The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Franken the Hack rewrites history

Regular readers will know that I have no love for the Bush administration, and am perfectly open to evidence that they have done violence to truth for political advantage.

Experience has shown that there plenty of such evidence, and no sign of the supply drying up any time soon.

Instead of supplying some, in an op-ed in the LA Times [1] yesterday, Al Franken gives us a piece of Swift Boat work that Karl Rove himself would surely admire. One assumes he takes his audience to be either too ill-informed to know better or too partisan to let facts get in the way of a good Dean scream.

The burden of his skit seems to be that the Republican calendar issued in connection with Black History Month, evidently an effort to win black friends for the GOP, merely demonstrates that the party has done nothing for them for decades: is true that Republicans have been involved in civil rights issues for a century and a half. For the first 100 or so years, they were the party that was "for" civil rights.

Then they switched sides with the Democrats, and for half a century they've been more involved on the "against" side.

Franken, as a polemicist, covers himself as a comedian. He rants with his Harvard-researched facts against the lying liars - but, when called on such travesties as the one quoted, he can say, Lighten up! Can't you take a joke?That's some nice shtick!

The history is much more interesting than Franken's joke - but less useful for partisan purposes.

The anti-slavery line that the GOP started with was informed by the likes of Lincoln's Illinois whose citizens were keen not to free the slaves but to keep the competition of slave labour out of their state. The gradual introduction by Lincoln as president of abolition as a reason for prosecuting the war illustrates the various and changing views within the Republican Party before and during the war about the slavery question. And, after the war, the Radicals' zeal in reconstructing the South abated soon enough.

The truth is the Republicans had little interest in ameliorating the conditions of Negroes in the period from 1877 to 1932, especially votes cast by Negroes in that period mostly went Republican anyway [2].

The Eisenhower adminstration was able to outflank the Democrats on civil rights only because of the extreme intransigeance on the issue of the Dems in Congress.

A reasonable summary would suggest that, from the end of Reconstruction onwards until 1960, neither party was much interested in the Negro - certainly not if a substantial electoral price would be paid for so doing. For instance, the civil rights plank that split the Dems in 1948 is breathtakingly modest [3].

And, on civil rights, Truman, like Franklin Roosevelt,
...did nothing in particular,
And did it very well

The Russell Riley book (that I mentioned on February 14) has a useful section on Truman (p155ff) distinctly more plausible than Franken's (a)historical efforts.

Whilst part of Truman's decision to act on civil rights - so far as forming a committee, at least - was due to changed post-war times, it was also electorally driven. Riley has a quote from a 1948 book Balance of Power: The Negro Vote which starts
The Negro's political influence in national elections derives not so much from its numerical strength as from its strategic diffusion in balance-of-power and marginal states whose electoral votes are generally considered vital to the winning candidate. In the 1944 elections there were twenty-eight states in which a shift of 5 per cent or less of the popular vote would have reversed the electoral votes cast by these states. In twelve of these, with a total of 228 electoral college votes, the potential Negro vote exceeds the number required to shift the states from one column to the other.

Of the 28, OH and IN went GOP; NY, NJ, PA, IL, MI, MO, DE, MD, WV and KY (190 EVs) went Democratic. FDR won 432-99.

And (p158) GOP candidates in 1946
[in] many areas... successfully wooed black voters by raising the continuing specter of "Bilboism" as the controlling influence in a Democratic Congress.

Ah, Bilbo. Think Franken has heard of him?

The President's Committee on Civil Rights duly reported, Truman adopted its findings [4], and then wished he hadn't. Riley notes a memo from Clark Clifford supporting the adoption for three reasons
  1. Dewey, Truman's presumptive opponent, had a good record on civil rights.

  2. A Henry Wallace candidacy threatened to slice off liberal support.

  3. Southern voters would know the proposals would be blocked in the Senate, and continue their support.

So Truman sent a message to Congress on February 2 1948, promising to send a civil rights bill. And all hell broke loose; there was no bill ever sent. The civil rights plank was passed despite Truman's lobbying against it.

Only after the Dixiecrat bolt did Truman do the minimum and issue Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 to desegregate the Federal government and US forces respectively. Which paid off handsomely: an NAACP poll gave him 69% of Negro votes in 27 cities (p164) - enough to put Truman over the top?

Then, nothing. Riley mentions the fight on the cloture rule in February-March 1949 (February 21) - Truman made a thunderingly unhelpful intervention [5] in his March 3 press conference: his endorsement of a simple majority for cloture ensured the triumph of the Southern Caucus.

