Well then. Hello, World!
I’m still, for the foreseeable future, on a blogging hiatus. If and when I do return to more regular posting, it will almost certainly be anonymously (maybe I already am!); the reality is that my blog had become too popular — which is to say “mildly popular” — to be compatible with working for Congress. But that’s life.
Still, I had to surface to jump in on two things:
1. You have to start reading the Mischief of Faction blog. This is the most exciting development in political science blogging since, well, I don’t know. A long freaking time. It’s Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and Greg Koger, bringing the brilliant geekery on all things parties. I cannot recommend this enough.
2. There’s a hot debate on the blogs right now about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It started with a strange Kevin Williamson piece at NRO that seemed to me quite a-historical (and I mean that in the most neutral sense), which was quickly fisked by Jonathan Chait and Jonathan Bernstein, among others. Since then there’s been a lot of writing back and forth on the matter, mostly on the subject of what the party positions were on civil rights and who should get the credit for passing the bill in ’64 and all sorts of derivative stuff from there.
I have a keen interest in all this, because I’ve long been an admirer of the 19th and early 20th century Republican Party and have often wondered what would have happened if things went slightly differently in the mid-20th century. What if Dewey had won in ’44 and tried to push a civil rights bill through the GOP-controlled 80th House? What if Ike had cared more (or at all) about civil rights and done the same thing in the 83rd House? What if Rockefeller had won the ’64 GOP nomination? And so on and so forth. It’s not a hard alternative history to tell in which the GOP makes the aggressive moves in the 50′s — pushing public accommodations bills, voting rights bills, more fervently supporting Brown v. Board — and forces/compels the northern Democrats to make a clean break from the southerners, or forces them to drift into an even tighter alliance with the segregationists. Who knows what sort of party alignments we’d have now.
Anyway, the debate currently going on has a couple of holes I wanted to fill. So my four points:
1. Simpson’s paradox is in full effect here, and that has some interesting consequences. Simply put, if you control for region, Democrats were more supportive of the CRA in both North and South. Among northern Members of the House support for the CRA was 94% among Democrats and 85% among Republicans. In the South, it was 7% among Democrats and 0% among Republicans. The paradox, of course, is that because there were only 10 Republican House Members from the South, when you compare the two parties in aggregate, the Republicans are much more supportive of the CRA (80% in favor) than the Democrats (61% in favor).
The upshot of this is that you can, more or less, generate any statistic you want, depending on what story you want to spin about the House vote in ’64. Report the party aggregate stat, and the Dems are the bad guys. Report the geographic votes, and you can make the Republicans look comparatively worse. I think the most fair story to draw from just the numbers is this: geography was destiny for the ’64 CRA vote, but party had a small marginal effect. If you knew where a Member was from, you could predict there vote very accurately, regardless of party.
But the rub is — and I think this is where I break from a lot of liberal contributors to the discussion — you could also pretty accurately predict someone’s vote if you knew they were a Republican. As far as the yeas and nays go, that’s the bottom line: the GOP supported the ’64 CRA. I don’t see how you could describe it any other way. That, of course, is not really true of the Democrats. Knowing that a Member was a Democrat doesn’t really give you any information about their vote: 70% of the House voted for the CRA. But just 61% of the Democrats. Knowing someone was a Democrat actually made it more likely that they voted against the bill. But again, geography was destiny.
2. Of course, the real reason the numbers are a sideshow is that intensity of preference was not evenly distributed. This is true all over the map and all over the spectrum. As a group, the most vociferous proponents of civil rights in 1964 were the northern Democrats. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply lying. The northern Republicans were a mixed bag. When it was time to vote, they were nearly as supportive as the northern Democrats, but as a group they ranged from those who were as vociferously in favor of it as the northern Dems, to those who would vote for it but never push for it, to those who rejected the federal bill but believed in civil rights either personally or at the state level. (And, of course, there were a small handful of soft and quiet segregationists in both northern parties).
And that counts in legislative politics. There are all sorts of reasons why the GOP didn’t push civil rights — it wasn’t a big issue for their largely white districts, they had concerns about federal power, they enjoyed watching, and benefited from, the Democrats in-fighting about it, and some of them probably didn’t privately believe in it, or didn’t care — but the fact is that they didn’t. And so they get credit for their votes, but not their attitude. Johnson and the northern Democrats drove the bill. The GOP got on board to help pass it.
