovereign States (1957), that had an epigraph from the Fort Hill Address and exhaustively catalogued examples of “interposition” dating back to the origins of the Republic.
You’ve heard of the rights of individuals and groups menaced by the will of overbearing majorities – Sharon Angle saying if the right candidates don’t win – she and others like her – patriots who believe in freedom can turn to Second Amendment Remedies. They have their guns. The will of overbearing majorities may give us gun control too – and you’ve heard those who say no one will take away their guns, or even register them, as the overbearing majority can be wrong. They’ll cite Calhoun, inadvertently:
In retreat, the nullifying spirit has been revived as a form of governance – or, more accurately, anti-governance. Its stronghold is the Tea Party–inflected House of Representatives, whose nullifiers would plunge us all over the “fiscal cliff.” We see it too in continuing challenges to “Obamacare,” even after it was validated by the Roberts Court. And we see it as well in Senator Rand Paul’s promise to “nullify anything the president does” to impose new gun controls. Each is presented not as a practical attempt to find a better answer, but as a “Constitutional” demand for restoration of the nation to its hallowed prior self. It is not a coincidence that the resurgence of nullification is happening while our first African American president is in office.
It’s ideology with an overlay of deep and hot racial resentment. The idea here is that conservatives have “fully embraced” the politics of the nullification guru John C. Calhoun, whose theories have become “the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.”
The will of the electoral majority gave us a black president, twice, and Tanenhaus concludes:
Race will always be a complex issue in America. There is no total cleansing of an original sin. But the old polarizing politics is a spent force. The image of the “angry black man” still purveyed by sensationalists such as Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza is anachronistic today, when blacks and even Muslims, the most conspicuous of “outsider” groups, profess optimism about America and their place in it. A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP’s dwindling base – its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its “middle-aged white guys.”
They now form the party’s one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country’s developing ideas of democracy and governance. We are left with the profound historical irony that the party of Lincoln – of the Gettysburg Address, with its reiteration of the Declaration’s assertion of equality and its vision of a “new birth of freedom” – has found sustenance in Lincoln’s principal intellectual and moral antagonist.
Where are Diana Ross and the Supremes when you need them? In the sixties the law changed, but other things change people’s minds, for a time. It seems some of us came of age, along with the country, and others didn’t.