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“A Call To Political Responsibility”: The Roots And Lessons Of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.

Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.

Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.

We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.

The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.

Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.

The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.

It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.

Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: a nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.

Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.

But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 25, 2016

May 30, 2016 Posted by | Civil War, Decoration Day, Memorial Day | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Acknowledgment Of Where We’ve Been”: Tubman’s Twenty Moves Us Closer To A More Perfect Union

The journey toward a more perfect union was quickened with the announcement that Harriet Tubman, abolitionist, Union spy and activist for women’s suffrage, will grace the front of the $20 bill. The Tubman twenty will be unveiled in 2020, timed to honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

She will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency in more than a century and the first black American ever. That a black woman who was born a slave will be given such a prominent commemoration is a testament to American exceptionalism, a reminder of the nation’s slow and erratic but continuing march toward a more just version of itself.

Not all Americans see it that way, of course. Some are already grumbling about the demotion of Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, to the back of the bill. (Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren has called the change “stupid.”) Others insist that the Treasury has simply caved to an ill-conceived political correctness. (Donald Trump claims that’s the case.) A few will venture commentary that has no place in polite society.

Indeed, the announcement of a revamped and more-inclusive currency comes at a fascinating time in our politics, a time when a sizable portion of the electorate is roiled by anger, agitation and fear. While some of that anxiety has its roots in economic uncertainty, much of it — especially among the supporters of Trump’s presidential bid — has its foundation in a deep-seated resentment of the nation’s changing demographics.

It’s no accident that Trump — who is among the “birthers” who insist President Barack Obama is not an American — leads the Republican presidential field while denouncing Mexican immigrants and denigrating Muslims. There is a substantial minority of white American voters who are threatened by the loss of numerical advantage, furious over the election of a black president, and resentful of the growing racial and ethnic diversity in American life.

Trump and his supporters have dominated the political narrative in this election season and ignited a civil war inside the Republican Party. They have panicked the Republican establishment. They have set off alarm bells in faraway capitals.

Yet, the racially intolerant are losing the battle for primacy in the American story. They no longer dominate the nation’s culture or mythology, as the changes in the currency illustrate.

Last year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew invited the public to comment on his decision to recast a paper bill to feature a woman. Of the 15 women suggested by the activist group Women on 20s, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony and Rosa Parks, Tubman received the most votes.

A genuine American hero, she deserves the honor. As a young woman, she escaped the Maryland plantation that had enslaved her, and then made several trips back to assist others. Over a little more than a decade, she helped around 70 enslaved men and women find their way to freedom, traveling by night, using ingenious disguises and employing the hideouts established by the Underground Railroad.

She became an outspoken advocate for abolition, and when the Civil War broke out, she worked first as a cook and a nurse, and later as a scout and spy for the Union Army. After the war ended, she moved to a home she had purchased in upstate New York and campaigned for women’s suffrage.

Giving her prominence on the $20 bill forces the nation to acknowledge its original sin, slavery, as does demoting Jackson, a slaveowner. An accurate history further notes that the seventh president was notorious for his brutal treatment of native Americans, whom he forcibly removed from their lands. From now on, it will be difficult for history texts to ignore Tubman or to venerate Jackson.

Lew plans other changes, as well. A depiction of a 1913 march for women’s suffrage will be added to the back of the $10 bill, as will portraits of leaders of that movement. Images of Marian Anderson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt will be added to the back of the $5 bill.

That’s as it should be. The journey toward a more perfect union demands an acknowledgment of where we’ve been.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker Haynes, Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary in 2007; Featured Post, The National Memo, April 23, 2016

April 24, 2016 Posted by | American Exceptionalism, Harriet Tubman, Women's Suffrage Movement | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Ignorance, Racism And Rage”: The GOP’s Transformation To The Party Of Stupid Started Long Before Donald Trump

The top leadership of the Republican Party expresses horror at the popularity of Donald Trump as though his positions and values are somehow alien from their own. This is disingenuous. As other commentators have observed, the presidential candidacy of the bigoted, misogynist, ignorant Trump is a creature of the party’s own making.

This Frankentrump was not fashioned in a mere eight years, however. The Obama administration suffered only from an acceleration of Republican partisanship, not a change in its character. Instead, the transformation of the Republican base from the conscience-driven party of Lincoln to the anger-driven party of Trump has been a half-century in the making.

No political party neatly reflects political philosophy, of course. Parties always aim to mobilize diverse — and therefore conflicting — constituencies in order to win. But the original Republican Party, formed in 1854 after the Democrat-sponsored Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned decades of federal policy against the spread of slavery, came close to embodying the political philosophy behind it. And the founding Republican philosophy was liberal.

Not liberal in the sense the term came to be used in the twentieth century, to signify commitment to the type of federal welfare policies enacted in the New Deal of the Democrats. Not liberal as either epithet or fixed policy commitment. And certainly not liberal as in morally loose.