Kennedy's approach to civil rights was similarly politically driven, and, for a long time, similarly devoted to accommodating the Southern Caucus. He was finding it difficult getting any legislation through (his troubles with Medicare I looked at on February 5 and February 7), let alone a direct assault on the Southern way of life.

His caution extended to Olympic-standard foot-dragging on issuing an Executive Order desegregating Federally financed housing - eventually EO 11063 was made on November 20 1962.

But, when the balance of advantage dictated that he should dump the South, he did so (as I discussed on February 20).

And, of course, the legislation concerned - The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 - only passed in Senate because of Republican votes [6].

Now, having broken the back of the problem of civil rights legislation for Democratic presidents impotent to do as much for themselves, the Republicans naturally moved to fill the vacancy left by the Dems' desertion of the South. As Lyndon Johnson forecast in his famous comment to Bill Moyers.

But - strangely unremarked on by Franken - Richard Nixon, the Southern Strategy guy, advanced the cause of civil rights as president. The idea of affirmative action was fostered under his administration.

Just as the current administration virtually threw in the towel in the Michigan University cases when it had the chance to strike a blow against affirmative in college admissions.

What Franken clearly can't stand is his own party's record of sanctifying slavery, perpetrating treason and enforcing segregation. One has to wonder at the nimbleness of this little shuffle:
It's harder to find real achievements in the years since the Dixiecrats jumped the aisle, fleeing the old Democratic Party of Eastland, Stennis and Russell to their sunny home in the new Republican Party of Goldwater, Helms and Trent "We-Wouldn't-Have-Had-All-These-Problems" Lott.

All is now clear: those Southerners who voted so reliably [7] for Democrats for president, and for the members of Congress who made Democratic control of either house possible, weren't Democrats at all! They were Dixiecrats. A whole different party. And so, presumably, were those senators and Congressmen they voted for, who snuck their way into all those committee chairmanships they weren't entitled to. Because they weren't Democrats at all.

Who knew?

Franken's opening gag -
Cynics like to say that February was chosen as Black History Month because it's the shortest month.
might lead you to doubt it. But when you read
This is typical Republican race-baiting: the cynical use of race to push an agenda.
you're reassured: the guy really is a comedian.

  1. He covered much the same ground - and just as lamely - in his February 1 show (starting around 14:55 in on the MP3 available for download here).

  2. One initiative during this period, which features in the calendar (January 26 entry), and previously discussed here, is the Dyer antilynching bill of 1922. My surmise is that the Republican leadership were happy to see the Dyer bill advance in the knowledge it would come to grief in the Senate at the hands of the Democrats: a purely political manoeuvre of small expectations but low cost.

  3. The text of the platforms going back to the 1840s are at the American Presidency Project.

    The 1948 Democratic platform says on civil rights:

    The Democratic Party is responsible for the great civil rights gains made in recent years in eliminating unfair and illegal discrimination based on race, creed or color.

    The Democratic Party commits itself to continuing its efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination.

    We again state our belief that racial and religious minorities must have the right to live, the right to work, the right to vote, the full and equal protection of the laws, on a basis of equality with all citizens as guaranteed by the Constitution.

    We highly commend President Harry S. Truman for his courageous stand on the issue of civil rights.

    We call upon the Congress to support our President in guaranteeing these basic and fundamental American Principles: (1) the right of full and equal political participation; (2) the right to equal opportunity of employment; (3) the right of security of person; (4) and the right of equal treatment in the service and defense of our nation.

  4. Pretty much the final paragraph of the 1948 platform as quoted above: anti-poll tax, FEPC, antilynching, forces desegregation.

  5. Which could hardly have been anything but deliberate. Truman, as a former border state senator, would not have required briefing to appreciate the effect his statement would have on the Southern Caucus - and on the border and Western senators who spanned the gap between 22 and 33 on any cloture motion to come along.

  6. The 1964 bill produced a succession of around 120 roll call votes virtually without the intrusion of any other topic. On the cloture vote (RC 302 on June 10 1964), 27 Republicans voted in favour; it passed 71-29.

    The motion to refer the VRA to the SJC (RC 32 on March 18 1965) passed 67-13: Dems 42-11, GOP 25-2; there were 31 GOP members at that date (I think). Flip 29 votes, and - QED. (The maths is unnecessary, of course: the Republicans had definitively whipped the South the year before!)

  7. My guess is that, of all Confederate EVs cast between 1900 and 1960, fewer than 2% did not go to the Dem candidate.

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