I've been reading Rick Perlstein's gripping account of the sixties, Nixonland, and it's a little disconcerting, since I lived through it, how much I need to be reminded about what was going on then, particularly about the controversies surrounding school desegregation and open housing in 1965-66, both years of unprecedentedly violent summer rioting. As I am reading, I remember what it felt like to live through those times as a teenager growing up in a Main Street New York suburb. The situation for people my age was ambiguous because our high school teachers were mostly liberal and our parents mostly conservative.
My wife grew up in the Bronx in a working class, mostly Irish and Italian neighborhood. There was no ambiguity there because her neighborhood was on the front line. Blacks were the enemy who were destroying everything white ethnics had striven for, and the liberals weren't doing enough to protect them and their interests. Although they were life-long Democrats, Liberalism became for these people a dirty name.
But Liberals and moderates were in a politically impossible predicament in the mid to late sixties. They were caught in the middle between, on the one hand, a had-it-up-to-here black community which sought to force change, and on the other hand, ordinary white Americans who were scared to death they were seeing the beginning of a new race-driven Civil War in which their neighborhoods were the battleground. Their concerns were dismissed by too many Liberal elites as racist, but those Liberals were not forced to pay the price the way these urban white ethnics were. These Liberals were not living on the "race war's" front lines. Much more should have been done to compensate working class urban whites for the price they paid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead they were looked at as Archie Bunkers--more a part of the problem than victims of historical happenstance. From their resentful ranks Nixon and later Reagan found the electoral pickens easy.
Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, and the Watts riots began August 11. How was the juxtaposition of these two events interpreted at the time? From Johnson's and the liberal perspective: "This is how "they" thank us?" From the African American perspective: "What do you expect? It's all too little, too late." From the southern white perspective: "We told you this was going to happen. You Liberals don't know what you're doing."
But what could a decent, intelligent president, governor, or mayor, liberal or otherwise, with common sense have done once the rioting began? Read the history to see how haplessly they flailed, but really there was nothing more for them to do except contain the chaos, limit the damage, and wait it out. As we see now in retrospect, the violence did eventually dissipate and we survived. But from the perspective of 1965, it looked like things would only get worse--and in the short run they did get worse. And so those who advocated using force to put the demon back in the box won the day, and the foundation for the conservative backlash was laid. Reading Perlstein has convinced me that the racial politics of the sixties was the biggest reason for the de-legitimation of Liberalism on Main Street, while also convincing me it was Liberalism's finest hour.
I have written here that I am a Burkean and a subsidiarist, which means that I am against top-downism except when the situation at the bottom requires interventions from higher levels of political organization. Government has the fundamental responsibility to protect the rights of its individual citizens to life and liberty. On the one hand subsidiarity justified the federal intervention on the local level to protect the rights of African Americans against local laws that abused their basic rights. On the other it had the responsibility to protect the rights of the people, blacks and whites, whose property and livelihoods were being destroyed in the rioting. But to think of this situation as a simple issue of law and order would be absurd. All the moral posturing by whites about the criminality of blacks was ridiculous. The rule of law had to be maintained as best as possible, but both sides were morally culpable. We're talking about a social explosion that can only be understood as blowback resulting from the stupidity, rigidity, and profound moral failures of earlier generations. Liberals both accepted white culpability while trying to maintain the rule of law, and in doing so developed a public profile that seemed wishy-washy, neither here nor there, and they bore the brunt of blame for causing and being ineffectual in controlling the violence that ensued.
In '64 and '65 the unjust laws in place at the local and state level for almost a hundred years were rightly overturned by the Federal government. But unless you're willing to argue that Lincoln should have let the Union split in order to allow the Confederacy to "evolve" at its own pace, it's hard to argue against the case that the Feds should have finished what they started and been more persistent to insure the equal protection of its most vulnerable new Black citizens. It gave up on that when Hayes withdrew the troops from the South in '77, and the South went back to being the South. I know it was a mess, but the problems of the 1960s have to be traced back to the many levels of failure by both the locals and the Feds in 1870s. Blacks paid the price.
The Feds were too corrupt and hadn't the will to prevent enactment of the Jim Crow laws. So to use Rev. Wright's term, America's chickens were going to come home to roost sooner or later. The outlaws during the post-reconstruction period were the Klan and its allies, and they should have been treated as terrorists--but they were supported by a the local culture that saw them as freedom fighters against the oppressive, sanctimonious Yankees. Were the Yankee Feds without fault? Of course not--they made horrible, criminal mistakes--but they were more right than wrong, and history and social sanity were on the Yankees' side. The South's moral failure to accept its defeat, its moral culpability for slavery, and its failure to control the hate-driven fanatics among them in the post-reconstruction period were the causea of the explosion that occurred in the sixties. The blowback from Black Americans was inevitable. The surprising thing is it took so long.