To be liberal in the nineteenth century meant to be devoted to freedom of thought above all. Above tradition, the American liberals who helped found the Republican Party valued the freedom to choose what is right and the freedom to develop socially, intellectually, and morally toward the highest possible potential. This is why liberals favored public schools for all children, which started in Massachusetts in the 1830s and only got established in the South thanks to Reconstruction.

The liberal principle of “moral agency,” as they called this divine right and duty to choose, also lay behind Republican opposition to slavery. Slaves cannot choose if they are coerced by their so-called masters, and if slaves have no moral choices they cannot develop. The liberal moral ethic centered on independent, open-ended thinking, constructive dialogue across differences, and a belief in the divine potential of every human being. Even slaves.

“Liberty of conscience” is how the Republican Party platform of 1856 gestured to its liberal roots. The phrase came from old Protestant arguments over whether Christians are free to believe non-Calvinist ideas, but it developed secular, political uses over the nineteenth century and lay behind the opposition to the expansion of slavery for which Republicans originally stood. Lincoln stated the liberal faith most robustly, perhaps, at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address of 1860: “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

This got the Republican Party boycotted in the (white) South, not only during the years of the Confederate rebellion but long after.

Most Republicans, including Lincoln, were unsure just how equal African Americans could be, but some Republicans in Congress favored complete civil equality for the former slaves and their descendants. They drove the first civil rights legislation, including the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery and providing the rights of voting and due process under the law regardless of race. The first African-American members of Congress were Republican.

The Democrats ran the party of white supremacy. Woodrow Wilson — the Virginian who segregated the federal government — knew how to keep the South in the Democratic fold. So did Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who allowed his New Deal policies to be administered in such discriminatory ways that one historian claims they amounted to affirmative action for whites.

The Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower is the leader who submitted civil-rights legislation to Congress to combat Jim Crow in 1957. It was Democrats in Congress who watered the bill down.

The partisan poles of the United States changed after the dramatic activism of the 1950s and early ‘60s prompted the Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sending white Southern and white working-class Democrats into Republican arms.

The Republican wooing of these voters took time and delicacy. Never did its strategists aim to become the party of blatant racism. Instead, they created concepts like the “moral majority,” “religious right,” “family values” and even color-blindness in order to attract white voters concerned about African-American socio-economic and political gains. And in so doing, they betrayed their moral roots in three ways.

First, Republicans allowed bigotry safe haven under the guise of morality, in the very name of morality, by broadcasting scary tales of black urban life as though it were proof of the irredeemable inferiority of African Americans. From the Southern Strategy of Nixon to the cynical electioneering of Lee Atwater, the campaign manager for George H. W. Bush, the line was straight. In 1981, Atwater explained that by 1968, the N-word repelled voters rather than attracting them, so he trained Republicans to “say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.” Reagan acted his part in disdaining welfare queens and “young bucks,” a phrase straight out of the antebellum South. In 1994, Charles Murray broadcast pseudo-scientific racism in “The Bell Curve” — amazingly, Murray is still in service today — arguing that so-called blacks simply are less intelligent and moral, if more athletic, than whites. Donald Trump’s retweets from white supremacist origins are consistent with this Republican precedent.

Second, the Republican Party adopted fixed positions on issues. The nineteenth-century liberal commitment to open-mindedness had meant that any position was only provisional, awaiting the testimony of further evidence or wider viewpoints for modification. For many decades now, the Republicans have insisted that lowering taxes, beefing up the military, and cutting social programs are what America needs. They oppose abortion because they need white evangelical voters, so Republican politicians claim that the resemblance of a fetus to a baby is more important than the resemblance of a criminal to a human being — Republicans favor the death penalty, after all, which they have to reconcile with their so-called pro-life conviction. Along comes Trump, calling for women who terminate their pregnancies to be punished.

Finally, the Republican Party has increasingly refused to engage in meaningful dialogue with its opponents. It has betrayed its origins in the culture of learning by attacking higher education in the United States — the colleges and universities all too liable to teach young people how to think critically — and by trying to privatize public education in the names of meritocracy and religious freedom. At the very least, Republican strategists have undermined public schoolteachers and pathologized urban schoolchildren. By deploying the language of culture wars, left versus right and liberal versus conservative, Republican strategists have fed a polarization allegedly too extreme to tolerate constructive dialogue toward consensus.

No wonder Frankentrump cannot even tolerate debate with his fellow Republican contenders for the nomination.

Since 2008, it seems that the top Republican leadership has realized that it must curry favor with voters other than white evangelicals, white workers and the moneyed elite. But it is too late for Trump’s enthusiasts to get the memo. Whenever thinkers concoct slogans, they produce culture. And the culture Republican strategists produced is decidedly illiberal.

