I’ve witnessed, first hand, the decline in the ability of Americans to exercise critical thinking. To question what is presented to them and to figure out if it’s accurate or not before deciding to share it with others.
As more and more resources have become available to anyone willing to put in the time to do just a little bit of research, it appears that most people are less and less inclined to fact-check the things that they see before sharing them. Such is the pressure people feel to be part of a conversation—or a shouting match—usually within a social media bubble.
A friend of mine once shared a meme depicting the late Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, wearing the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. It listed positions that he ostensibly held in the KKK, noted that he was the Senate Majority Leader for a period of time and—in bold text at the bottom of the image—the word, “DEMOCRAT.”
The message that the meme seemed to imply was that Democrats are more likely to be racists than Republicans. This sparked a discussion about the policies and rhetoric espoused by the two major parties over the last century or so. As anyone else would be, I was tempted to chime in but, instead, I decided to check the accuracy of the claims made in the meme.
It is a matter of fact that Byrd was a member of the KKK. He said so himself,
“The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan... But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts…”
Byrd was also a Senate Majority leader, but the dates presented in the image (1989–2010) were not accurate. He actually served in that position twice, from 1977–1980 and from 1987–1988. Those may seem like insignificant discrepancies, but if we make a habit of ignoring small errors, then we’re setting ourselves up to potentially ignore bigger ones—especially if they resonate with our own opinions.
That Byrd was a Democrat is also factual.
However, where the ensuing debate about the image had me concerned is that responsibility for racism and racist acts were apparently being placed at the feet of political parties, suggesting that belonging to one party or another can accurately determine if a person is a racist. That is just not the case. I would dare say that most people—regardless of their political affiliation—are NOT overtly racist but that does not mean that they do not possess implicit biases regarding race nor perpetuate systemic racism without being consciously aware of it.
The Democratic Party is no more responsible for racism than the Republican Party. It's racist people who are responsible for racism and enacting policies that have historically favored whites and marginalized blacks and other minorities. Many of these racist people consolidate their political power wherever and whenever the opportunity to do so presents itself. In the 19th century, they co-opted the Democratic Party. In the 20th century—over time—they took control of the Republican Party. I’m not suggesting that everyone with racist tendencies are card-carrying members of the KKK, or even members of any particular party. Most of these people probably don’t even consider themselves racist or even realize how their views on race affect others.
It should be understood that an entity like a church, government, corporation, or political party, is NOT a living thing. They may represent ideologies and philosophies but in and of themselves, are incapable of creating or changing them because they are “legal fictions,” philosophical constructs that exist only in the minds of human beings—individually or collectively—and on paper, yet they are legally recognized as “persons,” in that they “… can do the things an everyday person can usually do in law – such as enter into contracts, sue and be sued, own property…”. etc. It still takes living, sentient human beings to do all of the thinking and acting of the “legal person,” but it’s the entity—the church/government/party, etc.—that gets the credit or the blame for the results of those actions. As such, the people behind the entity are collectively responsible but not personally liable.
I recall reading—in another thread on my friend’s social media feed—a discussion about the evolution of party policies. It was stated that “The republican platform was always the same…” Historical facts do not support this assertion. Even though so-called loyalists may treat a party’s most recent platform with more reverence than they would the dogmas of their personal religions, that doesn’t mean those platforms haven’t changed—and will continue to change—over time. No political party can maintain the same roster of members during the course of its existence because the duration of political parties can span multiple generations. As people come and go from a party over the years—mostly by dying off—priorities and objectives change to match the interests of those people. The party itself may have been founded on certain principles and goals at the time of its incorporation but that doesn’t mean that future members of that party won’t take it into a completely different—or even opposite—direction.
It is an historical fact that the Republican Party—founded in opposition to the expansion of slavery—was originally composed of people that supported “Classical liberalism,” which advocated for civil liberties, i.e. “...being subject only to laws established for the good of the community, especially with regard to freedom of action and speech… [where] individual rights [are] protected by law from unjust governmental or other interference.”
