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The Losers are Winning – Danger Ahead
Racial politics still defines the country as revealed in Robert Caro's book on Lyndon Johnson. Reaction to the 1960s informs what's happening today.
By Ed Knudson
Losers have a way of coming back, with a vengeance. The South is an example. It lost the civil war but has come back to dominate the politics and the military and even the religious life in the United States ever since. Its dominance has become dangerous for us all and the world. Maybe if we talk about it honestly we can avoid what otherwise lies in front of us.
Robert A. Caro tells the political story in his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate, a big, well documented work, the second of the series. Southerners had the habit of electing incumbents year after year. Since congress at the time was based on very strict seniority the Southerners enjoyed immense power within the Senate. They controlled all the major committees. The South had lost the civil war, the slaves were given freedom, but it was not long before the losers had come back with a vengeance, even, and especially, the vote was taken away from black people in the South. They became a permanent, oppressed minority in this country which otherwise says it believes in freedom for all.
It was not until the 1960s that there was a serious civil rights bill passed by the Senate. And it passed only because Johnson betrayed his Texas origins. He said at the time that passage of the civil rights bill would mean that Democrats would lose the South, and we have seen the truth of that prediction. In 1968 Nixon was elected using his “Southern strategy”. And Republicans have counted on the South ever since. They have been “playing the race card” with electoral politics right up to the present. Trent Lott may no longer be the Majority Leader of the Senate due to his racist remarks, but the fact that he thought he could say such things and get by with them indicates that racial politics is alive and well. Republicans know how to play the race card all across the South. The civil war losers have become Republican winners.
The losers have become the winners also in the political war of the 1960s over the Vietnam war. I admit to having lived the last three decades with a certain smugness, with a sense that I was on the winning side of that political war. I had opposed the Vietnam war, quite actively in fact. Those years I worked in a church in Washington D.C. We allowed Vietnam protestors from around the country to sleep in our church. We provided meals and meeting space. I preached and wrote against the war. It gave me a sense of accomplishment when the United States pulled out of that war. I thought that for-ever-more the United States would never again repeat the mistake of Vietnam, would never again go into a war that would so seriously divide families and communities, that would tear apart the very moral fabric of the nation.
The Vietnam war was fought in order to beat back the Communist menace in Southeast Asia. But anyone reading the history of Vietnam could clearly see that this was more a civil war than a Communist threat. Even within a culture of hysterical anti-Communism large numbers of people came to oppose the war. So it was also with a certain feeling that “I was right” when the Soviet Union gave up its faith in Communism. I had thought that it did not really represent such a serious threat to the United States, certainly not in any way like Ronald Reagan had articulated in his talk of an evil empire. The fall of the Communist countries gave me a sense of vindication. I thought I had been right.
But now looking back I can see that the losers in that political fight are becoming the winners in our current political context, indeed, becoming winners with a vengeance. Though the South is associated with many military bases and military industrial centers and thus has an economic self-interest in promoting military solutions to problems, this political fight over Vietnam, of course, took place throughout the country. The fact that the United States lost the war became an extreme demoralizing factor for many people. Some intellectuals who had advocated various socialist economic options and who had opposed the war made a large shift in their positions, becoming what are now called “neoconservatives.” They began to attack the whole notion of the welfare state, they began to promote a very strong nationalism almost, it seems, as a way to atone for their participation in the movement against the war.
George Will, the conservative columnist, wrote a piece a while ago on how happy he was for the 1960s. He was almost giddy in writing about how it was the 1960s that made the conservative movement possible. The losers then have become the winners today. And now they want to take over completely.
They want to get rid of social programs. They want to get rid of affirmative action. They want to get rid of progressive taxes. They want the United States to completely dominate the rest of the world. There has been this big, gigantic backlash against the 1960s. It’s as if civil rights for black people and questioning of an ill-conceived war were the worst possible sins.
I still don’t really understand why otherwise bright and able intellectuals, people who try to think seriously about things, have felt it necessary to promote this nasty neoconservativism, a philosophic orientation now used to justify another unwise war in Iraq and all manner of extreme actions across the globe. I will have to continue to think about it.
For those of religious persuasion, there are some answers. I think maybe it has to do with a reaction against modernity, against the march of modern institutions and their consequences. This is true in the South, certainly, which has always been the place where modern institutions have come against traditional views and values. The white South has had a greater investment in its cultural life than other parts of the country; it had to have a strong culture in order to justify slavery and to keep black people in their place. And it had religion, a version of Christianity which helped them justify slavery.
The South is the primary territorial source of what is called the religious right, or fundamentalist Christianity. This religious right considers much of modernity as of the devil, including the notion of individual rights for homosexuals, the pill as a birth control substance, modern notions of biology, and much of what happens in classrooms of public schools based as they are on philosophies of classic liberalism. The South is called the bible belt. Most of the television preachers come out of the South, including Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the primary political leaders of the religious right.
The religious right is primarily white. The conservative religious right got its start in practical politics mainly as a reaction against school integration, fighting against the federal government for the benefit of their independent private schools. Religion and race are very intimately connected, therefore, in ways many people are not aware.
Here’s what we have to face. Race still defines our politics. Republicans and religious right are associated with the backlash against the movement for racial justice. They have become increasingly successful and now their primary goal is to take over the courts, which had been the source of the power promoting racial justice. Republicans now control both the legislative and executive branches of government.
The losers in the 1960s are now winning, and winning rather conclusively. They are not bashful about attacking what they think is of the devil, those terrible “liberals”. They have created conservative think-tanks which have made ideas respectable that not long ago would have been thought ridiculous, some of which, such as privatization and deregulation, have been seen to be rather disastrous to the health of the national economy. Rather than offer more and more people economic freedom these conservatives are making it possible for private corporations to have more and more power over the daily lives of people, including the ideas people are allowed to see on television. So conservatives are able to convince people to vote for candidates that do not even represent their best interests.
It is not in the best interests of most people to just vote against black people, yet race still runs deep in the consciousness of most white people. They will vote against their own economic interest in order to vote against blacks. Even Bill Clinton needed to distance himself from blacks in order to get elected.
The conservatives have so dominated politics that very large numbers of people do not believe it can be helpful to them to even vote. Most of the non-voters are people who would otherwise vote against conservative policies. That leaves the field even more open to the religious right which has been very successful in organizing people to vote since it has access to large numbers of people through local congregations.
All this promotes only danger for the country. The dominant religious voice is one coming out of a revivalist theology which glorifies the nation and uncritically supports military options to further what it sees as the apocalyptic mission of this country.
No one has come along on the liberal side to be able to articulate the reality of what is happening in this country. The liberal voice in this country has been silenced. That is a dangerous situation. It is the liberals who believe in democratic values, after all. It is liberals who believe that tolerance of the views of others is important. Liberal tolerance of hysterical conservativism now endangers the future of our democratic polity. The losers are winning and danger is ahead.
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