Barry Goldwater is not responsible for The Donald

By Lorenzo

Blaming The Donald on Sen. Barry Goldwater is essentially the claim of this Vox piece.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) was the libertarian-inclined Republican Senator who won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and was then defeated in a 61% to 39% electoral landslide by LBJ. The strong on national security, rhetorically keen on small government strain of politics that Goldwater represented may have lost the 1964 US Presidential election, but it went on to become increasingly powerful within the Republican Party, leading to Ronald Reagan‘s nomination and successful two-term Presidency (three-term, in effect, with Bush Snr‘s 1988 win).

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Sen. Goldwater famously articulated a federalist opposition to the (federal) Civil Rights Act of 1964, swapping (declining) African-American support for Republicans for the votes of (much more numerous) Southern whites. At least in the long term–it did not do much for Goldwater himself and it was not until 1994 (i.e. 30 years later) that the South finally forgave the Republican Party for the Civil War. And that on the basis of the Contract with America, which was conspicuously non-racial in its content.

Goldwater’s opting for “states rights” over civil rights, a seminal moment in the Republican Party’s Southern strategy, has long been treated by progressivists as the Original Sin of the modern Republican Party. Reagan’s success (as with Margaret Thatcher‘s in the UK) was part of a general tendency to market liberalisation that outraged many progressives, who took it as a vile de-railing of the “proper direction” of History and for whom the only proper path for the Republicans was to be a pale and compliant version of the Democrats. Whenever the “culture wars” heat up, this Origin Sin is trotted out to explain why the Republicans are wrong/evil/stupid/ignorant. With the nomination of The Donald being an excellent vehicle for revisiting this hardy perennial.

LBJ himself commented that the Civil Rights Act would mean losing the South for a generation. Actually, it took a generation for the Democrats to lose the South, at least at a Congressional level. (The Republicans did better in the South in Presidential elections from 1964 onwards.) But his underlying instinct was surely correct: by embracing civil rights so emphatically, and setting itself up as essentially the monopoly-political-provider for African-Americans, the Democrats were driving away lots of Southern whites: in a two-Party system, that meant to the Republicans.

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It is obviously true that lots Southern whites went off and voted Republican, first in Presidential elections and eventually in Congressional ones (though the evidence on white racism in general is a lot more equivocal).

What precisely did they get regarding racial politics for voting Republican? (Noting that opposing policies touted as anti-racist is not the same as being racist.) A black Supreme Court Judge, a black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, two black Secretaries of State, a black RNC chair, an Indian Governor of Louisiana. Was there any rollback of civil rights? Application of pro-white racial criteria for anything? Some rhetorical winks and nods is the most one can reasonably claim. And even there, these are often over-claimed. [Though voting law shenanigans remain a hardy perennial.]

The Republican Party was where white racism (to the extent that it did) went off to be politically frustrated. White racism got far, far less from the Republican Party post-1964 than it did from the Democratic Party pre-1960. For two reasons: first, the identity as the Party of Lincoln still had rhetorical power among Republicans (as Sen. Trent Lott discovered) and, secondly, the US was becoming a far less racist society than it had been. The penalties among the wider electorate, and within the business and professional classes who provide money and staff, of open racism was much greater than the benefits, and have been getting more so all the time.

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There is a parallel in the mid-C19th origins of the Republican Party, where it took over nativist sentiment and finessed into opposition to Slave Power, proceeding to preside for decades over massive immigration. The C19th Republican Party was the place that nativism went to be frustrated. In last decades of the C20th, the Republican Party repeated the performance with white Southerners (at least as regards racism), with Soviet Power playing a somewhat analogous role to Slave Power. (With the added resonance that the Soviet Union revived state slavery, with its labour camp system, and even serfdom, with its 1940-1955 ban on workers changing employment without management approval.)

Then along comes The Donald, clearly appealing to white tribalism. His appeal started off not among people the Republican Party had successfully actively engaged, but folk that it had not. Which fitted with him not actually being a Republican in any serious sense. This 52 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 36 years after the “Reagan Democrats” marking a long drift of white working class voters from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Clearly, something else has been going on. (What that is, is the subject of my next [a later] post). But, whatever it is, it is not Barry Goldwater’s fault.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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