Those who identified themselves as members of the Democratic Party in the 19th century held fast to such ideological positions as “...[viewing] the central government as the enemy of individual liberty... tended to oppose programs like educational reform...” and fiercely defended the institution of slavery.
In the decade that immediately followed the Civil War, Republicans controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. It was during this time that the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution were ratified (Ending slavery—for the most part—defining citizenship, establishing due process and equal protection, and prohibiting the denial of the right to vote based on race, color or having been a slave, respectively)—today, we collectively refer to these as “Civil Rights.” The GOP also saw the first generation of African-American Congressman, all Republicans—why would they not join the party of Lincoln, the man that freed the slaves?
|Senator Hiram Revels (R) Mississippi
This bit of trivia has been shared in other memes, one pointed out the fact that the first black Congressman—a Republican—took office in 1870; while the Democratic Party did not have a black representative elected to Congress until 1935. Modern conservatives will point to a meme such as this as clear evidence that the Republican Party can’t be racist nor can it support racist policies nor can it be hostile to the black community. How could it be, when they were the first to seat a black congressman only 5 years after the end of the Civil War? Oh, and if Democrats are so friendly to blacks, why did it take them 65 more years before they had a black representative?
Prior to the passing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare.”), another meme that made the rounds in conservative circles dubbed, in some cases, as “A quick history lesson,” illustrated the partisan divide on four pieces of legislation: The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution—as described above—and “Obamacare,” showing that Republicans supported passage of the amendments but they did not support healthcare reform. The message was clear, Republicans supported abolishing slavery, equal protection, and the right to vote, but they were against healthcare reform, and since no sensible person would dare argue that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments should not have been ratified, it should be inferred that their position on “Obamacare” was the correct and moral one. Other memes allude to the irony that “…The party who freed the slaves and fought for civil rights is being called ‘racist’ by the party that owned the slaves and started the KKK.” These are excellent examples of false equivalence.
Taken at face value—as most memes are—they might seem like convincing arguments. Unfortunately, while most of the elements are factual, they lack important historical context.
History is made by people, not parties. Any political party that an historical figure may have belonged to is incidental to their actions. People who called themselves Republicans may have “freed the slaves and fought for civil rights,” but the “party” itself is ultimately just some documents filed away in a government office that can’t do anything.
While it can be inferred that many slave owners were Democrats, that doesn’t mean that “the party… owned the slaves…” Nor did the party found the KKK. The credit for that belongs to Confederate veterans—and if those same veterans happened to be Democrats, again, it’s only incidental.
Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes ended the Reconstruction Era when he ordered the withdrawal of federal troops from the former confederate states. With a diminished Federal presence, southern whites (mostly Democrats) did everything they could—within the law—to subjugate African-Americans.
African-American members of Congress were exclusively Republican through the end of the 19th Century… which is around the time that Jim Crow Laws were introduced, making it very difficult for blacks to vote—to say nothing of being elected. As Republicans became more focussed on business and the economy, the progressive changes to the Constitution that it oversaw—and the black community that they were supposed to protect—were effectively forgotten. The GOP may have seated the first black members of Congress, but from 1902-1928, there were no black representatives from any political party.
In 1929, Oscar Stanton—a black Republican from Illinois (“The Land of Lincoln”)—would be the last black Republican elected to Congress until 1967. There wouldn’t be another black representative elected from a former Confederate state until 1972—Barbara Jordon from Texas, and she was a Democrat.
Since the Great Depression, there have been 140 African-Americans in Congress. Of those, only nine have been Republicans. This begs the question: Why would African-Americans—mostly descendants of slaves—abandon the party of Lincoln by nearly 16-to-1 over just a few generations?
It’s simply because—in reality—even though the Republican and Democratic Parties have continued to exist as entities, their composition is always changing. Their philosophies, policies, and platforms are constantly being revised and rewritten to reflect the interests of the different people who come and go over time.
The progressive Republican party that freed the slaves, added civil protections to the Constitution, busted up business monopolies, and safeguarded the environment, was slowly taken over by white capitalists who cared more about maximizing profits for “legal persons” i.e. businesses/corporations—many of which benefited immensely from slave labor in their early existence—than protecting the interests of actual people, especially former slaves and their descendants.