Maybe realistically nothing was possible on a political level during the reconstruction and post-reconstruction period because the cultural attitudes were so vicious. Perhaps the real failure isn't with the politicians but with the southern churches who were more collaborators with Jim Crow than resistant to it. Had there been a robust, real Christianity in the South, it would have found a way of brokering over time at the local level what the Feds finally had to forcibly impose from outside. However you want to understand the causes, the race situation was a boil on the American soul, and the civil rights legislation in the 1960s lanced it, and the riots were the necessary release of all the built up infection that had festered for generations. Until it was released, real social healing was not a possibility.
Does this line of thinking legitimate the violence and destruction perpetrated by angry blacks during the 1960s? No, and I would say that individual blacks who promoted or participated in the violence were morally culpable as individuals. But the politician isn't a priest or minister, and from his perspective he had to deal with reality, and it was a reality impossible to manage in an effective way once the boil had been lanced because the infection had been allowed to fester too long. And so Liberals who were in charge at the time looked like ineffectual fools. Liberalism got its bad name because a Liberal became defined by his letting the demon out while refusing to use all the violent force at his disposal to put the demon back in the box. You were a liberal if you resisted the idea that the only way to treat the angry black problem was the same way Americans treated the Indian problem in the 19th century. Force them back into a box and sit on the lid. That's the repressive conservative mentality, and even if it works in the short run, it just creates bigger problems for others to deal with in the future.
I have claimed Burke as one of my intellectual influences in thinking about social change, and I don't think what I've written above contradicts Burke. The Civil Rights legislation of the sixties was not a Jacobin program to engineer utopia; it was the simple insistence that Black Americans should get equal protection under the law when locals were themselves incapable of solving the problem themselves.Healing could not happen until the boil had been lanced, so any talk of taking it slow or letting things evolve at their own pace was ridiculous in the late sixties. The riots were evolution taking its course, and their violence was blowback from a long history of white violence toward Black Americans.
The liberals were right to force the civil rights legislation, and it was probably good that they were naive about the explosion they were triggering because they wouldn't have had the political will to pass the legislation if they were shrewder about the consequences. But they got the blame for the pain, and with it the bad name to this day associated with appeasement and permissiveness. The Liberal brand was trashed, perhaps for good, on Main Street.
I'm not saying two wrongs make a right, but only that anyone who thinks that there isn't a price to be paid for profound historical injustices doesn't understand how history works. We took our medicine in the sixties--it wasn't pleasant, but we're better off for it now. Had the legislation failed, the boil would have continued to fester, and today the American situation would be similar to the Israeli/Palestinian one. The sixties, for all their violence and chaos, were a necessary phase in healing the American soul. The election of Barack Obama this fall will be a sign of how far in fact that healing has progressed.
Two final points: Are we completely healed? No. We saw that in Appalachian vote and in some areas where the memory of urban ethnics extends back to the racial turmoil of the sixties. I don't think there's any question that the resentments and racial fears stimulated then still linger. Are there enough Americans with those fears and resentments to sink Obama's candidacy? A lot of people think so, but I don't. I think we've come further than that, but we'll see.
Second, is traditional Liberalism making a comeback with the likes of Obama? I think Liberalism is a bad name for what Obama represents. A subsidiarist Social Democrat in the New Deal tradition better describes what he is (and I am) than the term "Liberal". The only intellectually consistent Liberals today are Libertarians, and they tend to lean toward the right. I personally reject being labeled a Liberal because I reject political and economic Libertarianism and because I'm a Catholic, and the concept Liberal Catholic is historically and intellectually oxymoronic.
Progressive works better for me than liberal. I believe that there is a meaning and purpose to history, and I believe that human consciousness evolves in fits and starts toward its Omega point. And I believe that the sixties were such a fitful evolutionary step forward, even if during the Nixon/Reagan/Clinton/Bush era we took a step backward.
I could be wrong, but I think we're ready, eager in fact, to start moving forward again, and it's fitting that we are given the choice this fall between an aging, ineloquent, crony libertarian and a young, eloquent black/white progressive. We are being given a choice between an obsolete, decadent form of fragmented thinking that plays on our security fears on one hand, and on the other a vigorous new kind of integrated thinking that embraces the future. Americans, for all their fears, ignorance, and moral failings, sooner or later do the right thing. I think they'll do it in November.