In his excellent New Yorker piece, The Power of Congress, Sam Tenenhaus noted that in the 1960s, “The paramount cause for liberals was civil rights.” I was struck by the realization that more than fifty years on liberals, and indeed Democrats, lack a paramount cause. Perhaps most telling, is that often they seem to have no cause at all. The sixties, where civil rights played so large, ushered in a long overdue realignment and clarification of our heretofore-schizophrenic political parties. Absent liberals pursuing a paramount cause that might not have happened. Their passion empowered a Southern born president to promote and then sign legislation that would represent both a social and political watershed. Johnson’s pen, as he knew it would, effectively drove Dixie Democrats into the Republican Party. That shift effectively rationalized ideologies along party rather than purely regional lines. Symbolically at least, the legacy of Lincoln migrated from Republicans to Democrats who as a result of the realignment had became his true ideological heirs.
Since then, the dominant conservative South and (as Tenenhaus says) Midwest have merged into a more cohesive Republican whole, one that has shifted ever further to right in recent years. At the same time, the Democrats still seem to be struggling with their identity. Bill Clinton’s New Democrat approach, one that “ended welfare as we knew it” and eviscerated Glass Steagall, resulted in immediate electoral victories but badly muddied the ideological water. Ironically, it probably helped drive the Republicans further right, if only to better distinguish themselves, while leaving the Democrats without a defined cause. This of course was compounded by their running away from the liberal label and also, in my view, contributed heavily to the loss of the House in 2010 and the Senate this past November.
Having participated in the paramount civil rights cause in the 60s, it’s striking to me is how little has changed. I’m not talking here about the undeniable achievements that we can all list, but of the underlying fundamentals. What drove the South’s passionate resistance to integration is precisely what’s driving much of today’s Republican constituency. For sure there is a considerable racial component in all of this, but that’s not the primary issue and concern. Those who fought integration with such passion were just as much, if not far more, concerned about the erosion of their way of life — let me repeat, their way of life — as about what amounted to a second emancipation. It wasn’t what Negroes would obtain, but rather what they would lose in the process. That loss might be expressed in school integration and a more competitive job market, but more so in a societal shift. Equality was seen as someone else’s gain at the cost of their loss. Bluntly put, it was the loss of White Supremacy.
And this is what I mean in saying nothing has changed. Today’s underlying struggle is between those who are increasingly taking a place at the table and those who feel they, at best have to move over and make room, at worst will lose their seat. It is an ongoing fear of losing a way of life. It’s why counter intuitively Republicans, the party of big business, are attracting the majority of low income, older and one time union Whites. We think how crazy it is for them to support candidates who promote tax breaks for the rich and oppose increases in the minimum wage — against their best interests. But we’re looking at the wrong driving concern. Yes, economics are important, like keeping others from taking their jobs, but more so they are attracted to a party whose paramount cause is perceived as fighting to preserve their way of life. In that fight, race may still play a big role, but holding on to majority status (symbolized, among others, in retaining English as our exclusive language) is far more important. It isn’t simply a holding on to the past — some rejection of modernism — but a mortal fear of what the future will bring in the most personal and immediate terms. It’s a sense of potential diminishment.
As the Republicans stamp out the last vestiges of moderation — the party of Lincoln — from their midst, the lines become more defined. They may headline small government, tax cuts, business friendliness and the like, but their contract with followers promises much more than that. The fine print, at times the subliminal message, is all about protecting a way of life, real or imagined. It is, as I’ve written in other posts, a desperate effort with time and demographics working against them. What I’m suggesting here is that today’s rightist cause mirrors exactly the battle and objectives taken up by the likes of George Wallace and company back in the 1960s. That the South plays such a large role in today’s Republican party, part of that realignment mentioned earlier, is significant and perhaps symbolic, but to focus on geography is to again miss the point. Fearful White voters of a certain demographic across the country feel no less threatened than those in Dixie, then and now. The GOP’s leaders understand this and have tailored their message accordingly. It has become or remains their paramount cause.
Early on opponents of the right to abortion took on the mantle of “pro-life”. It was an example of tactical and branding brilliance, putting those who favored choice on the defensive. Worse it implied that they were pro-death. Pro-lifers turned a woman’s right to have dominion over her own body on it’s head, a position of control and strength into one of perceived weakness — daughters and wives into alleged murderers. In the same way, Republicans defending “our way of life” have forced Democrats into a position of being those who are threatening and destroying it. It isn’t gaining rights and better employment/wages for people, but taking “rights” and jobs away from others. It isn’t welcoming new Americans, but taking space away from those who are already here, have been here for generations — challenging an entitlement. That is the same story pitched in the 60s, a mark of how little has changed, but also a reminder that change takes time. More important purveyors of change require both logic and passion to make their case. They also have to understand that on the other side stand real people who are, reasonably or not, afraid.
The people who marched in Selma and other places had a paramount cause and the relentless passion to overcome. They knew that the struggle would not be easy and the road long, perhaps even without end. Those on the right have a similar take on their pursuit, albeit with a very different cause and end point. Democrats, if they are to recoup their recent losses and indeed make new gains will require their own paramount cause. It’s time for both an identity and a reality check. It’s time to reassess what lies just below the surface of all the noise. Unless we understand what’s at stake for those who have increasingly cast their lot with the right — low income and elderly Whites, union and former union members and all those who see their America at risk — we will keep on losing. These people need answers and a reassurance that change will strengthen their position, make life even better, not undermine all they hold dear. The case must be made, but without it becoming a paramount cause, it’s unlikely to resonate. And by the way, Democrats themselves need that paramount cause, a jolt that will energize them to undertake what's required for 2016 and beyond.