Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Personal Political Odessey

My personal political odyssey has proceeded along two parallel tracks: 1) My scholarly understanding based upon more than 50 years of researching, teaching, and writing about political history, and 2) My personal, real world experiencing of every presidential election since 1948. I was 11 years old in 1948 and living in a family for whom the Democratic Party was almost as vital a component as the Catholic Church. I vividly recall my "Guppy Gup" (maternal grandfather) listening to President Harry S.Truman on the radio and periodically interjecting "Give 'Em Hell, Harry." I also recollect one of our parish priests coming on to our playground at St. Patrick's School to show us a headline in the Chicago Tribune that read "Dewey Beats Truman," and laughing about it because we all knew by then that HST had somehow beat the odds, despite the defections of Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat Party and Henry Wallace progressives. In a lot of ways, it was the fifth election of FDR, since the majority of Democrats apparently saw HST and his Fair Deal as a continuation of the New Deal. It certified that the New Deal/Fair Deal world had become the status quo, while Dwight D. Eisenhower's two terms signified the acceptance of that reality by mainstream Republicans. ("Ike" had won the nomination from Senator Robert Taft of Ohio who disputed that consensus. In retrospect, Taft and Thurmond, combined, foreshadowed what was to become the Republican Party of the 21st century. (Taft was a "dirty word" in my union-affiliated household, and his defeat for the Republican presidential nomination by Ike in 1952 and 1956 was further proof that the majority of Republicans were what HST ridiculed as "Me too, Republicans.", They criticized the New Deal/Fair Deal, but  promised to do a better job of administrating its "alphabet agencies.") I was a freshman at Loras Academy in 1952 when I suggested to my parents that they should vote for Ike because his military experience was needed to wage the "Cold War" against the Soviet Union. They soon disabused me of such specious reasoning

By the time of the hotly contested election of 1960, I was a graduate student/teaching assistant in history at Georgetown University. It was fantastic to be a history student in the nation's capital and to have the resources of the Library of Congress and the National Archives "at my fingertips." Back home in Dubuque, JFK had been placed on the same pedestal as FDR, the more so because he was Irish and Catholic. The night of the 1960 election, my friends an I stayed up all night watching the election returns on television, because the outcome was not officially decided until noon of the next day. I had to teach a "discussion section" at G.U. at 9:00 a.m., so I went home, showered and changed, sleepwalked through the class--and then went home to sleep. The following Sunday, JFK attended mass at Holy Trinity on the G.U. campus, and I was one of the few fortunate enough to actually get inside the church. On January 20, my friends and I nearly froze to death watching the inaugural parade that was complicated by the residue of one of the greatest blizzards in the city's history. I was also present at the National Mall for the March On Washington and heard Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. On November 22, 1963, I was working on my doctoral dissertation in our apartment, while baby sitting for my gorgeous baby daughter, Jeanne Marie, when I heard the news of the assassination in Dallas. I was teaching at Prince Georges Community College, which was only a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base, where the president's body arrived that night. We tried to view his remains which in state in the Capitol Rotunda, but were discouraged by the eight hour wait in the bitter cold with a 5 month old baby. It was the longest and saddest weekend of my life, and I can still hear the wail of the funeral dirge, as it wended its way across the 14th Street Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery.

Scarcely a year later, I was still living in D.C., working on my dissertation, and teaching at PGCC, when LBJ was elected in a landslide over Barry Goldwater in 1964. It was even more of wipe-out where we were, because LBJ won a unanimous vote in several D.C. precincts. I am not sure how much I realized it at the time, but Goldwater carried only six states besides his native Arizona--Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, the same states, save Georgia, that Thurmond had won in 1948. The backlash pattern was starting to form, but we were too euphoric to realize its long term significance. With both houses of Congress firmly in Democratic control, LBJ enacted the mainsprings of his "Great Society": the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the Hart-Celler Immigration and Naturalization Law, Medicare and Medicaid, and the various components of his "War On Poverty."  We were certain that America was finally beginning to live up to its professed principles, and that the momentum was irresistible. Little did we know!! While we were rejoicing, the administration was immersing us ever deeper in the quagmire that was the Vietnam War.

