In my last post, I wrote about Confederate statues and flags and suggested that ceasing to glorify symbols and partisans of an unconstitutional, illegal rebellion in the United States was simply a matter of decency. I promised in that post not to talk politics. This post will talk politics, and will lay out the condensed version of where we (that is, US voters) find themselves today, and how we came to our current situation.
Having touched last time on the emergence of the Republican party and the election of the first US president under its banner, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it seems easier to stick with them this time and talk more in depth about the Democrats in a future post.
First of all, talking of the American political landscape as a “two-party system” is an enormous oversimplification. Both parties are in fact comprised of people with a range of opinions and positions, some of which they express openly and honestly; others they express more covertly, or at times, in less strident terms for wider appeal to a general audience. As a result, political commentators and even journalists (who should and probably often do know better) tend to describe today’s Republicans as “the right” or “conservative” and the Democrats as “the left” or “liberal.” That terminology is useful only to describe each party in reference to the other party; in general, most or all Democrats hold views that fall slightly or greatly to the left of the views of most or all Republicans. On a world scale, our Republicans would be seen by most as a coalition of center-right to hard right types, and Democrats as a coalition of centrists to moderate left-of-center believers. But both include large numbers of simplistic single-issue voters and office holders, too.
To circle back to Lincoln’s time, then: political parties tended to come and go, based on singe issues or a narrow range of issues. Lincoln himself served one term in Congress, and that as a Whig, not a Republican. His election was in 1846, and he served from 1847 to 1849. The Whigs were the more urban, educated party, as opposed to Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, who traced their origins to Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic Republican” coalition, By the late 1840’s, Whig policy was for increased industrialization and encouragement of banks so as to finance public works such as roads, railroads, and canals, which would lead almost inevitably to increased urbanization; the Democrats wanted an agrarian republic, together with liberal immigration.
The Democratic thinking of the time meant expansion of the land mass of the United States and the conversion of that land mass to agriculture. Whigs, with some justification, pointed at the interests of Democrats were leading, and would continue to lead, to expansion of slavery ever westward and into the territories won from Mexico in the Mexican War. (Texas proved an example of this scenario.) Lincoln, having pledged at one point to serve only one term in Congress, hoped to be appointed to a well-paid federal job when Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, won the presidential election of 1848. Failing to secure the job he wanted, Lincoln left political life altogether rather than accept an office in the Oregon territory, and returned to Illinois.
By a long series of events, Lincoln gained a reputation among Illinois political figures as a strong orator and a formidable intellect over the next decade. It all came together in his being nominated as the Republican candidate for the US Senate seat then held by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. The Whigs, having fractured in the mid-1850’s, principally over the expansion of slavery–with their northern faction actively in opposition to the expansion while its southern branch was not inclined to “rock the boat”–simply ceased to function as a national party, and Lincoln, as did most Northern Whigs, went to the new Republican party.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are famous for having given Lincoln a national stage. During seven face-to-face encounters, Douglas talked at length about “popular sovereignty,” the “state’s rights” argument before the latter was well-formulated. In essence, Douglas was stating that if the people of a state wanted things one way, their will should be sovereign, rather than a statement of national principle or law. Lincoln argued that the Founders were more anti-slavery than pro, and that the national consensus was shifting toward a prohibition on expansion. In those days of state legislatures’ electing US senators, the Illinois legislature was composed of a majority of Democrats and Douglas won the Senate seat, but Lincoln had won a large following all over the northern states, and became the Republican nominee for President in 1860.
To recap Lincoln’s presidency relative to the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction, please see the immediately preceding post on this blog. For the purposes of this post, suffice to say that the tone was set for the next several decades, with Republican candidates and administrations standing for reconciliation with the ex-Confederate states, and standing for the rule of law. From Lincoln’s assassination until 1913, the only Democrat to be elected President was Grover Cleveland, in two separate terms. Memories of the Civil War and Lincoln’s leadership lasted and are influential even today. The next Democratic president was Woodrow Wilson, 1913-1921, who won with the aid of a split electorate when ex-President Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican party to run a third-party campaign. Wilson was followed by three more Republicans, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 only after an inept and seemingly cavalier response to the stock market crash 0f 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.