Making a conscious choice to shift one's allegiance from one political party to another is not unheard of but such changes are not rooted in individuals coming to accept the differing socioeconomic views of former political rivals. More often, it's because the leadership—those individuals that are in control of the party's message and platform—are more willing to abandon the founding principles of the party for the sake of political expediency, i.e. to adjust their thinking in ways they believe will secure more power for themselves, even if it means embracing policies that the party was founded to oppose.
Strom Thurmond—a Democratic governor that ran for President as a segregationist “Dixiecrat”—famously switched to the Republican Party in 1964, saying, “The Democratic party has abandoned the people.” Similarly, it is often reported that Ronald Reagan defended his political switch in the early 1960s by saying, “I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
This begs the question, where did the party go? What were the Democrats doing at that time?
|LBJ, MLK, et. al in the Oval
Over that same period of time, those that still believed in the progressive legacy of the GOP—politically active African-Americans in particular—no longer felt welcome in the “Party of Lincoln.” Instead of going through the trouble of forming a new political party, it was much simpler to just fill the void left by the conservative Democrats who decided to rebrand themselves as Republicans. Thus, the Democratic Party came to represent—ostensibly—the Classical Liberalism upon which the Republican Party was originally founded,
I think a lot of the confusion—and cognitive dissonance—that we're witnessing in these memes and the attitudes of many people who disseminate them is rooted in a desire to be associated with a simple label instead of a nuanced philosophy or ideology. It's much easier to just declare, “I'm a Republican!” and be done with it, than to say, “I'm a conservative,” simply because “conservatism” can mean different things to different people—even among card-carrying Republicans. Those who consider themselves “Progressive” or “Liberal” may identify themselves as “Democrats” simply because no one party can claim ownership of “liberalism.”
The problem with linking one's political views inextricably with a specific party is clearly evident in these memes. 21st-century conservatives are trying to take credit for the actions of 19th-century progressives, not because their platforms and rhetoric are the same—they’re not—but based solely on the fact that they both wore the “Republican” label.
Conservatives—consciously or not—support policies rooted in white supremacy, including voter suppression of African-American and Hispanic communities, but they deny any racist motives because they belong to the Republican Party and it was Republicans that freed the slaves.
Conservatives, through legislation and litigation, act fervently to infringe on the rights of women and to deny equal protection for LGBTQ-Americans, yet they insist that they are the original champions of Civil Rights citing the efforts of Republicans to pass the Reconstruction Amendments after the civil war.
That the Republican Party in the 19th century was composed largely of political liberals is incomprehensible to many modern conservatives who find it difficult—if not impossible—to separate their ideology from their party. Of those who can comprehend it, many choose to either ignore it or try to deny it.
I don't think that this reaction is evidence of a deliberate attempt on the part of modern conservatives to deceive anyone. I think it's simply a matter of not wanting to be associated with the reprehensible acts of conservatives that came before them. It's much easier for Republicans to vilify past conservatives simply because they don't have to call them “conservatives,” just Democrats. Blame the party to protect the philosophy.
I get it. No one wants to think that if they lived in America prior to the Civil War that they would have supported slavery or would have been indifferent to it. But if we take a moment to consider our own attitudes to the legacy of slavery, it might give us some insight into what our attitudes would have been, had we lived in that time. Generally speaking, modern conservatives choose to ignore that any sort of problem exists. That slavery ended with the Civil War and anything identified as being a residual issue is most likely rooted in other causes—though when asked for examples, the answers themselves are usually based on racial biases, some implicit, others explicit.
For today's conservative Republicans to claim the progressive accomplishments of 19th century progressive Republicans as their own is disingenuous. Especially when they try to use those accomplishments to validate a philosophy that could never achieve them.
To quote a friend with whom I served in the U.S. Navy:
“This is how public perception works. You don’t get uplifted by the best of those in your group [especially if their contributions were in the distant past]; you get judged by the worst of what you tolerate.”
Update: Got an interesting comment when I shared this article on Facebook...
7/3/2020: This essay has been revised for purposes of clarification.