Saturday, April 7, 2012

Breaking Ranks

Occasionally in the history of politics we see an individual who decides to move in a direction opposite to his party - whether out of conscience or out of cold calculation: someone who chooses to do the antithesis of what his party is doing.

The modern civil rights movement in the United States produced a dizzying array of legislation: The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was followed by The Civil Rights Act of 1960, and the same for 1964 and 1968. In addition, there was The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and numerous other bills introduced into the House of Representatives and into the Senate during these years.

All of these pieces of legislation had one thing in common: they were carried through Congress by the votes of Republicans. The Democrat party had its power base in the Old South, or the Deep South, and was firmly segregationist. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, for example, had the votes of 97% of the Republicans in the Senate, while a group of Democrat Senators worked against it.

But there were exceptions: Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican from Arizona, joined with the Democrats in the Senate in opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We'll probably never know whether he did this out of personal conviction, or as a political strategy: he was running for president at the time, and perhaps hoped to get Democrats to vote for him, if he voted against the Civil Rights Act.

In any case, his fellow Republicans were dismayed. The political party of Abraham Lincoln had maintained its record of supporting African-American civil rights for more than a century; Goldwater would be a blemish on the party's record if he joined the Democrats in the filibustering and obstructionism. Rather than help Goldwater, his choice would actually hurt his chances of becoming president. Historian William F. Buckley, Jr., recalls:

But it mattered that there was continuing, even hardening, opposition to Goldwater's voting position on the Civil Rights Act then before Congress. Only five other Republicans had announced their opposition to the bill, which would come up for a vote later in June.

The response to Goldwater's decision was the harmful to his presidential aspirations. The informal and unwritten power structure in Congress had left the Democrats in control for decades, allowing Jim Crow laws to flourish in the South. The Republicans, a large minority in Congress, had developed a successful tactic by persuading a few Democrats to vote with the GOP on civil rights bills, creating a coalition large enough to vote them into law:

The Democrats' leverage over Congress had been achieved, over several decades - including the decades of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - by the most artful dissimulation in American political history. The Democratic Party was hailed as the party of reform, of social conscience, the progressive vessel of a modern and permanently altered nation born with the New Deal. For two decades the Democrats' life and strength had depended critically on the party's hold on the U.S. Senate. And this had been effected with the compliance of a dozen Southern senators given power by the rules of seniority. And all of them were agents of the Jim Crow Southern tradition.

The electorate was waking up to the irony that the political party which labeled itself 'progressive' was in fact the party which had kept segregation firmly in place - the voters were realizing that the Democrat party, hailed as the compassionate party, was in fact the party which instituted and maintained Jim Crow laws after the Republicans lost their influence in the South at the end of the Reconstruction era.

As a heightened awareness of civil rights arose among the public, the Democrats were in an awkward position. Within their ranks were the staunchest segregationists, yet in the searching light of public opinion, they needed to be seen as promoting equal opportunity. Thus it was that LBJ saw fit to support the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which many in his own party opposed.

What they faced now, with Lyndon Johnson reborn, was a looming transformation by the Civil Rights Act. In the spring of 1964 it lay in the bowels of Congress like a fetus teeming with life, but not yet quite born. It was ardently backed by President Johnson, whose backing was all the more eloquent for his historical anti-civil-rights legislative and executive devices. But today he was the principal champion of a bill that would assert a federal right to seek out discrimination in every quarter of Southern life and to harness the dormant engines of the federal government to fight such discrimination. It would bring to life equality before the law in the little courthouses of the South which, pleading states' rights, had for so long devised means of frustrating the liberal passions of the high-minded.

The complexities abound: President Johnson was now supporting the type of civil rights legislation he had previously opposed; he was now in conflict with members of his own party. Goldwater, on the other hand, was now opposing the legislation which his party supported. LBJ, a renegade Democrat, was opposing his own party by supporting the civil rights legislation; Goldwater, a renegade Republican, was opposing his own party by opposing the civil rights legislation.

Whether LBJ and Goldwater were acting out of calculation or conviction, the results of history are clear. Goldwater lost the support of many in his own party, and so lost his chance to become president. LBJ gained momentary plausibility as a supporter of civil rights, but over time failed to persuade the voters that he was a true champion of equality for Blacks.

The lesson is that one must not only be right, but be right consistently.