The Curse of the Twenty-Year Crusade

On January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address.  He chose to launch a massive crusade that was most likely far from most Americans' minds: he declared war on poverty itself.  He opened the speech with these famous lines:

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; ... and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

Johnson envisioned a world where people would pay less in taxes but would see bountiful signs of government-funded growth around them.  Like Thomas More's Utopia, this is a place that can exist only on a mythological island.

To a nation rattled by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and staggered by the Cold War, Johnson's focus was tactically brilliant.  Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington had taken place only five months earlier, but the demands for racial reconciliation had stalled one decade after Brown v. Board of Education.

Though he would be assassinated in just a year, Malcolm X's growing popularity had already troubled the neat and nonviolent Christian approach put forward by King.  Desegregation and removal of anti-miscegenation laws alone would not dramatically improve race relations because black people didn't hold as their highest goal the right to be friends with and love white people.

As I discussed in a chapter of Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, "sentimentalism" was a white abolitionist ideology.  Most black authors of the nineteenth century were doggedly anti-sentimental because they knew that slave-owners had manipulated their emotional relationships to keep them enslaved.  Blacks wanted to have greater job opportunities, better education, and freedom from oppressive policing.  Some white liberals understood this, while others assumed that if they showed black people they loved them, everything would magically become better.

Johnson knew he had to push for civil rights if the Democrats were to have any hopes for the future.  Race was toxic, however.  Many whites would tune out, and it would be extremely difficult to strike the right chords to keep black people engaged.

The Civil Rights Act was coming soon, but Johnson probably knew that if he made this address about racial tension, the country's frayed nerves would jeopardize the bill's passage.  Since the days when Moses wrote Leviticus, helping the poor has been an automatic favorite and one that everyone can support, even if in a platitudinous way.

"So let's go with poverty," Johnson probably said.

As he stood before Congress on January 8, 1964, did he really believe that the government could accomplish all these things he was promising?  Fewer taxes, a streamlined government tax, a lower deficit, more libraries, more public schools, more free medicine and food stamps, more subsidized housing — all while trying to prop up South Vietnam's pro-Western government against North Vietnam, halfway around the world?

No intelligent or sane person could have believed those words as he spoke them.  Democrats have lately felt desperate to project their party's racist history onto Republicans (see this outrageous piece of yellow journalism).  They like to fudge what happened under Johnson.  They love to say the Republicans "switched places" with the Democrats on race through a "Southern strategy," but the War on Poverty reminds us that's not really what happened.  Many whites switched to the Democrats to capitalize on what would be a vulnerable, captive black constituency.  The Democrats prevailed by hyping up the pre-existing differences in the two parties' economic philosophies.  They lost Southern whites but deliberately infused massive money into poor communities so that black politicians would feel beholden to the Democratic Party's spending machines.

Johnson's strategy worked: the racially neutral focus on "poverty" got masses of the country thinking about economic policies, an area in which Democrats and Republicans had deep disagreements.  The Civil Rights Act passed one month after the War on Poverty speech, and Republicans supported it at a higher rate than did Democrats (76% as opposed to 60%).

The Republicans were always fine on race.  The weakness for Republicans was, then as now, the pro-corporation sympathies that came as a legacy of the Civil War.  In the GOP-dominated Gilded Age, the Republicans were proud of trouncing slavery but then replaced the plantation with the corporation as the model for economic production.  The Democrats knew that the best way to guarantee a captive black vote was to make the Republicans defend corporations like the banks and businesses that had discriminated against black people and come out against spending programs popular among the poor, including the black poor.

The rest is history.  Some Southern whites like Strom Thurmond did leave the Democrats and join the Republicans, giving Democrats endless fuel to claim that the Republicans were racist based on what had happened in earlier times when people like Strom Thurmond were Democrats.

The foundation of Democratic racism has always been paternalism, which was the ideology that they used to justify slave plantations.  The paternalism has remained consistent.  The War on Poverty refashioned paternalism by carving up the United States into client neighborhoods so dependent on government grants that they would be terrified to rebel against the Democrats.  The Democrats availed themselves of their overwhelming majority in press rooms and university faculties to spread the false legend that Republicans and Democrats had switched places, and the Democratic Party owed nothing to blacks for the hundreds of years that they had exploited, oppressed, and abused them.