But what did not exist in the northern caucus by ’64 — either among Democrats or Republicans — was any sort of hard-core defenders of segregation, or voting discrimination, or — God forgive us — lynching. And this is an important point. Anyone who equates Goldwater’s position with, say, James Eastland’s position on the matter, simply because they voted the same way, is purposefully deceiving you. Or deluding themselves about what it was really like in the South in the early 60′s. I don’t really have any patience for Goldwater-style federalism on civil rights, but the idea that the man belongs in the same category as the southern Democrats is absurd. These were people who were calling their own constituents “niggers” in public campaign speeches and on the floor of the United States Senate. Goldwater had supported the ’57 and ’60 CRAs. And believed in racial equality.
And that’s important too. The southern GOP Members were, for the most part, much less hostile to African-Americans than the southern Democrats. they were, in many ways, the mirror twins of their northern partisans. Remember the old saying about the war, “Not every Democrat was a traitor, but every traitor was a Democrat.” That’s kind of how it went with the violence, the Klan, the voter intimidation, and the public defense of segregation. Not every Democrat in the South thought violence was justifiable against African-American civil rights protesters. But every one who thought it justifiable was a Democrat.
3. And this intensity of preference disparity, in both sections, leads us to the important questions. The key question for the Republican Party, of course, was why didn’t they take up the mantle of civil rights after World War II. After all, they had a long and genuinely admirable history of supporting and pushing for civil rights for African Americans. From passing the 1866 and 1870 CRAs and the 13th-15th amendments, to working toward ensuring voting rights in the South, first at the point of a gun during Reconstruction and then through legislative attempts later on (the 1890 Federal Elections Bill being the most prominent example). Their party platform from 1864 to 1964 routinely contained strong support for African American voting rights and other civil equalities. And from the war until the New Deal, the vast majority of African Americans voted for them, and most African Americans leaders were Republicans.
People will give you all sorts of answers for why the GOP didn’t get out in front of civil rights in the 20th century. Some think the commitment to African American rights was more political bluster than substantive belief. Some people like to argue the anti-federal nature of the party ideology, although that was only really true after 1928 or so, it can’t explain much before that. And still others will tell you that the Republicans did try on civil rights. And indeed, they often did. And they had many vocal proponents over the 100 year period. And all too often they were stymied by either the Democrats or, more sadly, the conservative wing of their own party.
What amazes me is how contingent the timing, and thus the poltical shake-out, of the ’64 CRA actually was. I don’t think it’s outlandish to suggest that a strong CRA was coming in the 60′s, and that the only question was when. I also don’t think it’s crazy to believe Kennedy might have failed with his bill in ’64; Johnson probably got it through faster than anyone else could have. And so I think it’s entirely possible that any number of men in either party could have led the civil rights charge between ’64 and, say, 1970. Kennedy in a second term. Nixon in ’67 after a ’64 reelection built on the traditional non-South GOP coaltion. Rockefeller. Humphrey. All the ’60 VP contenders, like Scoop Jackson or even Symington. I guess the point is that I sort of think that Johnson was more consequential than important for the CRA; this was idea whose time had come and whose train was leaving the station sooner or later.
And so I think it’s important to remember that the political alignment of the parties is often at the mercy of their role as short-term electoral competitors. That the GOP became less and less supportive of civil rights projects after the CRA, VRA, and Fair Housing is hardly unrelated to the increased Democratic resolve on these issues. I mean, in one sense we all know this: the segregationists started voting against the Dems in the 60′s, and after flirting with Wallace for a while, finally settled in the GOP. But I think it gets overlooked in a lot of cases, and people underestimate the impact that a slight tipping of the balance can have on the ideologies in a party system. If a GOP President (say, Ike) had led the charge for a real CRA, there’s every chance the southerners would have doubled-down on the Democrats, and tipped the whole equilibrium. And the important thing to remember is that stuff like this cuts across other issues; it seems strange now to think about the party of the lower class being against civil rights. But that was true for many, many decades and could easily be true today.
