Noble: Who we were, not who we are
Throughout the 19th century, the Democratic Party’s platform repeatedly expressed support for the institution of slavery and the removal of Native Americans. In the early 20th century, Democrats passed laws segregating public schools, transportation and restrooms. The Democratic Party was once closely allied with the Ku Klux Klan.
Democrats of yesteryear bear no resemblance to the Democratic Party of 2021. As Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett crooned, “I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation. You’re living in the past, it’s a new generation.”
Today’s generation of Democrats can acknowledge that was who they were, not who they are.
The Democratic legacy is one of crafting enduring legislation that profoundly improved lives. Democrats created programs supported by most Americans including Social Security, Medicare and a national minimum wage.
The Democratic Party predates all other existing U.S. political parties, and in the mid-20th century it accommodated an unlikely coalition of conservative Southerners and progressive Northerners. That alliance came to an end in the mid-1960s with the passage of civil rights legislation. Democrats were at the vanguard to make America an equitable society, just not all Democrats.
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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender, banned discrimination in public facilities, and created equal employment opportunity.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed swiftly on the heels of the Civil Rights Act. This law was intended to enforce the voting rights particularly for Black citizens in Southern states. As with the Civil Rights Act, most Southern Democratic senators voted against it. Despite Southern opposition, both acts enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, and were signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat.
Cue the Southern exodus from the Democratic Party — both politicians and voters. The first prominent Southern Democrat to bolt was segregationist South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Others followed suit and by Ronald Reagan’s presidential election in 1980, the South was Republican.
Former Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights and voting rights for Blacks found a welcoming home in the Republican Party. According to presidential aide Bill Moyers, this shift was anticipated by Johnson who reportedly remarked, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Ironically, today Republicans proudly claim to be the party of Lincoln, but for more than a century, white Southerners scorned the party because of antipathy for Lincoln and Reconstruction.
President Lincoln prioritized preserving the Union. Today, Republicans seem determined to tear it apart. They erroneously frame a public health crisis as a struggle for liberty with deadly consequences, and support a corrupt, twice-impeached, one-term president who attempted to pull off a coup. They boasted about the benefits of a stimulus package they did not vote for. They voted against an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
I am much more concerned about what the Republican Party is attempting today than what the Democratic Party did a hundred years before I was born. The latter may make for interesting reading, but it is the former that will impact my life.
Republicans seem less interested in history and more interested in nostalgia. This theme was perfectly captured in the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Historian David Lowenthal wrote, “the longing for the past is rooted in the understanding of the past as better than the present because it is over and, thus, stable in contrast to the ever-changing and unstable present.”
Similarly, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s book “Battlegrounds” describes how Chinese leader Xi Jinping refuses to criticize Chairman Mao because any historical questioning of the Chinese Communist Party would invite skepticism and possibly resistance to the party today. “Losing control of the past is, for autocrats, the first step towards losing control of the future.”
Republicans are so invested in an anodyne version of America’s past that any evidence to the contrary threatens their identity. This explains their obsession over critical race theory and the need to whitewash any negative American history they cannot blame on Democrats — the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol becomes a “peaceful” tourist visit; a neo-Nazi, white supremacist march in Charlottesville included “very fine people on both sides;” and traitorous Confederate generals are “heroes.”
While Republicans fixate over an imaginary past, Democrats are confronting the challenges of the future. The 117th Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history — thanks to Democrats. Joan Jett was right — it is a new generation.
Claire Noble can be found online at Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.