Hope and Chains
Joe Biden's comment "They gon' put y'all back in chains" has shone a light on a truth the Democratic Party and its adjutants in the media have suppressed for over half a century. That is that the party's electoral victories have been built upon the suppression of the aspirations of many of the nation's most disadvantaged American citizens: blacks living in the nation's inner cities. A look back at the party's history reveals how this came to be.
The Democratic Party was founded in the early 1830s, to challenge what its members thought were concerted efforts to grant the federal government additional powers to expand commerce. Their opposition, the Whig Party, believed in a stronger central authority to develop needed infrastructure and incentives. But the issue of slavery tore the Whigs apart, and many of its former members joined others in establishing the anti-slavery Republican Party.
The South's defense of slavery and its bitterness over the North's destruction of its way of life gave rise to "the solid South" voting bloc, which endured as a potent political force for over a century. The nascent American progressive movement tied its fortunes to the Democratic Party early in the twentieth century because, like their Southern brethren, progressives were suspicious of what industrialization had wrought, including the formation of well-capitalized corporations so critical to growing economies.
As it happened, the nation's first progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, was a Southerner. He was born and raised in Virginia and spent his formative years in the South. In an era when social Darwinism fed into segregation's guiding principle, that all men are not created equal, Wilson fit right in. He was an ardent segregationist, and his administration reinforced separation of the races in the public realm.
Despite this, Wilson sought black support for his run for the presidency. He promised blacks that if they voted for him, he would take up their cause. Many did. But once in office, he reneged. He hounded blacks in the federal government out of their jobs and appointed Southern segregationists in their place. He even reversed the Navy's longstanding policy of integration and took steps to insure that the nation's armed forces followed suit. Wilson's handiwork would take decades to overcome.
It can be fairly said that the Republicans presidents who served between the end of Wilson's term and the inauguration of the nation's second "progressive" president, Franklin Roosevelt, did little to reverse Wilson's policy on race. Yet at the same time, they did not engage in a Wilsonian "bait-and-switch."
Roosevelt, as it turns out, was more receptive to addressing societal abuses of black Americans and took some limited steps to assist them. But to maintain Southern support for his New Deal agenda, Roosevelt largely left Wilson's policies intact. In kind, Roosevelt refused to support his wife's crusade for an anti-lynching law. Southern blacks remained on their own in the face of the mob.
In a less brutal vein, New Deal agencies continued the federal tradition of treating blacks as second-class citizens. But in spite of this, many blacks found jobs in New Deal projects and were grateful for that. Thus, in ever greater numbers, they switched their allegiance to the Democrats.
Notwithstanding this shift, white Southerners exercised an unbending influence on Democratic politics and, over time, rose to chair the most powerful committees in Congress. Their positions and clout ensured that those advocating equal rights for black Americans would for the foreseeable future run into a stone wall.
It was the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education that portended the eventual demise of the status quo in race relations. One of the South's own, Lyndon Johnson, foresaw that black support for Democrats might dissipate if the party's position on civil rights remained frozen in time. But Johnson's Southern compatriots resisted his taking up the cause for a comprehensive civil rights statute. In the end, of course, Johnson prevailed, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, but it is telling that, to achieve passage, Johnson had to secure massive Republican support and strong-arm Southern Democrat holdouts to cease their obstruction of what he called "the n****r bill."
Johnson then turned to pushing through Congress his "Great Society" agenda. Its supporters naively believed that if sufficient funds were spent on federally engineered anti-poverty programs, the government could lift the poor into a middle-class lifestyle.
Dissenters, including one of Johnson's assistant secretaries of labor, thought otherwise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan believed that there was something far more fundamental at play. After studying the matter intensely, Moynihan concluded that slavery and segregation had led to the breakdown of black family structure, and money alone could not put it back together again. Unfortunately, Moynihan experienced the sort of derision and charges of racism that have become a staple of Democrat electoral politics. His findings fell on deaf ears.
Over the ensuing years, prominent Democratic leaders from the South aged and faded from the scene. Their successors were largely from the Northeast states and the West Coast, and these new Democrats' worldview was informed by a different war and the urban riots that followed the murder of Dr. King. For them, their own experiences marked "the end of history," their ideas for addressing the nation's "shortcomings" definitive and unassailable. But it would take time to translate those ideas in policy, and so, in the meantime, they chose to do nothing to alienate their party's key constituencies. Despite the increasingly obvious failures of the Great Society, and the havoc it was wreaking on its intended beneficiaries, its programs and their progeny became untouchable. So long as the inner-city poor were dependent on federal "largesse," they were not going anywhere.
Southern whites, however, had no interest in playing this game, and they balked at the idea of concentrating even more power in Washington. As time went by, they voted in ever greater numbers for Republicans. This forced the Democrats to come up with a new strategy for attracting voters and dollars. In this vein, they made identity politics one of their key political weapons, looking increasingly to narrowly focused interest groups already in their base to do some of the heavy lifting. Soon enough, though, the party found itself dependent on those very interest groups it had intended to harness to its cause, and it was those groups that gave the marching orders. Average citizens became more of a burden to Democrats than a benefit, and so organizations such as labor unions and pro-choice groups took charge.
This turnabout presented the Democratic Party with a number of irreconcilable conflicts. Most recently, we've witnessed the divergence of the pro-choice lobby and Catholic institutions appalled by being forced to include birth control in insurance policies for their employees.
But before this, another even more prominent conflict arose. It pitted the teachers' unions against one of the Democrats most reliable voting blocs: black inner-city residents. As the school choice and school reform movements gained steam, many inner-city parents recognized that these might provide the tools to advance their children's futures. Teachers in the public schools, on the other hand, saw these movements as a mortal threat and demanded that the Democrats maintain the status quo. And the Democrats obliged. Black children were consigned to "the back of the bus" while the teachers' pay, benefits, and jobs remained sacrosanct.
That this was the party's choice was unashamedly announced by President Obama early in his term. He quite publicly proclaimed that he was ending of the District of Columbia's school voucher program. No reason was given, nor did Obama find one necessary. He and his like-minded "progressives" more often than not had the means to send their own children to prestigious private schools, often located in the suburbs, so what difference did the pleas of the parents of voucher recipients make to them? For all practical purposes, then, Obama's decision was a replay of Wilson's reneging on his promise to blacks after he was elected and Roosevelt's refusal to back anti-lynching legislation. Between the progressive agenda and quest to transform the United States into a European-style social welfare state and the future of disadvantage black children, the choice was obvious. One ignorant child is a tragedy, a million a statistic.
It is truly ironic that a party which had for most of the 19th century enforced a doctrine of separate and unequal should, in the 21st century, impose an almost identical state of affairs dressed up in contemporary guise. Indeed, this is an especially remarkable twist, given that in the antebellum South, it was a crime to teach slaves to read and write. There is no such crime on the books today, because slavery is long gone. But in a moral sense, the crime has been revived, its victims there for all to see.
Biden's pander, then, was more than just a crude campaign ploy. It was also a signal that the Democrats have no intention of abandoning the enduring fiction of their own creation -- that the future welfare of black Americans is safe in their hands, and a return to servitude is just one election away.