The War on Poverty was the first of four twenty-year crusades that have inflicted enormous cultural damage on the United States: the wars on poverty (1960s–1980s), on drugs (1980s–2000s), on terror (2000s–2010s), and now on racism (2020s–?).  All four follow the same pattern.  They have a racial element, plunge Americans into needless alarm, and serve to deflect attention from deeper issues that one of the parties wants to avoid.  They all fail by design, as the War on Poverty did.  If they were to succeed, then the political machines placed in charge of these crusades would be out of business.  So the benchmarks are always impossible and vague, the enemy cast in vague religious terms as a shadowy evil lurking on our souls and haunting our actions.  When will we ever eradicate poverty, drugs, terror, or prejudice?  Never.  That's why these wars are so useful.

In October 1982, Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs.  Nancy Reagan became the most famous front-line soldier in this war against addiction.  She went to schools and community centers with her slogan, "just say no."  By 1988, Reagan had formed a federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose head was elevated to a Cabinet position by Bill Clinton in 1993.  Thus began the string of "czars" that would chip away at the Constitution's delegation of powers.  Ultimately in the early years of Obama's presidency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy sought to soften its rhetoric and declared an end to the War on Drugs.  We now suffer from a national plague of drug addiction and overdoses.

Next came the "War on Terror," declared by George W. Bush on September 20, 2001.  The September 11 attacks gave this speech a far deeper gravitas than the contexts of Johnson's 1964 or Reagan's 1982 speech.  But history repeats itself.  Bush deepened the Deep State by overfeeding an already bloated Intelligence Community and extending its powers to unimaginable limits.  Rather than focus strictly on al-Qaeda, Bush moved swiftly to send us on wild goose chases in Afghanistan and Iraq, breaking the record for the longest running war in U.S. history.

Bush had lost the popular vote to Gore in 2000, so he had every reason to leverage the War on Terror to solidify public support for a Republican Party tarnished by the impeachment.  On the one hand, Bush downplayed Islam's role in the 2001 attacks.  He constantly claimed that Islam was a religion of peace.  He affected a balanced judgment by going along with a changing Intelligence Community that cast right-wing Christian terrorism as equal in threat to Islamic terrorists.

On the other hand, Bush shored up evangelical support during a global conflict that was, at its core, religious.  During Bush's terms, the military sank in the Iraq quagmire while Republicans papered over these staggering failures with dozens of state plebiscites against gay "marriage."  This kept evangelicals' attention away from the military horrors in the Middle East and hopeful that the defense of gospel sexuality would be a long-term triumph for Christianity.  Republicans like Ted Olson and Paul Singer made sure that once the marriage issue no longer helped Republicans, Christians would be told to shut up and eat their soup.

If Johnson's War on Poverty was an obvious Democratic strategy, so too the War on Drugs and War on Terror were Republican strategies, arguably just as cynical and poisonous to the republic.

As the War on Terror is all but forgotten, we face the next twenty-year war, which will be worse than the earlier ones.  Race hovered in the background in the three previous wars; the War on Poverty softened the nation's mood during the civil rights struggle, the War on Drugs was often seen as disproportionately enforced on black neighborhoods, and the War on Terror placed the United States in conflict with darker-skinned nations on the other side of the globe.

Our nation's progress on race makes race, ironically, the ideal battleground for a cynical two-decade political war.  It is perhaps a testament to how far the United States has come, when we consider that politicians are openly flagging racial conflict.  They show little of previous generations' fear that this is the one maelstrom our country might not survive.  We barely made it out of the Civil War.  If the Democrats really feared an all-out race war, they'd avoid this demagoguery.  We all know that the worst racism is far behind us, and now it is safe to make race the smokescreen because other issues won't galvanize the people.  It Gets Better and MeToo simply can't bring the left enough traction.  They have to stick with their most reliable sleight: anti-racism.

One odd twist today is that a president did not declare this war.  All the forces against the president declared it.  That reveals how much our society has changed and moved toward a one-party dictatorship.  The Democrats have such firm control over our institutions that they speak as one voice, like a Borg, orchestrated by conspiratorial forces behind the scenes.  Other than this detail, it appears that this will follow the same course as previous open-ended wars.

The death of George Floyd, like the sinking of the Maine, the murder of Ernst vom Rath, or the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, will be forgotten after the political exploiters have finished.  When is the war on racism over?  When we have zero racist cops?  When all the statues of the racist past are gone, whether they are statues of racist or non-racist people?  What realm of society does not fall under the purview of the war on race?  It seems schools, businesses, families, churches, governments, libraries, museums, parks, and courthouses are all subject to the wrath of the war on racism.  It will end only when the people who are spurring it — the Democratic Party — have attained such overwhelming power over the country that they can safely tell black people they're no longer useful, and leaders have no intention of changing anything in their communities.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at www.bobbylopez.me, @RLopezMission on Parler and Twitter, and at his Gatekeepers program, the Big Brown Gadfly.

