A Populist Mobius Strip – by Chris Stirewalt

An exhibition of Möbius comic strips. (Photo by Yue Zhiqiang/VCG via Getty Images.)

Republicans will never tire of responding to Democratic allegations of racism by pointing out that the GOP was the party created to oppose slavery, while Democrats not only defended it, but after its abolition stubbornly opposed for a century to the protections of the rights of black Americans.

Which was true, until it wasn’t anymore.

Lyndon Johnson’s remaining defenders say his enthusiastic and cruel bigotry in private masked a deeper, sincere interest in civil rights. It may also be true, however, that he was a rotten man who was driven more by political expediency than humanity. Maybe both, or maybe it depended on the day or his admiration for Cutty Sark. Whatever his motives, Johnson has effected perhaps the most sweeping shift in partisan political stances in American history in just a few short years.

Johnson, who as Senate Majority Leader had neutralized Republican-backed civil rights legislation in 1957, signed a much more aggressive version into law in 1964. Republicans watched as Democrats seizing on an issue that had been with the GOP before the party had a name.

But the electoral pressure behind this decision was obvious. The Old Confederacy states that won the most electoral votes between 1940 and 1968 – Florida, Texas and Virginia – moved away from segregation, while the states that lost the most – Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama – were the most desperate. attached to statutory racism. Keeping the Solid South strong was no longer worth the cost the party was paying in northern cities where the Great Migration had deposited millions of black voters who had fled the South.

When these black Americans were in the South, they were either openly disenfranchised or overwhelmed by the unanimity of the white vote for the Democrats. But in the North, their votes have become extremely valuable in trying to overthrow traditionally Republican states like Pennsylvania and Illinois.

What segregation cost Democrats with younger, more educated white voters in the fast-growing North and West was also significant. The Liberals were an insurgent force in the party – a populist youth movement that opposed the status quo not only on segregation but also on the Vietnam War. Where Johnson was heir to a progressive tradition that predated Woodrow Wilson 50 years earlier, liberals opposed centralized power and coercive authority. Every burnt draft card (and bra) was a rejection of the progressiveness that had become the party’s creed, from Wilson to Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s aptly named Great Society incrementally.

Within the Democratic Party, individual freedoms and the rejection of authority supplanted the old values ​​of the left: central planning and social engineering necessitated sweeping restrictions on individual rights in the name of the common good. When Johnson was forced to give up his re-election bid in 1968 by the party’s liberal populist insurgents, it was in the name of pacifism, yes, but also individualism and a belief in natural rights and justice. moral liberty…very Rousseauian. The idea was that people, whether they were black Southern Americans, 18-year-old conscripts, or Vietnamese, had natural rights and should be free to choose for themselves.

As the Liberals took control of the Democratic Party, a similar shift was occurring on the Republican side.

The man Johnson defeated in 1964, Barry Goldwater, was the first Conservative to win his party’s nomination in 40 years. In Herbert Hoover’s 1928 run for Dwight Eisenhower’s second term, Republicans had opted for a sort of new nationalism. The conservatism of Calvin Coolidge and William Taft which placed the virtues of the American foundation above all other political ideas was abandoned for a kind of pragmatic, generally pro-business republicanism which would find its full blossoming in the man who succeeded Goldwater as the GOP nominee. , Richard Nixon.

Like Hoover and the other three palookas who descended to FDR, Nixon was technocratic and enthusiastic about the use of governmental power, and not overly concerned with the finer points of constitutional order. Nixon was also a control freak. When asked if he might have taken “illegal” action against anti-war groups, Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, it means it’s not illegal.” The EPA, price controls to try to fight inflation, and those uniforms for the White House guards had to come from a nationalist, not a conservative.

Goldwater’s loss in 1964 did not stop the conservative insurgency within the Republican Party, however. Indeed, when Nixon’s own corruption and authoritarian tendencies brought him down, it made conservatives look good. Younger generation conservatives, such as William Buckley, had lobbied throughout the 1960s against the nationalist establishment. Ronald Reagan, the fashionable man from Goldwater who became the popular and conservative governor of California, scared off Gerald Ford in 1976, before finally toppling the establishment completely in 1980.

In the 1980s, the Liberals and the Conservatives were absolutely in control of their respective parties. Both factions had asserted their authority not only out of moral legitimacy, but also through a populist push. Both Liberals and Conservatives have said they speak for marginalized voters who represent the authentic the soul of the party. Progressive and nationalist establishments, by this argument, used their elite status to keep the real Republicans and Democrats down.

Once in power, liberals and conservatives ruled for decades. But not anymore.

Donald Trump was far more Nixon than Nixon, a paranoid conspirator who treated the Constitution as a prenup he could exploit or ignore as he pleased. Today, the nationalist right often treats appeals to Foundation principles as cuckoldry and is obsessed with the demise of real American culture. The right-wing populist revolt inducted nationalism over the conservative establishment which populists deemed too weak.

On the left, the story was the same. Joe Biden was there for the final changing of the guard as populist liberals ousted the progressive establishment. When he was elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden was navigating between the old progressive bulls, many of whom were segregationists — just ask Kamala Harris — and the new generation of individual rights-oriented liberals of which he was a part.

Today’s progressive left, like Elizabeth Warren and her “great structural change, has embarked on a long assault on the liberal party establishment. On racism, global warming, income inequality, etc., populists accuse elites of denying solutions to the people, which Biden or Barack Obama before him could have solved all these problems but chose not to. because they were sold.

Five decades after the Liberals ousted the Progressives for their abuse of power and lack of respect for individual rights, the Progressives are poised to take control of the party on the promise of massive increases in government power and more social engineering.

This is simply to say that the nationalists and progressives who are now on the rise were – in the life of their parents’ generation – the political establishment of their parties. And the recently unseated conservatives and liberals were, not so long ago, the populist arsonists themselves.

Looks like they’re going to have to get back to training.

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