Thursday, June 11, 2020

IS IT 1964?

I'm looking at the upcoming election and thinking about 1964.

Obviously, there are signifcant differences between 1964 and 2020 -- the country was prosperous then (although the economy was pretty good for many people up to the early months of 2020). In '64, the country had just suffered the assassination of a president, while a civil rights struggle was ongoing -- but much of America thought life was good. That's not the case now. Also, the president then was a Democrat.

Here are the similarities: In both years, the Democratic presidential nominee was a man who'd risen to prominence as a senator but had struggled as a presidential candidate. Neither was seen as magnetic; each had been vice president to a young, charismatic president. And in both years, the Republican nominee was a polarizing, widely despised right-wing extremist.

In both years, middle-of-the-road people showed surprising levels of support for significant social justice reforms. I've lived my entire adult life in the backlash to the 1960s, so it's remarkable to me that Lyndon Johnson could sign the Civil Right Act in 1964 and then be a widely popular presidential candidate -- in any subsequent Democratic presidency, something like that would have been seen as a tremendous risk of political capital. Johnson won a landslide in 1964 -- 44 states, 486 electoral votes, 61% of the popular vote. How was that possible? Middle-of-the-road voters were willing to embrace at least the most basic goals of the civil rights movement.

This seems like a similar moment. I expected a tremendous backlash to the George Floyd protests, but polls consistently show that the peaceful demonstrations, at least, are widely popular. Middle-of-the-road Americans now recognize racial injustice in policing and believe change is necessary.

Lyndon Johnson hadn't been known as a progressive champion, but he embraced the moment. Joe Biden's past is similar to LBJ's, but although he won't endorse the slogan "defund the police," he seems open to some significant reforms.

I think there are many possible outcomes to the 2020 election, including a Trump Electoral College victory, but it now seems reasonable to imagine that Biden can win by a wide (though not LBJ-size) margin.

But then what?

The civil rights, voting rights, and anti-poverty legislation Johnson supported didn't end racism or injustice. There was increasing unrest in the cities, along with youth protest against the Vietnam War and rising crime. In the 1966 midterms, the Republican Party gained 47 seats in the House and 3 seats in the Senate.

And then the GOP won five of the next six presidential elections, and won 40 or more states in all but one of those elections.

If you've read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, you know this story. I just hope we don't repeat it.

What if Biden wins big, Democrats take the Senate as well as the House, the federal government as well as states and localities embrace progressive change -- and the public decides that the changes aren't working? In particular, what happens if police forces are reformed, crime rises, and Democrats are blamed?

I want change, but it has to work. If it doesn't, the backlash could be massive. Republicans have a simple narrative about the 1960s: The lefties took over and everything went to hell.

Much of America believed it. Much of America still believes it. They're ready to dust it off for a new era.

Let's do this right. If we don't, we risk another half-century backlash.

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