Today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the web is brimming over with retrospectives. See, for example, Eugene Robinson.
I want to point in particular to E.J. Dionne’s column, however, because he plays one of my own recurring themes — the way the Right exploited racism to take over America. The column begins:
Forty years ago, American liberalism suffered a blow from which it has still not recovered. On April 4, 1968, a relatively brief but extraordinary moment of progressive reform ended, and a long period of conservative ascendancy began.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing riots that engulfed the nation’s capital and big cities across the country signaled the collapse of liberal hopes in a smoky haze of self-doubt and despair. Conservatives, on the run for much of the decade, found a broad new audience for their warnings against the disorders and disruptions bred by reform.
It wasn’t just the riots. Much of white America was still simmering with resentment over court-ordered school desegregation. Also, Lyndon Johnson had initiated New Deal-style programs aimed primarily at relieving poverty among African Americans. Suddenly, whites who had had no problem with “entitlements” before — when benefits went mostly to whites — discovered the virtues of “self-reliance.”
It is easy to forget that the core themes of contemporary conservatism were born in response to the events of 1968. The attacks on “big government,” the defense of states’ rights, and the scorn for “liberal judicial activism,” “liberal do-gooders,” “liberal elitists,” “liberal guilt” and “liberal permissiveness” were rooted in the reaction that gathered force as liberal optimism receded.
Richard Nixon did a masterful job of exploiting fear and prejudice to lure white working-class voters away from the Democrats. And, of course, whites in the Deep South switched their allegiance from the Dems to the Republicans en masse.
The Right-Wing Narrative says that Democrats lost power because George McGovern opposed the Vietnam War, and the Dem Party was overrun by “peaceniks.” But this view of history doesn’t square with what really happened. McGovern’s stand on the Vietnam War was the least of the reasons he lost to Nixon in 1972.
And check out the acceptance speech Nixon gave at the 1972 Republican convention. The first half of the speech was all about race. It was in code, of course, but no adult alive at the time could have mistaken his meaning when he spoke of quotas and tied paying high taxes to the costs of “welfare.” And Republicans are still running on those themes today.
Just the other day, someone argued in the comments that the next Dem president would be punished for “losing Iraq” the way the Democrats were punished for “losing Vietnam.” Except that I don’t see how the Dems were punished for losing Vietnam. Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975; in 1976, America elected Jimmy Carter as president and gave the Dems a small increase in Congress, expanding the large increase the Dems had enjoyed in the 1974 post-Watergate midterms.
The fact is, once combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and the POWs came home, America lost interest in Vietnam. The whole bleeping country developed amnesia over Vietnam (except for the extreme Right, a group of people who are never so happy as when they are nursing resentments). As I remember it, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Narrative emerged about Dems losing elections because of Vietnam. But this was an important narrative for the Right, because it helped them paper over the real primary reason the Right gained and the Left lost in those years. And that primary reason was racism. There were other issues, too, but racism was the foundational issue upon which other right-wing issues would be built.
Right-wing politicians had employed Red-baiting with some success since the late 1940s. But the excesses of McCarthyism had turned off moderates, and the Kennedy Administration had ushered in a liberal resurgence. Eventually, racism would succeed where Red-baiting had faltered.
The success of the racism strategy in the 1960s and 1970s taught at least a couple of generations of right-wing politicians about the importance of wedge issues. As new issues came up — feminism, abortion, gay rights — right-wing politicians embraced them and followed the old racism scenario to exploit them. Meanwhile, the Left crumbled into confusion and single-issue activism.
And as right-wingers gained more and more power over the federal government, the federal government became less and less functional. Because wedge issues may win elections, but they don’t govern a nation.
E.J. Dionne continues,
Forty years later, is it possible to recapture the hope and energy of the days and years before that April 4? Has liberalism spent enough time in purgatory for the country to revisit how much was accomplished in its name and to acknowledge that the nation is better off for what the liberals did?
In “The Liberal Hour,” an important new history of the ’60s that will be published in July, Colby College scholars G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert S. Weisbrot note that for all its deficiencies, the period of liberal sway “demonstrated what democratic politics can produce when public consensus crescendos, when coherent majorities prevail, and when skilled leaders provide direction, inspiration, and relentless energy.”
In the U.S., public consensus, coherent majorities, and skilled leaders providing direction in a positive, not a destructive, way are things only us geezers dimly remember and the young folks have never seen.
And after a few years of near-total dominance by right-wingers of the federal government, 81 percent of Americans say the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.
It’s 40 years since 1968. Now a black man and a white woman are competing with each other for the Dem nomination. They both face nasty bigotry barriers, and it would be a breakthrough if either were elected. Yet only one of these candidates has shown a real talent for building public consensus. The other one is running an increasingly bitter, and angry, wedge-issue style campaign. I think 40 years of that crap is quite enough.
Update: Wingnut priorities.