As regular readers of my blog are aware, I grew up a hard-core, hard-right Midwestern Republican. My conversion to Progressivism began, of all places, in Sunday school, when I was not yet 14. The Selma to Montgomery march was going on, and Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit homemaker who came down to Alabama to help. She was ferrying marchers when, on March 25th, 1965, she was murdered by four Ku Klux Klansmen. It was national news, and the consensus feeling in my southwestern Illinois community was, “What was she doing down there, anyway, when she should have been home taking care of her children.” The following Sunday, I was in Sunday school (Presbyterian) and my teacher, who was also the secretary at my junior high school, brought up the event and noted the community sentiment. Then she said, “But, as a Christian, how could she not go?”
I was floored. It was an epiphany, and it started the process of political conversion that would extend nearly 10 years. Along the way, I watched Richard Nixon win in 1968 (leafletted my community for him) and witnessed the naked pitch the Republicans made to Southern racists in an attempt to blunt third-party candidate Gov. George Wallace, who they feared would drain votes in the South. As it turned out, Wallace won five southern states–Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas–and the race was the closest in history, with Nixon winning by only 500,000 votes.
There were several factors that came together to cement by Progressive identity, but the shock of racism was the first.
Ever since, Republicans, once the Party of Lincoln, have stoked racist fires, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. When Ronald Reagan won the nomination in 1980, his first public speech after the convention was just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwener – were murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964. A young Mississippi politico, Trent Lott, was one of those who encouraged him to make a speech supporting states’ rights, code for a return to segregation.
So it wasn’t surprising to see the extreme, even pathological, anger well up with the candidacy and election of Barack Obama. This has only intensified as it has dawned on white Americans that this country will be a white-minority nation within 30 years.
Over on the Right, they recoil in (what else?) anger at any suggestion their rage might be rooted in racism. But I was reminded of how deeply this animus went reading Thomas Edsall’s NYT blog post, Anger Can Be Power, the other day. Edsall discussed research by pollster Stan Greenburg, noting:
One of the key factors pushing Republicans to extremes, according to Greenberg’s report, is the intensity of animosity toward Obama. This animosity among participants in all six focus groups . . .
In the six focus groups of Republican voters, according to Greenberg’s report, “few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms,” but
the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.
Alive, virulent, and still a major force in American politics.