By 1968, I was on the faculty of Eastern Illinois University, and becoming more vocal in the burgeoning anti-war movement. Like most college campuses, we had acrimonious demonstrations, teach-ins, and moratoriums. Pretty tame stuff compared to Madison, Berkeley, and Columbia, but contentious enough. While Nixon battled his way to the Republican nomination, Democratic Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged LBJ's bid for renomination. Like millions of other Democrats and liberals, I was deeply conflicted by the apparent contradiction between LBJ's Great Society achievements and his escalation of the war. Seemingly out of the blue, LBJ resolved a lot of our ambivalence by announcing that he would not run for reelection. The contest for the Democratic presidential nomination resolved into a battle among three of my erstwhile political "heroes": McCarthy, Kennedy, and Vice-President Hubert Horatio Humphrey. I was selected by the Coles County Democratic caucus as a delegate, pledged to Kennedy, to the State D.P Convention in Springfield. Before it could convene, however, RFK was assassinated, just minutes after winning the California primary, in which he had apparently secured enough delegates to receive the nomination at the national convention in Chicago. In one of the most acrimonious and violent conventions in history, HHH secured the nomination, but the damage to the party and the country was horrendous, both short and long run. The normal Democratic vote was seriously diluted by the independent candidacy of Alabama Governor George "Segregation, Now. Segregation Forever" Wallace, who not only captured Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, but also made significant inroads into the white, working-middle-class vote in the Northeast, Midwest, and Border States. All told, Nixon won the electoral vote 301-191-46 and the popular vote by less than 1%. Wallace siphoned off nearly 14 % of the latter, primarily from HHH. (Humphrey closed the gap significantly in the last few weeks. Conventional liberal wisdom still holds that he would have passed Nixon if he had broken earlier with the Johnson Administration over the Vietnam War. Less conventional liberal wisdom opines that Kennedy would have won, based mostly on studies showing that many Wallace voters in the Northeast and Midwest would have voted for Kennedy instead. The 1968 election was the death blow for the Roosevelt Coalition, as both white Southerners and working class whites deserted in droves. It also put the political party system itself on the road to oblivion--or at least irrelevance. In the name of reform, and in a spirit of revenge against "bosses" and "machines," the 1972 convention adopted a radically new nomination system that privileged "grass roots," caucuses and primary elections over conventions. It also empowered millions of racial minorities and women who were previously shut out by the "old boy network,"

It was George McGovern's misfortune to gain the party's presidential nomination in the midst of all this turmoil and transformation. Hailed by none other than Bobby Kennedy as "the  most decent man in the Senate," a decorated World War II hero, a certified New Deal liberal, and the point man for the new "politics of inclusion," McGovern was shunned, both by those who wanted more thoroughgoing "reforms," and those who wanted to turn back the clock. (I remember that actress Shirley McClain, sister of Democratic actor/activist Warren Beatty and one of McGovern's ambassadors to the women's caucus, being booed by the latter when she informed them that the party leaders had given women a guaranteed percentage of seats on the  national committee. They wanted a 50/50 split and they wanted it right now!  On the other end of the political spectrum, many of "the big city Democratic machines" did little or nothing to turn out their normal contingent of voters.The tension within the party between "the politics of identity" and "old-fashioned bread and butter liberalism" was institutionalized in 1972. It is still alive and virulent in 2012. With all of that going for him, Nixon was a virtual cinch to be reelected, but "Tricky Dick" was constitutionally incapable of trusting to chance---let alone to the democratic process. Hence "Watergate" and the myriad "dirty tricks" that eventually led to his impeachment  and subsequent "resignation." The funny thing was that, at least on many "bread and butter" issues, Nixon was almost a reincarnation of the "Me-Too Republicanism" of the Eisenhower years.  The quintessential Anti-Communist and Cold Warrior, he nevertheless made overtures to the Soviet Union and China. If a Democratic president had undertaken such actions, Nixon would have been among the first to accuse him of treason. Then there was his abysmal suppression of civil liberties, a harbinger of horrors to come. (One of my greatest regrets of my professional life is that I was not sufficiently vocal or important enough to make his infamous "enemies list.")

