Why is the passage of moderate health care reform being denounced as socialism? Why is president Obama (a pragmatic centrist by all accounts) being called a Marxist?
It is beginning to dawn on our more astute columnists that this really isn’t about health care. In a weekend column, New York Times columnist Frank Rich had this to say:
If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.
Rich is making essentially the same argument I made to a roomful of Baylor undergraduates last week.
Imagine, I said, that you are a white person living in Mississippi in 1964. Over the past decade, the Supreme Court of the United States under Earl Warren, the Department of Justice under Bobby Kennedy, and the White House under Lyndon Johnson have weighed “the Southern way of life” in the balance and declared it to be illegal, immoral and unconstitutional. Things you were taught as a child to see as good are being called evil and things you held to be evil are being called good.
What do you do?
You could admit the error of your ways and adapt to the New America, but for most white southerners this wasn’t an option.
Alternatively, you could reach out to whoever was reaching out to you—even if he called himself a Republican. It is hardly coincidental that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles from the place where the three civil rights workers had been murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
The civil rights coalition was broad and diverse, but the foundation was laid by people like Martin Luther King, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. These people were on fire and everyone else (to use a metaphor suggested by professor Lydia Bean) was just roasting weenies.
The conservative revival played out in precisely the same fashion. White southerners traumatized by the civil rights movement were on fire and conservatives of every stripe have been roasting weenies on that fire ever since.
The John Birch Society has been returning to the spotlight. The “Birchers” opposed the civil rights movement as viciously as they opposed communism. In fact, it was an article of faith among arch-conservatives that civil rights and communism were virtually identical. Glenn Beck, the conservative guru du jour, isn’t from the South. The product of a broken home in Washington state, Beck spent most of the 1980s and 90s in a fog of drugs and alcohol before stumbling upon the writings of W. Cleon Skousen in the late 1990s. Skousen’s blend of racism, anti-communism, conspiracy theory and Mormon eschatology eventually became an embarrassment to mainstream conservatives. But now, with the election of Barack Obama, Skousen is back. Texas Governor Rick Perry is a big fan and Glenn Beck tells his followers that his mentor’s writings were divinely inspired.
Glenn Beck and Rick Perry are simple men who have never had an original thought in their lives. They are merely roasting their weenies on somebody else’s fire.
Folks like W. Cleon Skousen (pictured at the left) would be mere historical footnotes were it not for the raging fire created by the perceived success of the civil rights movement. What did the civil rights movement achieve? It gave black Americans the vote, integrated public schools and struck down the laws enabling Jim Crow segregation. Did the movement change the economic realities of American life? Not really. Was capitalism undermined? No. Were white folks forced to associate with black folks? Not at all. In fact, the phenomenon of white flight left America (her schools included) even less integrated than she was in 1954.
The legislation passed last week will change the shape of American health insurance in significant ways, but there is nothing radical or particularly liberal about the new policies. So why are people shrieking as if the sky was about to fall?
Eliminate the racial element from the ultra-right agenda and popular enthusiasm would collapse. Black and Latino Americans have no discernible beef with capitalism. Non-white Americans demonstrate little enthusiasm for socialism, communism and Marxist economic theory. But you won’t see these folks rubbing elbows with the lily white crowds at a Tea Party demonstration.