Friday, September 25, 2015

American Hezbollah

One of the very favorite claims of historically illiterate rightwingers (which is almost all of them) is that the Democratic Party was the party of the Ku Klux Klan and that for a long time some of its most powerful leaders were racists of a brutal and blatant sort.

All true. Up to a point. Southern rightwingers -- racists and theocrats for the most part -- were Democrats for a century following the Civil War, although they made for an uncomfortable fit with a party that, observed nationally, was urban, wet, pro-labor and full of Catholics and Jews.

The typical Southern Democrat was rural, dry (at least publicly), anti-labor and hated Catholics and Jews. (Growing up Catholic in Georgia, I learned that firsthand.)

(As an historical side note, it is common for political parties to keep their old names while they evolve into something more or less opposite of what they were: in France the Radicals turned into a rightwing party; and similar changes can be found in many countries, including ours.)

It was not inevitable that the Democratic Party would be captured by its liberal wing and shed its racists and anti-Semites and theocrats. Party managers could not point to any national election won by a Democrat that could have been pulled off without the Solid South. And as long as the seniority system was regnant in Congress, the party relied on long-serving Southerners to keep control of the committee apparatus.

So it was somewhat of a surprise in 1948 when the national party embraced a mildly egalitarian platform (following a rousing speech by the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey), and allowed itself to split on racial lines with South Carolina racist Strom Thurmond bearing the  banner of the Dixiecrats.

There was no comparable division in the Republican Party, no sectional powerhouse pushing that party in the direction of intolerance.

So when the Republican Party became the party of racism, it did not jump. It was pushed.

The pusher was Richard Nixon, a man that historian Rick Pearlstein calls the master politician of his age. (He makes a good case for that in "Nixonland.")

Nixon was a closet racist, so he had no personal qualms about trying to change the ethos of the party. In those days, the party still took pride in its Lincolnesque origin, and it had a liberal wing, and even a few Jewish leaders, like Sen. Jacob Javits.

It is remarkable that Nixon was able to pull off his Southern Strategy. The appeal of the anti-labor, militaristic party to Southerners was apparent, but it was not superficially apparent why the national Republicans should want to embrace the violent, scummy Southerners.

But he managed it without a whimper from the national party, suggesting that the party's more or less tolerant platforms were no more than a form of political nostalgia. It turned out the national party was full of anti-black and anti-Semitic haters, and all they needed was a leader to tell them it was acceptable not to to admit it but to legislate it.

This is not controversial history. Observers at the time noted it and people still living (like me) can remember how it happened.

Only recently, as part of the Big Lie campaign of vilification have Republican partisans taken to jeering at Democrats as -- still -- the party of the KKK. 

So we have the theocratic, historic Democrat Kim Davis -- or at least her lawyer -- to thank for a breath of honesty today. Davis was a Democrat because people in her part of the country are Democrats by habit. There is no evidence that she shares any political ideas in common with the party.

So she's turning Republican. She and her whole family, we are told. Significantly, she did not wake up and discover that the Republican Party was in tune with her theocratic notions. Her recent personal history revealed to her that the Democrats aren't. You may think she has not been paying attention for about the last 50 years, but better late than never, I guess:

“She has come to the conclusion that the Democratic Party has left her,” Mathew D. Staver, a lawyer for Ms. Davis, said in a statement.

I don't know if Davis is a racist. I've seen no indication that she is. If she isn't, her new friendship may be a bit awkward.

But anyway, thanks Kim Davis. You may be a bigoted homophobic hypocrite living in sin with a man who isn't your Christian husband, but you are a political realist.

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