To his unfortunate successor, Gerald Ford, Nixon bequeathed the responsibility of orchestrating American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, as well as of that of issuing his predecessor an unconditional pardon that even extended to offenses not yet uncovered. Talk about a "Get Out Of Jail Free Card"!!  Talk about committing "political suicide"!! Ford had virtually zero chance of being elected in his own right, but the Democrats almost managed to snatch defeat from victory. Unable to choose between "identity politics" and "bread and butter liberalism," they nominated somebody "who nobody sent": (See my earlier post on Voter Repression.) Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. (I confess to voting for him on four separate occasions and still respect him as "the greatest former president" in history. As president, however, he was totally out of his element. In retrospect, I wish that I could have voted for his wife, Rosalyn). By 1980, I was sufficiently disillusioned to support an ill- considered attempt by Ted Kennedy to hijack the nomination. I would also like to admit that I voted for McGovern in 1972, and grow more proud of that vote with every election.) In many ways, Ford may have been the last "Eisenhower Republican." The disintegration of the mainstream political party and its concomitant takeover by what passes for the G.O.P today is told in excruciating detail by Geoffrey Kabaservice in Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. From 1952 until 1964, the moderates, led by such luminaries as Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits, Kenneth Keating, and, believe it or not, George Romney, managed to retain control of the party apparatus and the presidential nomination. Many of them were in the vanguard of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. In 1960, Richard Nixon was chosen by the Republican National Convention as a compromise candidate between the two factions. His defeat by JFK was the last straw for the burgeoning right wing of the party, who blamed it on the "Me Too Republicanism" of the moderates and liberals. The 1964 convention was a wild affair, in which Rockefeller was booed vociferously and liberal/moderates were, almost literally " read out of the party". Baseball hero Jackie Robinson, a Rockefeller delegate and living symbol of Republican commitment to Civil Rights, later said that he felt like "a Jew in Hitler's Germany."              .

In 1970, we moved to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, precariously perched between Racine and Kenosha. where I spent the next 33 years "doing history." Maybe it was an "omen" that the day on which we officially moved to Racine---August 20, 1970---was the same day that a handful of anti-Vietnam War protesters blew up the Army Math Research building on the campus of the U.W. Madison.True to its beginning, my 42 years living in Racine and working in Kenosha have been a real roller coaster ride, so far as national and state politics are concerned. From Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton to "W" to Obama. On the surface,this orderly-looking juxtaposition of parties seems like a rerun of the Age of Political Equilibrium that characterized (and paralyzed) the national political system during much of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. The Republicans held the presidency from 1969 to 1977, from 1981to 1993, and from 2001 to 2009, while the Democrats held it from 1977 to 1981, from 1993-2001, and from 2009-2017. Congressional elections were even more "helter-skelter"; only rarely did the same party control both the executive and legislative branches at the same time. Clearly, however, I was "missing the forest for the trees," because the most important trend of those years is that both parties moved inexorably to the right side of the political spectrum. McGovern in 1972 was, in many ways, the last of the New Deal Democrats, but he was also the first of the New Centrist Democrats who seemingly privileged "the politics of identity" over the"bread and butter" variety that had sustained the dominance of the New Deal Coalition for the previous 40 years. The "reforms" adopted during the 1972 Democratic convention, with McGovern's backing, had seriously undermined the power of the big city machines and labor unions,alienating what became the white, working class "Reagan Democrats." That rift has widened and festered ever since.That same reorientation caused the majority of Southern whites to abandon the party of the "Solid South" in favor of the once-despised party of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Democrat's growing emphasis on equal rights for women and minorities, and the corresponding decline of its class-oriented focus, was matched by the "Southern Strategy" of Nixon and his successors. The "New Democrats" of the 1970s and beyond tended to be "cultural liberals,"rather than economic ones. Their orientation on economic issues became much more that of the middle and upper middle classes. Liberal Democratic support for the Civil Rights Movement, Affirmative Action, and the like were viewed by increasing numbers of white working class voters as occurring at their expense. The former believed that they were being deserted by their erstwhile allies, while the latter felt as if they were being driven out of the Democratic Party. These Reagan Republicans became part of a curious coalition with newly-minted white Southern Republicans, breadwinner conservatives, and Tea Party adherents. The only Democratic leader who might have held the New Deal coalition together had been assassinated on the very evening that he won the California primary and clinched the party's 1968 presidential nomination. No one else has even come close.    