To echo the words of Malcolm X in 1963, the Trump candidacy is as clear a case of chickens coming home to roost as ever history did see.

 

By: Amy Kittlestrom, serves on The Editorial Board of The Journal of American History; Associate Professor at Sonoma State University;  Salon, April 9, 2016

April 11, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Old Songs With New Refrains”: ‘Religious Freedom’ Laws Are About Freedom To Discriminate

Across the land, heroic male legislators are rising up to protect the lives and virtue of women and girls from sexual predators.

They are not, as one might hope, enacting laws that would prevent men convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms, even though that would surely save precious female lives.

Nor are they working with colleges and universities to ensure fair investigations of campus sexual assault, even though this would greatly help many a female coed.

And, alas, they aren’t doing anything to help or prod police agencies to process the backlogs of rape kits, even though this would surely put many more violent sex offenders behind bars.

No, the state legislators — instigated mostly by Republican members — are obsessed with women and girls’ use of the bathroom. They’re freaked out that someone who was born male but who now identifies as female could wind up in the neighboring stall.

North Carolina is the latest state to mount this little charade of chivalry. In a special session Wednesday, with mere minutes for members to read and digest the bill’s language, the legislature decreed that municipalities could not pass antidiscrimination laws protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In other words: People in the state must use the bathroom designated by the gender on their birth certificate.

The move is part of a broad backlash against the American public’s growing acceptance that sexual orientation and gender identity are privacy issues that deserve respect and civil rights protection. It flared up in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling clearing legal obstacles to gay marriage.

When it comes to bathrooms, legislators express concern about sexual predators using more open bathroom access to attack vulnerable women and girls. Yet there is no trend of such attacks. A more honest conversation with transgender people would make that point. But honest dialogue isn’t how this is playing out — although it did play a decisive role in convincing South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard to veto his state legislature’s bathroom bill.

What proponents can’t get over is that national attitudes have shifted rapidly in regard to lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people. People have by and large given LGBT people a fair hearing and have decided they deserve fair treatment. Much of what remains of the opposition is draped with the cloak of religion. Hence the plethora of so-called religious freedom laws and amendments, whose real aims are such things as keeping homosexuals from becoming foster parents or barring transgender people from using the restroom they choose — in other words, keeping them from being accepted in society. Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas are a few of the states where such bills have been passed, executive orders have been issued, or where such measures are under consideration.

Corporate and sporting entities see the danger. The NFL has warned Georgia that it could lose the opportunity to host the Super Bowl. The NCAA has made its intolerance for legalized discrimination known to Missouri and Indiana. And companies as diverse as Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Disney and MasterCard have also asserted their distaste for doing future business where these proposals may pass into law.

The companies get it. They know that “open to the public” means all of the public. No one is saying that anyone’s church must marry gay people.

Here is what proponents of the bills do not tell you: Sexual orientation and gender identity are not universally protected in America. In many cities and states, you can be fired, denied a house or an apartment simply because the boss or seller or landlord believes that you are gay.

The lack of legal protection for the LGBT people is what these disingenuous legislators are using as a basis for further deceiving constituents. They want the right to discriminate, enshrined and in many cases codified as a religious right, even when they are operating in a public square.

That’s what is most offensive — invoking God as a pretext.

Those who stood for slavery and against civil rights tried that ploy. Proponents of the anti-LGBT measures don’t like the comparison, but the shoe fits.

Ratcheting up fears in response to social change and then claiming that it’s your religious right to discriminate is an old trick. Alongside housing covenants, bank red-lining, scare tactics about crime, including sexual assault by black men, these arguments were shamefully hypocritical. These are old songs, with new refrains.

 

By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-Page Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, March 25, 2016

March 26, 2016 Posted by | Discrimination, Religious Freedom, State Legislatures | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Trumpkins Beware, It Get’s Worse”: Why We’re Segregated On Super Tuesday And How It Helps Explain Trump

The most segregated place in American politics just might be a partisan primary.

The massive racial disparities in voter turnout between Republicans and Democrats help explain how Donald Trump seems to be insulting his way to the nomination. But this same dynamic also underscores how screwed the GOP is in terms of national demographic shifts if they choose to go further down this dangerous path.

Today is Super Tuesday, nicknamed the SEC primary because it includes many states in the Southeastern college sports conference. Contrary to stereotypes, the South is more racially diverse than many regions in the United States. Also contrary to stereotypes, Republicans field a more diverse set of statewide elected officials than Democrats, as evidenced by the presence of two Hispanic senators from the South running for president on the right side of the aisle.

But the good news stops there. The racial polarization beneath our politics becomes clear when you look at who turns out to vote in partisan primaries.

Let’s start with a look at South Carolina—a state where black people make up 28 percent of the population, roughly double the national average.

