Friday, April 09, 2010

How the GOP Betrayed Lincoln's Great Republican Promise

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Richard Nixon sought the Presidency an underdog. To win he had to reshape American politics. He had to force a realignment which his strategist, Kevin Phillips, called 'Southern Strategy'. Years later, in a televised interview with Bill Moyers, Phillips regretted having unleashed an evil GOP genie.

'Southern Strategy' put Nixon in the White House. What had been a Democratic 'solid South' was transformed --it is said --though it was the same bigotry that had inspired Southern 'Democrats' to promise 'continued segregation' as late as the 1960s. 'Southern Strategy' did not eliminate bigotry, it exploited it! The resulting 'transformation' is the story of which party most successfully kissed up to bigotry, racism, prejudice. For that reason, I take issue with those who write glowingly of a 'transformation of Southern politics'. The emergence of the GOP in the solid, Democratic south is not so novel and more accurately described as just another instance in which the GOP 'triangulates' the stupid and the bigoted, the 'bubbas' and the 'buttheads'!

At the time, Southern politicians openly promised 'continued segregation'. The Civil War seemed recent and many wounds still bled.
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 re: "Southern Strategy"
There is some quibbling about whether Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips originated or merely popularized 'Southern Strategy'. In any case, Phillips owns Southern Strategy by putting Richard Nixon into the White House with it. 'Southern Strategy' was the original 'trickle down' theory as local and regional candidates benefited from their identification with the candidate at the top of the ticket. At that time, the biggest prize was the 'solid south'. Nixon won both the south and the White House.

From the ashes of the "Old South" rose a mean and prejudiced spirit. In Monroe, LA, for example, I found in the only large bookstore in town, a huge section devoted to various Civil War books; most dealt with how the South had been betrayed. Across town, just a stone's throw by big city standards is the Civil War Cemetary, a more sobering reminder of tragedy. Farther afield, down the road is Vicksburg, MS, where the forces of US Grant had approached from the Mississippi River from Memphis only to learn that Vicksburg could never be taken by a direct assault. Grant's Vicksburg siege came to symbolize the ideological stand-off. Having grown up in the far reaches of Comanche 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 are occupied by a foreign power.

The "Negro vote" had been the GOPs to lose. The GOP had been the party of Lincoln, the party of liberation, the party which ended slavery! It was the "Radical Republicans" --not Lincoln --who had imposed upon the 'South' a reconstruction which turned the 'South' into occupied territory alienating the 'White' vote. The era of "reconstruction" is best known for the terrorist organization it spawned: the 'White Supremacist' Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization, blamed as recently as the 1960s for its bombing of the Pacifica broadcast transmitter in Houston. Then, as now, US policies and occupations cause terrorism in response. That's just the way it is. Every foreign occupying army since our ancestors began to walk upright and leave the Savannahs has been opposed by 'guerrillas'!

It would be a mistake to ascribe to the North some mythical moral superiority. Martin Scorsese probably got it right in his great motion picture, Gangs of New York. Lincoln was as despised in New York as he had been in the deep, antebellum south. The economies of 11 states making up the Confederacy were dependent upon slavery to produce and harvest the crops, most famously, cotton. Slavery was illegal in the north but opposed by a mere handful of vocal opponents. Though many have gone underground, others will openly defend the institution of slavery --even today.

Others resent the harsh reconstruction even today. It was Nixon's evil genius that his campaign was able to overcome the natural resentment of his party's role in "reconstructing" the South. It was Nixon's evil genius that allowed, encouraged him to 'tap' that gurgling well-spring of latent resentment, hatred, and prejudice. That the Democrats would pay dearly for having done the right thing even as the GOP has benefited handsomely for doing the wrong thing may explain Democratic timidity today. Democrats have historically paid high very high prices for doing the right thing! 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 as well as from LBJ's signature on the Voting Rights Act. The GOP would find votes wherever there was resentment or prejudice. The GOP would foment distrust when our various peoples might have put the Civil War behind them and moved forward. The GOP would wage war on labor as well as "the nattering nabobs of negativity", Spiro Agnew's code word for academics and free thinkers.

The Civil War looms like a ghost above the body politic. It was just 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.

A bit longer ago, the lynchings and public burnings of black people was not merely tolerated, they were celebrated like county fairs. Photographs of the events were mailed as post cards. It made of civic murder a macabre celebration, literally, a barbecue.

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" cannot be understood without understanding how the south that hated Lincoln became Nixon's "Solid South". It is one of the great ironies of convoluted history that as the GOP represents a threat to our freedom, our future as a nation cannot be ensured unless we, at last, effect the words of a Republican.
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

Trailer: Gangs of New York

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