Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Trading Places?

When Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln finally made it to Ireland early this year, some of my Irish friends were confused by it.

They said things to me like, “I thought it was the Republicans were always trying to keep black people down. The movie made it seem like the Republicans were trying to help them.”

Of course, they were confused. The film depicts accurately the Republican Party in the 1860s seeking to end slavery while the Democratic Party worked to preserve it. Nowadays, though, “everybody knows” it’s the Democrats who are looking out for African-Americans and the Republicans who want to go back to the days of Jim Crow.

How did we get from there to here?

It depends on whom you ask. If you ask a Democrat how the two major American political parties seemed to have swapped places on civil rights, you get a story that, briefly, goes like this. In the 1960s the liberal wing of the Democratic Party championed the civil rights movement and the conservative Republicans opposed it. As a result, the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, which was largely based in the South, over time defected to the Republicans, while some liberal and moderate Republicans switched to the Democrats. Therefore, two parties that both had fairly wide spectrums of political philosophy (heterogeneous, in political science parlance) wound up shifting to the left and right, respectively. So, according to our Democratic historian, you wind up with a Republican Party that is conservative (and anti-civil rights) and a Democratic Party that is liberal.

If you ask a Republican (or at least certain Republicans) the same question, however, you get a somewhat different narrative. She will tell you that, while many positions in the two parties have shifted over time, Republicans have been fairly consistent on one principle: that all people should be treated equally under the law. That is why the Republican Party was founded (in 1854) largely for the purpose of ending slavery. The principle of human equality continued to be upheld in the passage of civil rights legislation in the 20th century. She will point out that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed with 80 percent Republican support in both houses of Congress. (Democrats supported it with 61 percent in the House and 63 percent in the Senate.)

Our Democratic historian will reply, yes, but that was the old “moderate” Republican Party. Before it went all right-wing and Tea Party and brought on board the old racist Dixiecrats. Our Republican historian will say, it’s more complicated than that. She will argue that programs like affirmative action have not only violated the principle of treating all people equally but that they have actually made social and economic conditions in the African-American community worse, not better. If she’s feeling particularly provocative, she will even suggest that the Democrats have gone from the party of the old Southern plantations to the party of modern virtual plantations that keep African-Americans hooked on welfare and other social programs to such an extent that they feel they have no choice but to vote invariably as a massive bloc for the party that promises to preserve and expand those programs. (The percentage of African-Americans voting for the Democrat in the last four presidential elections ranged between 88 and 95 percent.)

One of the most articulate and convincing proponents of the idea that legislation and policies designed to help African-Americans has often had the opposite effect is the economist Thomas Sowell. A Marxist in his 20s, Sowell (who happens to be African-American) now describes himself as a libertarian. In his writings, he produces statistics that suggest that to date the period of most rapid narrowing of the economic gap between whites and blacks was in the period immediately before the advent of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He further argues that the gap tends to close during boom times (in other words, a rising tide really does lift all boats), which means that during a period of recession or stagnant growth—as we’ve been experiencing for years now—African-Americans do worse than others.

This is something President Obama, who has now been in charge of the economy for about half a decade, was complaining about recently—the worsening gap between rich and poor. I think Sowell would advise him to focus less on income equality (because that just makes it worse) and more on economic growth (because that makes it better).

Sowell argues that even well-meaning and seemingly benign policies such as raising the minimum wage hurt African-Americans disproportionately—because a higher minimum wage tends to reduce the number of entry-level jobs, which would be the ones most likely to benefit young people and those who have been out of work.

It would be naive to believe that there is not an element of racism in the modern Republican Party. Yes, you can be against affirmative action out of principle, but you can also be against it because you don’t like black people. But it would also be naive to believe that there is no racism in the Democratic Party, even if it is unconscious or unintentional. Is it that unbelievable that at least some party operatives view the black vote cynically—relying on it to make the difference in elections even while the economic lot of African-Americans has worsened under Democratic stewardship of the economy?

Last week I ended by asking, “How did we get to the point where a ‘liberal’ is understood to be someone who wants high taxes and more government involvement in your life?” That was not a rhetorical question. I am sincerely interested in how political labels get changed in meaning, just as political parties are seen to swap from one side to the other on major questions.

The fact is that there is actually a significant portion of the Republican Party that really doesn’t see itself as conservative at all but rather truly liberal, in the classical sense of the word.

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