The commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has included a lot of hand-wringing about how the country could accomplish big things then and is stuck with small ball now. Was Lyndon a genius, a bully or both? Was the Democratic Party more courageous then? Well, a little bit of each, perhaps, and a lot of courage and shrewd calculation from the leaders of the Civil Rights movement themselves.
But there has been some pushback from Republicans who rightly object to the Democrats spiking the ball since the legislation was as much due to Republicans as Democrats. Didn’t then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen get his party aboard because he thought Civil Rights (for people other than white men) was an idea whose time had come?
The problem with drawing attention to that history is that the closer you look, the better Republicans of 1964 and the worse Republicans of 2014 look.
Of the 415 votes cast in the House, the Democrats accounted for 244 so could have passed the Civil Rights legislation without a single Republican vote. In the much more evenly divided House of today, such easy putts are unavailable.
But that isn’t what happened because Johnson could not deliver a huge Democratic majority. This was the Democratic Party of the solid South. That is, solidly segregationist, evangelical, state’s rights and anti-Washington. So the Democrats only provided 153 of the House votes to pass Civil Rights with 91 members voting nay for only a 64 percent aye vote. By contrast, Republicans voted 80 percent in favoring, providing 136 votes and only 35 nays.
Same story on the Senate side where the vote was 73-27 in favor. Only 46 of 67 Democrats were in the majority while the Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the measure, 27-6.
Why can’t Barack be more like Lyndon? The real question is why are the parties so altered? The solid South is still conservative, even reactionary on many social issues. It just isn’t Democratic. All those segregationist, state’s rights, anti-feds became Republicans rather than stay in a party in favor of Civil Rights. They painted the map red from Virginia to Texas and on into the West.
Even more to the point, Eastern and Midwestern Republicans who were fiscally conservative but socially moderate have gone the way of the dodo. New England is bright blue, but in the heartland the strain of Republicanism that is increasingly ascendant is red-in-the-face right wing, tea party loony. People for whom compromise and cooperation are anathema and succession an option.
To them, the old-style Republicans who helped pass Civil Rights are RINOs, Republicans In Name Only. To them, anyone who didn’t think Sarah Palin was presidential material is a liberal, leftie, socialist. Anyone Progressive, in the sense of Teddy Roosevelt is equally unacceptable. The Chad Mitchell Trio 50 years ago sang about Goldwater fans as “the nice young men who want to go back to 1910.”
Today that wouldn’t cut it. Red Meat Republicans want to go back to 1880, maybe 1850 — no minimum wage, no Social Security, no Medicare, no eight hour work day or 40 hour week, no women in the workplace but plenty of child labor. No Civil Rights. No FDA, EPA, OSHA, FEMA.
I think a lot of us could get behind a Republicanism able to provide a moderating alternative to the Democrats on budgetary issues if it didn’t entail fraying the social safety net, neo-con foreign adventures and the free market as final arbiter of all of life.
There once were Republicans like that beginning with Teddy and including Ike, Dirksen, Rockefeller, Willkie, Colin Powell, Domenici, Lugar, Scranton, Percy, Danforth, Howard Baker, the first Romney, and the first Bush, Prescott, who didn’t mind government spending as long as government raised the taxes to pay for it. Read his lips, no stupid slogans just fiscal probity. Today, he’d be exorcised as a RINO apostate.
And that’s why Civil Rights and much else we take for granted couldn’t pass today. The middle of the political spectrum, like the middle class, is a vanishing species and we are left with a choice between Democrats who want government to tend to the common good but aren’t willing or able to make it run efficiently on a budget and Republicans who want government to do nothing while the free market creates a winner take all dystopia. Some choice. But not a hard one so long as one party favors equal justice under the law and the other is nostalgic for the Fugitive Slave Act.