"Since Robert F. Kennedy's campaign in 1968 and George McGovern's run in 1972," according to the Center for American Progress, "progressives have sought to create a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition--made up of African Americans, Latinos, women, young people, professionals, and economically populist blue-collar whites--supporting an activist government to expand economic opportunities and personal freedoms for all people." (As a "professional" with "economically populist blue-color white" origins, I am sure that I fit in there somewhere, although the "age thing" would seem to disqualify me. I can only say that there are a lot of people in my age bracket who feel as I do, and that most of us aren't going to be around all that much longer anyway.)  In the Center's view, based upon their analysis of the 2012 election returns, "this progressive coalition has clearly emerged, albeit in an early and tenuous stage." Obama is the first Democratic president since FDR to win two terms with more than 50 percent of the total popular vote, but he has done so with "an historically low percentage of the white vote"--only 39 percent, slightly less than Michael Dukakis received in 1988. Obviously the key to future success is to win back a significantly larger portion of the "white vote," while retaining the support of the other elements of this progressive coalition. No problem, right???

Naturally, the demographic trends of the past 40 years almost guarantee a continued increase of every other segment of the putative coalition, but what cheers them obviously alarms a lot of "white voters." hence the Reagan Democrats, breadwinner conservatives, and Tea Partiers. There are, however, grounds for optimism on that score. white working-class support support for Democrats has been higher than the norm in such key "battleground" states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, while white, college-educated support for Democrats has been growing in such emerging battlegrounds as Colorado and Virginia. By way of contrast, the Republican coalition of older, whiter, more rural and evangelical voters is not only shrinking, but also becoming more geographically concentrated and less important in the country's overall political landscape Concurrently, here has been an ideological shift away from the trickle-down, supply side.survival of the fittest, socially rigid "steel chain of ideas" toward a more pragmatic emphasis on problem solving that embraces strong governmental concern for that elusive "middler-class," public "investment" in education and infrastructure, a fairer and more economically productive tax system, and more inclusive social policies. Post-election polling by Democracy Corps shows that Obama enjoyed a 51-42 margin over Romney on the question of who would be the best at "restoring the middle class." By the same token, voters express far more interest in in a post-election deficit plan that invests in jobs and growth, raises taxes on the the wealthy, and protects the middle class and social programs than the tired, old right-wing mantra of top-down economics, dismantling of economic and social programs, and a bloated defense budget.

The Center for American Progress report acknowledges that "the 40 year transition of progressive politics--from Robert Kennedy to President Obama--has not been without difficulties, setbacks and outright failures." It has been overwhelmed by the rise of a resurgent right-wing movement that successfully shifted political discourse and public policy away from the progressivism of the 1930s through the 1960s to the world made by Ayn Rand, Reaganomics, the "neocons," Hayek, Norquist, Friedman, the Koch Brothers, and aggressive militarism. The loss of traditionally Democratic states, especially in the South, the continued antagonism of the majority of white, working-class voters, and the harsh reaction to the centrist Democratic presidencies of Carter, Clinton, and Obama, however, demonstrate how much work is yet to be done. The task is not to gravitate to the right or downplay diversity in order to win back white, working-class voters, but to unite disparate constituencies behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all peoples that includes a significant portion of the currently disaffected white, working-class. The primary strategic question is how to build on the foundation established in 2012 and to harness it to achieve progressive policy victories. That requires that the members of this coalition continue to pay close attention, stay involved, and press our elected representatives--especially President Obama--to defy the army of K Street lobbyists and billionaire "malefactors of great wealth," who will certainly fight against any and all progressive policies, tooth and nail  Anything less than that will simply not cut it. The "one percent" has been waging class warfare against the rest of us for the best part of four decades. It is time to show them that democracy--effectively organized and sufficiently motivated--can eventually triumph over unbridled greed and rapacious ignorance. 

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