Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How the Democrats paid dearly for doing what was right while the GOP profited from evil

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Richard Nixon is associated with Southern Strategy as well as his enemies list, the secret bombing of Cambodia or the burglary of Democratic Headquarters at Watergate --the cover up, the hearings, the lies and, eventually, the threat of impeachment. Nixon's Southern Strategy turned a solid Democratic South into GOP occupied territory. It was not a simple appeal to bigotry that did it. It required the Democrats do what was right while Nixon strategists plotted what was wrong. They succeeded. GOP appeals to bigotry and hatred are now well-practiced.

It is appalling to find in the US a level of hatefulness that one hoped had been laid to rest in the battlefields of the Civil War. From the ashes of the "Old South" rose a mean and prejudiced spirit, just as from the ashes of Watergate rose a radicalized and reactionary GOP.

In Monroe, LA I found, in the only large bookstore in town, a huge section devoted to various Civil War books. That is to be expected. Bothersome was the fact that most of them dealt with the 'betrayal of the South'. Across town, just a stone's throw by big city standards is the Civil War Cemetery, a more sobering reminder of tragedy.

Farther afield, down the road is Vicksburg, MS, where the forces of Ulysses S. Grant had approached by way of the Mississippi River from Memphis only to learn that Vicksburg could never be taken by a direct assault. Grant's Vickburg seige came to symbolize the ideological stand-off as well. Having grown up in the far reaches of Commanche country, I was not prepared to learn that, in the South, to this day, there is still found a lingering resentment that can only be felt by those who had been occupied by a foreign power.

It was among those disaffected descendants of the Civil War south that the GOP found manna, a strategy often falsely attributed to Kevin Phillips its most articulate voice.
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

--Kevin Phillips
It must be remembered that this "Negro vote" had been the GOP's to lose. They were, after all, the party of Lincoln. It was "Radical Republicans" --not Lincoln --who had imposed upon southern states a reconstruction that turned the South into occupied territory which at the time fared little better than Iraq. The era of "reconstruction" is best known for the terrorist organization it spawned: the Ku Klux Klan.

The raison d'etre of the KKK was to keep 'negroes' from voting for Republicans. The ranks of the KKK were filled by angry southern Democrats! As recently as the early 1960's, one could find in Louisiana (and presumably other southern states as well) large political billboards promising 'Continued Segregation"! The billboards were posted by Democratic --not GOP --candidates.

While it is true that the economies of the 11 states making up the confederacy were dependent upon slavery to produce and harvest the crops (most famously, cotton), it is a mistake to ascribe to the North some vague, mythical moral superiority. Slavery, to be sure, was illegal in the north but only a handful of 'yankees' actively opposed it. Martin Scorsese got it right; Lincoln was as widely despised in New York as he had been in the deep south.

Not every division in America is traced directly to the civil war, although you will find die hards and throwbacks who will --to this day --defend the institution of slavery. Still others resent the harsh reconstruction. It was Nixon's evil genius that his campaign did not merely overcome the natural resentment of his party's role in "reconstructing" the South --it exploited it! That the Democrats would pay dearly for having done the right thing explains the party's timidity today. Democrats have historically paid high prices for being or doing right. The GOP, by contrast, is rewarded handsomely for making a Faustian bargain with bigotry and prejudice. As he signed the Voting Rights Act, LBJ famously said that he was, in fact, forever ceding the South to the GOP.

A long story is, of necessity, made short. Nixon's legacy is that of a GOP benefiting from George Wallace's politics of hate but as well from LBJ's signature on the Voting Rights Act. The GOP found votes wherever there was resentment or prejudice. Clearly --but for the GOP exploitation of hate, distrust and lingering prejudice, our various peoples throughout the nation might have put the Civil War behind them and moved forward.

But for the GOP's war on labor as well as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", Spiro Agnew's code word for academics and free thinkers, the Civil War might have been transcended! Alas, no! It was not to be! The Civil War looms like a ghost upon the body politic. It was only a few years ago that, in Jaspar, Texas bigots dragged a black man at high speeds over back country roads until very nearly nothing was left of his body.

Not so long ago, lynchings and public burnings of black people were not merely tolerated but celebrated like county fairs. Photographs of the events were mailed as post cards. It made of civic murder a macabre celebration, literally, a barbecue.

Thus --American History is of two chapters --pre Civil War and post Civil war. American History cannot be understood without understanding the economics of the Antebellum South and the institution of slavery upon which it depended. The "rise of the South", as we have seen, cannot be understood outside that context. It is one of the great ironies of history that the 'south' that hated Lincoln became Nixon's "Solid South".
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

--Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863

I fell in love with Ashokan Farewell during Ken Burns' famous "Civil War" series on PBS. Hearing Jay Unger's story of its creation helps me appreciate it the more. I like his description of it as a "Scottish Lament".

Ken Burns was wise to allow this piece to set the mood for what has been --until now --America's most profound tragedy --the loss, perhaps forever, of our freedoms. And, again, as then, that tragic loss has come not from abroad but from the cancer within.

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