This sort of party ideology metamorphosis is exactly what happened before the Civil War. The Democrats started losing some traction in the North after the Wilmot proviso. Then the Kansas-Nebraska Act pushed the equilibrium even further: Democrats started losing in the North, meaning the party was more southern, meaning the ideology was more pro-slavery, meaning there would be more losses in the North. Everyone recognizes that as what happened in the 1850′s. No one seems to ever apply it to what happened in the 1960′s. And again, I think it was far more contingent in the 60′s than people want to believe. Kinda like 9/11. If Gore had been president, my sense is that he would have taken similar actions to Bush during 2001 and 2002. And I think it highly likely that the civil liberties wing of the GOP would have become much more prevalent, as the party shaped its basic critique of the war. Instead, by historical dint of Florida balloting, the GOP got Bushism.
But, of course, this brings us to the northern Democrats. I more or less agree with Jon Bernstein here, when he argues that the Democratic party had basically split on civil rights, and that the majority of the elected congressional party strongly supported however liberal of a CRA you could pass by 1964. Just go read Humphrey’s speech at the ’48 convention. These are men who are tired of compromising their values over the issue for the sake of political harmony. But that only raises the key political/moral question: why did so many northern Democrats compromise their values in order to keep peace with the southerners? One answer, of course, is that they didn’t. Humphrey fought like hell for civil rights, and he probably happy to see Thurmond walk out the door in ’48.
But I don’t think that’s good enough. And I think a lot of the problem was institutional. In the broadest sense, one answer is that it’s not clear what they could have done. They weren’t going to join the Republican party en masse; by the time that option would have been acceptable, their northern constituencies would have already demanded a civil rights act from both parties. But the strong arm radical things they could have theoretically done — like trading the Speakership to the Republicans in exchange for GOP support on a strong CRA — seem ridiculous and counterproductive. But they could have held the South’s feet to the fire. They could have passed endless strong CRAs out of the House between ’57 and ’63. They could have pushed endless Powell-amendment-style desegregation bills. Much of the problem, I suspect, was their unwillingness or inability to cross Rayburn. And consequently their inability to corner, or even put much pressure, on the South in the House.
This is a bit unfair; they weakened Judge Smith’s control over the Rules committee in ’61 and ’63, which was certainly a victory for civil rights. But in general the position of the northern democrats was something closer to “don’t rock the boat” than it was to “go to hell, segregationists.” Perhaps Kennedy is the perfect embodiment of this position. None of this is to say that the northern democrats don’t deserve their assigned credit for the CRA; they do. It’s just more evidence, I think, that they ideology of the northern democrats was slippery enough, and their hold on the party precarious enough, that a retrenchment of Democratic views on civil rights, via northerners leaving the party and southern influence expanding, was not out of the question in the 60s, particularly if a GOP President had launched out in favor of a strong CRA.
Whenever I tell my liberal friends that I’m considering voting for a Republican candidate, they look at me like I have three heads. How could you possibly vote for that party? This always bemuses me because most of my liberal friends are the exact kind of intellectual ideologues who would have (a) been northern Democrats in 1960, and (b) would have been bending over backwards to make arguments to me about why they had to work with the southerners even though they hated their position on the great moral issue of the day. Politics is an art of compromise. Until the issue becomes one that you can no longer compromise on. And I think an honest critique of the northern Democrats is that they kept on compromising their principles far too long on civil rights.
4. Who cares? Which, I think, should in turn make us less sure about this whole debate. In the big picture, I don’t really care which party was for civil rights. I just care which Members were for it, both then and now. Just as it doesn’t really matter now which party brought down slavery (and I don’t think there’s a bizzaro-Williamson out there arguing that it was the Democrats), it doesn’t really matter which party passed the CRA.
I’m going to admire Hubert Humphrey and Thomas Dewey on the issue just as much as I’m going to shame Goldwater and despise Eastland. And the party labels next to their names don’t seem, to me, to have much bearing on anything besides the history books. Anyone trying to connect the CRA vote in ’64 to comtemporary politics is, at best, stretching things. Especially when they try to turn the CRA into some sort of black and white partisan debate. There were heroes and there were villains in the civil rights battle. But they were not uniformly wearing opposite party labels.
Ok, I’ve babbled enough. Till next time…