On January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address.  He chose to launch a massive crusade that was most likely far from most Americans' minds: he declared war on poverty itself.  He opened the speech with these famous lines:

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; ... and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

Johnson envisioned a world where people would pay less in taxes but would see bountiful signs of government-funded growth around them.  Like Thomas More's Utopia, this is a place that can exist only on a mythological island.

To a nation rattled by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and staggered by the Cold War, Johnson's focus was tactically brilliant.  Martin Luther King, Jr.'s march on Washington had taken place only five months earlier, but the demands for racial reconciliation had stalled one decade after Brown v. Board of Education.

Though he would be assassinated in just a year, Malcolm X's growing popularity had already troubled the neat and nonviolent Christian approach put forward by King.  Desegregation and removal of anti-miscegenation laws alone would not dramatically improve race relations because black people didn't hold as their highest goal the right to be friends with and love white people.

As I discussed in a chapter of Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman, "sentimentalism" was a white abolitionist ideology.  Most black authors of the nineteenth century were doggedly anti-sentimental because they knew that slave-owners had manipulated their emotional relationships to keep them enslaved.  Blacks wanted to have greater job opportunities, better education, and freedom from oppressive policing.  Some white liberals understood this, while others assumed that if they showed black people they loved them, everything would magically become better.

Johnson knew he had to push for civil rights if the Democrats were to have any hopes for the future.  Race was toxic, however.  Many whites would tune out, and it would be extremely difficult to strike the right chords to keep black people engaged.

The Civil Rights Act was coming soon, but Johnson probably knew that if he made this address about racial tension, the country's frayed nerves would jeopardize the bill's passage.  Since the days when Moses wrote Leviticus, helping the poor has been an automatic favorite and one that everyone can support, even if in a platitudinous way.

"So let's go with poverty," Johnson probably said.

As he stood before Congress on January 8, 1964, did he really believe that the government could accomplish all these things he was promising?  Fewer taxes, a streamlined government tax, a lower deficit, more libraries, more public schools, more free medicine and food stamps, more subsidized housing — all while trying to prop up South Vietnam's pro-Western government against North Vietnam, halfway around the world?

No intelligent or sane person could have believed those words as he spoke them.  Democrats have lately felt desperate to project their party's racist history onto Republicans (see this outrageous piece of yellow journalism).  They like to fudge what happened under Johnson.  They love to say the Republicans "switched places" with the Democrats on race through a "Southern strategy," but the War on Poverty reminds us that's not really what happened.  Many whites switched to the Democrats to capitalize on what would be a vulnerable, captive black constituency.  The Democrats prevailed by hyping up the pre-existing differences in the two parties' economic philosophies.  They lost Southern whites but deliberately infused massive money into poor communities so that black politicians would feel beholden to the Democratic Party's spending machines.

Johnson's strategy worked: the racially neutral focus on "poverty" got masses of the country thinking about economic policies, an area in which Democrats and Republicans had deep disagreements.  The Civil Rights Act passed one month after the War on Poverty speech, and Republicans supported it at a higher rate than did Democrats (76% as opposed to 60%).

The Republicans were always fine on race.  The weakness for Republicans was, then as now, the pro-corporation sympathies that came as a legacy of the Civil War.  In the GOP-dominated Gilded Age, the Republicans were proud of trouncing slavery but then replaced the plantation with the corporation as the model for economic production.  The Democrats knew that the best way to guarantee a captive black vote was to make the Republicans defend corporations like the banks and businesses that had discriminated against black people and come out against spending programs popular among the poor, including the black poor.

The rest is history.  Some Southern whites like Strom Thurmond did leave the Democrats and join the Republicans, giving Democrats endless fuel to claim that the Republicans were racist based on what had happened in earlier times when people like Strom Thurmond were Democrats.

The foundation of Democratic racism has always been paternalism, which was the ideology that they used to justify slave plantations.  The paternalism has remained consistent.  The War on Poverty refashioned paternalism by carving up the United States into client neighborhoods so dependent on government grants that they would be terrified to rebel against the Democrats.  The Democrats availed themselves of their overwhelming majority in press rooms and university faculties to spread the false legend that Republicans and Democrats had switched places, and the Democratic Party owed nothing to blacks for the hundreds of years that they had exploited, oppressed, and abused them.