During all these years, though, of Republican administrations in Washington, southern states elected a long series of Democratic governors and state legislatures. In the early 1900’s, with Southern sensibilities looking for relief from the humiliation of defeat in the Civil War, and seeking, without admitting it, to maintain a strict white supremacist social order, these state legislatures enacted and enforced ruthlessly the infamous Jim Crow laws over most of the southern states. Marriage between the races was illegal. Voter laws were written, and enforced, to ensure minority input into state government was minimal. Maintenance of separation of the races, with African-Americans firmly established as inferior, was maintained by a legal façade of state laws. And lest it be thought that this system was restricted to the South, some northern cities were just as guilty of oppression as their southern counterparts.
Change began in earnest only with World War II. African-American workers stuck in menial occupations or sharecropping in the South migrated to industrial jobs in northern cities. They also were called upon to serve in the military during the war, and sentiment grew for a more equitable treatment for all; in 1948, President Harry Truman, a Democrat from Missouri, signed a decree desegregating the US military, an order which was not fully carried out until 1954.
It was during that same year of 1948 that Strom Thurmond, a Democratic senator from South Carolina, broke from the national Democratic Party to run for President under the “States’ Rights Democrat” party ticket, in protest of Truman’s action for desegregation of the military. In a campaign speech, he told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters,
“I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
During the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1954,came the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, a 9-0 decision that held that separate schools for African-American students and white ones were inherently unequal, and thus violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. No more could states legally enforce segregation, even under “separate but equal” justification. State governors Orval Faubus (Arkansas) in 1957, Ross Barnett,( Mississippi) 1962, and George C. Wallace (Alabama) in 1963, made showy objections to federal enforcement of desegregation orders, but the train of societal change had left the station. A way of life was going to change, even if grudgingly and slowly.
The seismic shift in American politics came in 1964. The Republicans nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a self-described conservative, to run for President against Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who, on July 2, 1964, had signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Johnson, himself a Southerner from Texas, took up the battle as a memorial act for President John F. Kennedy after the latter was assassinated. Goldwater opposed the Act on the grounds of federal overreach and Senator Thurmond heartily approved of that opposition. Thurmond soon changed parties, and other southern Democrats followed; the “solid south” became solidly Republican, largely over the Civil Rights issue.
A mere four years later, in 1968, the defeated Republican nominee for President of 1960, Richard M. Nixon, embraced, little by little, a “southern strategy,” holding that he would speak for the “silent majority, ” and that the majority of the electorate was “unyoung, unpoor, and unblack.” I believe, although it can never be proven, that Nixon was probably not a racist or absolutely callous to the plight of those less fortunate among us. He just subsumed the importance of absolutely everything else to that of winning elections. I have treated him harshly here before, but it bears repeating. He was, in my estimation, the most corrosive figure in modern American public political life. His insistence on winning at any cost caused him to lose any scruples he had in favor of a “take no prisoners” campaign philosophy.
Subsequent Republican actions reinforce the Nixonian view that it doesn’t matter as long as you win. Ronald Reagan, a Republican candidate for president launched his campaign from Philadelphia, Mississippi, the same place where three civil rights workers had been kidnapped and murdered a few years before. Part of his opening statement was “…I believe in states’ rights.” Both of these things are so-called “dog whistle” statements–something that makes a statement to those attuned to know what the words mean. In this case, the most likely meaning is “I’m with those of you who advocate ‘popular sovereignty.’ ” I don’t think Abe Lincoln would have missed the context.
Thirty years after Reagan’s heyday, we got Donald Trump, he of “I’m the law and order candidate” fame even as his campaign has come under scrutiny for conspiring with a hostile foreign country, even as his finances continue to draw draw the attention of federal and state authorities. Even after he began his ascent into politics by slandering the last president. I know…nothing has been proven. I know, he’s the president. He won’t be forever. Politics like his, beginning with advocating and currying hate by some Americans against some others are nothing to be proud of. And I know, the Democrats are not as pure as the driven snow. (Their turn is next.) I just can’t pretend I see anything to admire on the “right” side of the aisle.