Hillary Clinton won a massive victory there this past weekend, winning 86 percent of black vote in a primary where African Americans made up 61 percent of the turnout.

A week earlier, Republicans ran in the same state and CNN exit polls showed that black support for Republicans was almost nonexistent—or, in the statistical parlance of exit polls, “n/a”—not applicable.

This troubling trend is likely to become only more pronounced on Super Tuesday. Eight years ago—the closest comparison we have to this open-seat presidential cycle—voter turnout was high but the diversity was also skewed to one side, especially in the South.

In delegate-rich Texas, for example, black people make up 10 percent of the population, but made up only 2 percent of the voters in the 2008 Republican primary. Hispanics made up 38 percent of the Lone Star State population, but only 10 percent of the Republican votes. But in the Democratic primary, black Americans were 19 percent of the vote and Hispanics 32 percent of the vote, respectively.

In Alabama, black people make up 26 percent of the population, but made up only 4 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008. On the Democratic side of the aisle, black voters made up 51 percent of the primary electorate.

The same dynamic was evident in Georgia. Black Americans made up 31 percent of the population in 2008, but only 4 percent of the GOP primary vote. In contrast, black voters made up 52 percent of the Democratic primary turnout.

We’ll round out the sample set with Virginia, where black people make up 19 percent of the total population but made up only 3 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008. On the Democratic side, black voters constituted 30 percent of the primary turnout.

If you’re from the South or have spent much time there, these results may seem unremarkable. But they are a sign of a deeper sickness in our political system, where race is too often a partisan signifier.

Here’s the short version of how this happened in the South: This division is rooted in the legacy of slavery and the Civil War: The states of the former Confederacy voted against the Party of Lincoln for a hundred years (and blacks who could vote were loyal Republicans) until conservative Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Southern Strategy began. White Southern Democrats became Republicans, but they remained conservative populists.

This dynamic was compounded in recent years by collusion between the two parties in the form of the rigged system of redistricting, which gerrymandered the South into white and black congressional districts, rural and urban, driving the Bill Clinton-era Blue Dogs—centrist white Southern Democratic congressmen—into extinction. There are no swing seats left but the racial polarization of the parties in the South is intact, further reinforcing the sense that partisans can simply play to the political and racial base rather than reach out to form new coalitions.

Almost needless to say, this racial polarization does not mean that voters in the respective parties are racist—especially by the standards of a generation ago—but it does mean that the rank and file of our political parties are more segregated than our society at large. And the elevation of Donald Trump to the GOP nomination will only compound these problems.

This primary turnout explains how the rise of a Trump is possible while spewing divisive racial rhetoric: There is no short-term political cost and quite possibly some short-term political benefit in playing to fears of demographic change, cultural and economic resentment and anger toward the first black president. But the long run is all downside.

That’s because partisan primary turnout is often unrepresentative of the overall state. So you can win a partisan primary without having those results be a predictor of how the state will vote in the fall, especially in the case of a crucial swing state like Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, or Virginia. The primaries become the tail that wags the dog: A small number of voters, represented by an even smaller number of professional partisan activists and special interests, get massive attention from candidates trying to win the nomination. If you’re campaigning for the Republican nomination, you can safely ignore diverse communities, but that play-to-the-base path to winning the nomination is a surefire path for losing a general election.

Say what you want about George W. Bush, but he was genuinely passionate about increasing the reach of the Republican Party into communities of color. The foundation of his 2000 presidential run was his landslide re-election as governor of Texas in 1998, when he won 40 percent of the Latino vote.

Trumpkins will point out that The Donald won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus last month. This is true and doubly impressive/depressing running against two actual Hispanics, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—as Ruben Navarrette predicted in The Daily Beast. But it’s not incidental to point out that while a record 75,000 Republicans caucused, only an estimated 6,000 were Latino—well below the 27 percent of the population that is Hispanic. Cut this stat with two other facts—President Obama won the Latino vote by 50 points in Nevada and 80 percent of Latinos nationwide have a negative view of Trump—and you quickly pack up any notions that Trump’s Nevada caucus victory is an indicator of general-election strength.

And so it goes. The increasingly narrow base of the GOP, dominated by conservative populists, has created the conditions for a celebrity demagogue like Donald Trump. The absence of a strong center-right or real depth of diversity among the Republican constituency means that the party can be too easily hijacked in five weeks of partisan primaries by pandering to an electorate that doesn’t look much like the America that candidate will have to win—let alone govern.

While the polls show that Donald Trump is primed for a big night, don’t believe the hype: No matter how “yuge” the win, the underlying electoral math is apocalyptic for any party that chooses to not only ignore but insult the growing diversity in America.

 

By: John Avlon, The Daily Beast, March 1, 2016

March 2, 2016 Posted by | Donald Trump, General Election 2016, Partisan Politics | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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