The War on Poverty was the first of four twenty-year crusades that have inflicted enormous cultural damage on the United States: the wars on poverty (1960s–1980s), on drugs (1980s–2000s), on terror (2000s–2010s), and now on racism (2020s–?).  All four follow the same pattern.  They have a racial element, plunge Americans into needless alarm, and serve to deflect attention from deeper issues that one of the parties wants to avoid.  They all fail by design, as the War on Poverty did.  If they were to succeed, then the political machines placed in charge of these crusades would be out of business.  So the benchmarks are always impossible and vague, the enemy cast in vague religious terms as a shadowy evil lurking on our souls and haunting our actions.  When will we ever eradicate poverty, drugs, terror, or prejudice?  Never.  That's why these wars are so useful.

In October 1982, Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs.  Nancy Reagan became the most famous front-line soldier in this war against addiction.  She went to schools and community centers with her slogan, "just say no."  By 1988, Reagan had formed a federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, whose head was elevated to a Cabinet position by Bill Clinton in 1993.  Thus began the string of "czars" that would chip away at the Constitution's delegation of powers.  Ultimately in the early years of Obama's presidency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy sought to soften its rhetoric and declared an end to the War on Drugs.  We now suffer from a national plague of drug addiction and overdoses.

Next came the "War on Terror," declared by George W. Bush on September 20, 2001.  The September 11 attacks gave this speech a far deeper gravitas than the contexts of Johnson's 1964 or Reagan's 1982 speech.  But history repeats itself.  Bush deepened the Deep State by overfeeding an already bloated Intelligence Community and extending its powers to unimaginable limits.  Rather than focus strictly on al-Qaeda, Bush moved swiftly to send us on wild goose chases in Afghanistan and Iraq, breaking the record for the longest running war in U.S. history.

Bush had lost the popular vote to Gore in 2000, so he had every reason to leverage the War on Terror to solidify public support for a Republican Party tarnished by the impeachment.  On the one hand, Bush downplayed Islam's role in the 2001 attacks.  He constantly claimed that Islam was a religion of peace.  He affected a balanced judgment by going along with a changing Intelligence Community that cast right-wing Christian terrorism as equal in threat to Islamic terrorists.

On the other hand, Bush shored up evangelical support during a global conflict that was, at its core, religious.  During Bush's terms, the military sank in the Iraq quagmire while Republicans papered over these staggering failures with dozens of state plebiscites against gay "marriage."  This kept evangelicals' attention away from the military horrors in the Middle East and hopeful that the defense of gospel sexuality would be a long-term triumph for Christianity.  Republicans like Ted Olson and Paul Singer made sure that once the marriage issue no longer helped Republicans, Christians would be told to shut up and eat their soup.

If Johnson's War on Poverty was an obvious Democratic strategy, so too the War on Drugs and War on Terror were Republican strategies, arguably just as cynical and poisonous to the republic.

As the War on Terror is all but forgotten, we face the next twenty-year war, which will be worse than the earlier ones.  Race hovered in the background in the three previous wars; the War on Poverty softened the nation's mood during the civil rights struggle, the War on Drugs was often seen as disproportionately enforced on black neighborhoods, and the War on Terror placed the United States in conflict with darker-skinned nations on the other side of the globe.

Our nation's progress on race makes race, ironically, the ideal battleground for a cynical two-decade political war.  It is perhaps a testament to how far the United States has come, when we consider that politicians are openly flagging racial conflict.  They show little of previous generations' fear that this is the one maelstrom our country might not survive.  We barely made it out of the Civil War.  If the Democrats really feared an all-out race war, they'd avoid this demagoguery.  We all know that the worst racism is far behind us, and now it is safe to make race the smokescreen because other issues won't galvanize the people.  It Gets Better and MeToo simply can't bring the left enough traction.  They have to stick with their most reliable sleight: anti-racism.

One odd twist today is that a president did not declare this war.  All the forces against the president declared it.  That reveals how much our society has changed and moved toward a one-party dictatorship.  The Democrats have such firm control over our institutions that they speak as one voice, like a Borg, orchestrated by conspiratorial forces behind the scenes.  Other than this detail, it appears that this will follow the same course as previous open-ended wars.

The death of George Floyd, like the sinking of the Maine, the murder of Ernst vom Rath, or the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, will be forgotten after the political exploiters have finished.  When is the war on racism over?  When we have zero racist cops?  When all the statues of the racist past are gone, whether they are statues of racist or non-racist people?  What realm of society does not fall under the purview of the war on race?  It seems schools, businesses, families, churches, governments, libraries, museums, parks, and courthouses are all subject to the wrath of the war on racism.  It will end only when the people who are spurring it — the Democratic Party — have attained such overwhelming power over the country that they can safely tell black people they're no longer useful, and leaders have no intention of changing anything in their communities.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at www.bobbylopez.me, @RLopezMission on Parler and Twitter, and at his Gatekeepers program, the Big Brown Gadfly.