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That Was the Year That Was: 1964 and the Transformation of American Politics

By Dennis Riley

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act -1964

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act -1964

As we entered 1964, each of our two major political parties was a patchwork coalition of people from different regions of the country and different ideological stripes. Since our two major political parties are the folks who organize the conventions that nominate our candidates for President, and who organize and control our two houses of Congress, we saw ourselves as a middle class, middle-of-the-road nation that governed by negotiated compromise. By the end of 1964 we were on the path to 2014 and the politics of regional and ideological division organized primarily around our two major political parties – parties transformed by two events from 1964.

The first came in the late spring of that year when a coalition of Republicans and Northern and Western Democrats broke the Southern filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. The law – including as it did sections on public accommodations, education and employment – was meant to bring an end to Jim Crow and to finally bring real meaning to the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. After signing the bill, Lyndon Johnson is said to have remarked that the Democrats had just lost the South for a generation.

The second major transformative event of that year came not long after the signing of the Civil Rights Act when the Republican Party met in San Francisco and nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for President. Goldwater had been one of a handful of Senators from outside the old Confederacy to vote against the Civil Rights Act, though it should be noted that he was well on his way to the nomination before that vote, and he was not a racist on the model of Richard Russell of Georgia or James Eastland of Mississippi. He said he just didn’t believe in the government telling people what to do.

Goldwater’s nomination and subsequent campaign – try on the ideas of selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority, ending Social Security, and breaking the country in two at the Mississippi River and joining the Eastern half with Europe – resulted in one of the biggest landslides in American history. He carried only five deep south states…the beginning, of course, of the fulfillment of Johnson’s prophesy.

The immediate aftermath of Goldwater’s crushing defeat was a Congress that looked a good bit like the Congress that greeted FDR after the 1934 midterm elections – that is, an overwhelming Democratic majority ready and willing to take on the unfinished tasks of Roosevelt’s New Deal and of Truman’s Fair Deal. By the end of 1965, that Congress had passed Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and the crucial Voting Rights Act, the first statute since Reconstruction that sent federal marshalls to oversee Southern elections.

The dream of a fully “New Dealized” nation quickly faded in the face of Vietnam, the 1966 midterms with their huge Republican gains, and Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphrey, the man who had led the fight for Civil Rights (check out his remarkable speech at the 1948 Democratic convention, the one that sent Strom Thurmond of South Carolina off to form his own party) and an expansive social safety net. But the Democratic Party was now the party of Civil Rights and programs to protect the economically vulnerable, and “everybody” knew it.

Oh, I almost forgot. Barry Goldwater also introduced Ronald Reagan to the national political stage. Reagan gave a fiery speech denouncing everything the Democrats had done and were about to do, especially Medicare, and he so impressed the Republican Party’s money men that he was running for governor of California only two years later. After eight years as Governor and six years as candidate for President, he finally got himself elected to the job. You probably know most of the rest.

The long-term impact of the Democrats and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Republicans and the nomination of Barry Goldwater is certainly more familiar to you.

The South became more and more Republican with each election. It wasn’t so much Goldwater – or even Reagan, though he helped a good bit starting his 1980 campaign with a speech about states’ rights in the Mississippi county in which three civil rights workers were murdered for trying to register African Americans to vote – but rather the image of the Democrats as the party of Civil Rights and protection of the weak. The Democratic Party, in turn, became more and more exactly what Republicans painted it as. More African Americans got to vote (and won elections) in the South than anyone expected, and more whites expressed their frustration by voting Republican. The Democratic Party outside the South became the home for more voting African Americans.

Slowly we began to realize how much the inclusion of women in the Civil Rights Act had changed the role and status of women in education and in the workplace.

The party of that act attracted more female voters, a process accelerated by the movement of religious conservatives into the Republican party and the resulting emphasis on issues of reproductive freedom. Then we found ourselves “confronted” by gay men and women, again asking the fundamental question of equality and, again, getting a tentative answer of “Why not?” from the Democrats and “Hell no!” from most Republicans. The sorting continued.

There is much more to the story of our transformation from a negotiated compromise political system to an ideologically driven, take-no-prisoners system, but it is difficult to imagine a more compelling illustration of that transformation than to consider the Presidency of Barack Obama. Think Obamacare. He didn’t reach back to Harry Truman’s proposal for national health insurance. He didn’t even say Medicare for all. He reached to the Republicans by proposing things they had supported in the recent past. However, things had changed too much and he ended up with a “compromise” bill, but not a negotiated one. That bill is still under siege five years later. And the party system has hardened further. Where, and when, will it end?

By the way, you didn’t seriously think a 70-year-old guy was going to let the 50th anniversary of 1964 pass without a column, did you?

Enough out of me.

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