Monday, August 3, 2015

Reagan, Neshoba, The Voting Rights Act, And The Eternal Return

Today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of an event little known in the general public but widely known among historians of recent American history: Ronald Reagan's speech in favor of "states rights" in Neshoba County, Mississippi, spitting distance from the site where civil rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered by white supremacists only sixteen years before.

It's good to see Reagan's statement about "states rights" in context, so here is the relevant section of the speech:

Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don't believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they're trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

I believe in state's rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I'm looking for, I'm going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.

Of course Reagan never mentions African Americans or segregation by name, but he sure implies a lot.  "States rights" itself had historically been used mostly (and vociferously) by the South to defend slavery, and then Jim Crow.  Reagan also talks about "welfare" and "education," which likely conjured up images of poor African Americans in the first place and integrated schools in the latter in the mind of his audience.  Note as well the sustained applause mentioned in the transcript, so loud that Reagan had to stop for a moment.  I doubt a crowd of white folks in rural Mississippi in 1980 was cheering that hard at the mention of "states rights" because they truly believed in the efficiency of state-level agencies.  No, I can bet that they had something else in mind.

And that's why the Neshoba speech matters, because it shows how modern conservatism has deftly incorporated color-blind racism into its arsenal.  According to a depressing article in the New York Times Magazine, that same color blind racism was used by conservative operatives and jurists to dismantle the enforcement mechanisms of the Voting Rights Act.  Since the Supreme Court invalidated preclearance and allowed voter ID laws several states have passed a wave of legislation to restrict the vote, restrictions that fall especially hard on African Americans.  Such a wave of voter restrictions hasn't been seen since the 1880s and 1890s.  Gee, I wonder what was going on back then?  (Lee Atwater's infamous 1981 interview pretty much lays out the basis of this whole strategy.)

In the Times Magazine article former Kansas Senator and majority leader Bob Dole says something very interesting about what has been happening in his party:

But as [John] Roberts pressed his case [against a strong Voting Rights Act], a powerful opponent, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, was working against him. Dole, who voted for the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thought the Reagan team’s ideological fervor put the party’s efforts to build a broad, winning coalition of voters at risk. His argument prevailed, and Reagan ultimately signed the strengthened version of the Voting Rights Act in 1982, with the new standard for bringing discrimination cases intact. “I tried to make the point to the White House that, as a party, we needed to demonstrate that we cared and were concerned about votes from African-Americans and Hispanics,” Dole, now 92, told me earlier this summer. “I don’t know where we lost track after Abraham Lincoln.”

It's obvious from this statement that Dole does not think that the Republican party is making any effort whatsoever to concern itself with representing the interests of either African Americans or Latinos.  As others have said before me, the Southern strategy has ended up, fifty years later, turning the Republican party into a white identity party.  Considering the changing demographics of American society, the only way to ensure the success of such a plan is to disenfranchise those who would be likely to vote against Republicans.  For that reason new voting restrictions target people of color, the poor of all races, women, and college students.

That desire is sadly nothing new in American politics.  From day one there have been voting restrictions, whether they be by property or race.  During the Gilded Age nativists argued against immigration in order to suppress the power of immigrant voters, and some in New York even toyed with bringing back property requirements.  The Voting Rights Act wasn't passed until 1965, only fifty short years ago.  In a society where universal suffrage is the legal principle behind voting, those who defend the interests of the privileged will always attempt to drown democracy, since they can't win any other way.  In the wake of Neshoba, Reagan's followers fought to end the Voting Rights Act, and they effectively did, to this nation's great shame.  Much like the period of postwar prosperity that lasted until the 1970s, the 48 year stretch of actual equal voting will likely be remembered in the future as a bright blip in a much more dismal story.  Of course, things could change, but I'm not holding my breath.

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