A Presidential Election for the Ages

Published in: September-October 2008 issue.


THE MODERN American civil rights movement began at the 1948 Philadelphia Democratic convention when a hitherto unknown Minneapolis mayor, Hubert Humphrey, rose to defend the platform committee’s minority report on civil rights. Humphrey knew that his position—that the Declaration of Independence called for the enfranchisement and equality of all people, whatever their race or ethnic origin—would be deeply unpopular in a party that had depended since the Civil War on the loyalty of the South. Humphrey’s position carried the convention, largely on the strength of his soaring rhetoric and sheer enthusiasm. The following November, Humphrey became the first Democrat to be elected to the Senate from Minnesota. The following year, bucked up by support from within his party for equality of citizenship, President Truman unilaterally ordered, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, the racial desegregation of the American military in what was one of the most comprehensive civil rights actions in American history since Lincoln.

Much of the future of American politics flowed from these events. The next Democratic administration fulfilled many of the goals Humphrey had laid out in his 1948 speech. Taking office in January, 1961, Kennedy somewhat reluctantly supported Martin Luther King’s civil rights crusade. Lyndon Johnson signed the sweeping 1965 civil rights bill knowing that the South would be lost for a generation (it turned out to be longer). Richard Nixon, instructed by the lesson of George Wallace’s racial populist campaign in 1968—and by a young communications director named Pat Buchanan—figured out that race could be used not only as a “wedge issue” to turn whites against blacks, but, more importantly, as a metaphor for all the liberation forces unleashed in the 1960’s that threatened the age-old privilege of the white American male. Lower- and working-class males were especially susceptible to this message, since equality for blacks and women robbed them of their only advantages. These would become the “Reagan Democrats” of the 80’s—a group that has been snookered for forty years into voting against their economic interests in deference to their social prejudices. This divisive strategy provided the template for the mostly victorious Republican presidential campaigns conducted ever since.

The ironies here abound. It has been my theory for some time that the reason for straight white male Republican dominance of the presidency since 1968 has been due not to the failure of the 60’s liberation movements but instead to their success. Gradually, and against enormous opposition, African-American, women’s, and gay rights have progressed inexorably through the Voting Rights Act, Roe v. Wade, the maturing of women’s liberation, Stonewall, the Supreme Court’s legalization of sodomy, domestic partnership laws, and the dawn of gay marriage. Historically, the American peoples’ decision to elect mostly Republican presidents has been a rear-guard action, as if the postwar generation of Americans was saying: “Give us time to change.” That time may have come. This year, a woman came within a whisker of becoming the Democratic standard-bearer, and a black man will be nominated for president.

If Barack Obama wins, this event will represent the culmination of the drive towards full civil rights for all Americans that has dominated the last two generations of party politics in this country. This sort of cultural transformation—and it has not yet quite happened—occurs perhaps three times in a century. It can be seen in the progressive invention of the caring state from Wilson to Roosevelt, and it can be seen in the conservative reaction to multiculturalism from Nixon through George W. Bush. A similar transformation is possible if a majority of the American people decide that they’re done with being divided by wedge issues and fear tactics for political gain. They may well be ready for the advent of a mature, multicultural, post-sexist society. If this does happen, we’ll owe it importantly to younger voters, who have grown up in a world in which the presence of women, African-Americans, and gay people in all sectors of society is merely taken for granted.

If Obama is defeated, it may well be because the electronic Left that gave rise to his candidacy insisted on ideological purity over political reality. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg quotes the Borowitz Report, a liberal comic blog: “The liberal blogosphere was aflame today with new accusations that Sen. Barack Obama is trying to win the 2008 presidential elections.” Far more than Gore or Kerry, Obama is taking the fight to the enemy and showing he has the will and the smarts to beat back the Republican attack machine. Sometimes this political acumen may offend the sensibilities of left-wing purists. But anyone who has followed his career and read The Audacity of Hope knows that he was never the Philosopher King the liberal blogs liked to lionize, and a good thing too. He cut his teeth in the tough world of Chicago ward politics, and the skills he learned there will be crucial to his success if he wins.

The post-Baby Boom generations may know about the liberation movements of the 60’s and 70’s as a distant historical memory, but the best of the values forged in that era increasingly predominate in younger peoples’ daily lives. To them, the legitimate victimization felt by blacks, women, and gays in the first civil rights generation can seem puzzling or quaint, as women now comprise a majority of students at top law and graduate schools; while openly gay people succeed in any number of fields without any fuss. As I write, John McCain is running a commercial that tries to associate Obama with the “free love” image of the 60’s in contrast to McCain’s adherence to old-fashioned American values, a variation on the Nixon strategy. But Obama can brush these charges off precisely because he’s not a child of that era. In addition to all his other gifts, as a senior member of the post-civil rights generation, he doesn’t seem to have a chip on his shoulder. If he’s elected, this may be a crucial reason why.


Michael Hattersley, a frequent contributor to this publication, cut his political teeth running a congressional campaign in Pennsylvania back in the 70’s.


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