In the spring of 2005, Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring all voters to appear at their proper polling place carrying either a Georgia driver’s license or an official photo ID issued by the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles.1
We don’t have any work by social scientists to show the impact such a law would have because no American voter has ever been required to have an official photo ID for voting. But a survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found there were more than 150,000 Georgians over the age of 60 who cast their vote in the 2004 election, but lacked a driver’s license. The League of Women Voters pointed out the particularly onerous impact the measure would have upon poor, rural and minority voters. In the state of Georgia, for example, there are over 159 counties but only 56 DMV offices. These offices are not equitably distributed—multiple offices are sprinkled in the predominantly white suburban counties surrounding the city of Atlanta but there is not one in the majority black city.
Applicants for these identity cards would have to obtain their birth certificate at a cost of up to $32, travel an average of 15 to 30 miles, usually to locations lacking public transportation, wait as long as three hours, and pay a fee of $8. The impact is particularly onerous upon African Americans of voting age who are significantly less likely to have a driver’s license than Whites and according to the 2000 census—are five times more likely to lack access to a car than White Georgians. The disparate impact is made worse in the case of older Black Georgians, who were often delivered by midwives before the state required a birth certificate or official registration.2
According to Republican Governor Sonny Perdue and his House and Senate leaders, this “reform” measure was a necessary safeguard to stop individuals from assuming the identity of legitimate voters, casting illegal ballots and thus corrupting the political process.
There was, however, a problem with this argument. When asked for examples of such voter fraud during the brief legislative hearings, proponents of the measure could not cite a single example in which one voter had masqueraded as another. As Georgia’s Secretary of State noted, there have been a number of cases of voter fraud in Georgia over the last twenty years, but most of these involved the misuse of absentee ballots. And yet the same legislation that required voters to bring an official photo ID to the polling place explicitly rejected any requirements for absentee voters and, in fact, made it far easier to vote by absentee ballot.
How many individuals would be disenfranchised by the new voter ID law? Three percent? Four per cent? There is no way to know for sure, but we have seen in recent elections that even a one per cent change in the vote may be critical.
You don’t have to be a cynic to see the purpose of the Georgia Voter ID requirement. The individuals most negatively affected by the legislation are more likely to vote Democratic. People who cast absentee ballots are more likely to vote Republican. The only corruption here is the naked abuse of political power by the majority party.3 Only a last minute decision by a federal district court judge in late October stopped the law from being enforced during the November municipal elections. In ruling on the suit, waged by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, he likened the law to the old Jim Crow-era poll tax. Still a few months before, the U.S. Justice Department had given the law its blessing.
No single example of contemporary American politics can fully capture all the dimensions of that steady shift to the right in the United States, but I have chosen this vignette because it involves the right to vote, arguably one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. If that right can be rolled back, then who can doubt that we are in the midst of a great political reaction.
When and where did this counter-revolution gain its traction?
In 1989, I set out to write a study of the improbable career of Alabama’s George Wallace—a four-time candidate for the presidency who, at one point, had the expressed support of a quarter of America’s White voters and very nearly threw the 1968 election into the House of Representatives. Initially I was intrigued by the fact that he had been relegated to the sidelines of American history. In most of the initial historical accounts of the period, anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy received far more attention than the Wallace movement.
The reasons for his relative obscurity were not hard to find. Technically a Democrat for most of his career, members of that party have hardly been anxious to embrace him as one of their own. And, even though Republicans shamelessly borrowed many of his ideas, they too spurned any identification with this crude redneck— gauche, coarse and hardly suitable for inclusion with the likes of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Without worshipful acolytes, he was left to wander on the margins of our historical memory.
As I examined his career, however, I came to believe that his role was even greater than I had thought—primarily as one of the principle originators of a new and inverted form of populist politics.
There is good reason to be leery of an adjective and noun that has been elastic enough to describe historical actors as diverse as George McGovern, the late Bella Abzug, Pat Buchanan, France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and Venezuela’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Writing in the early 1970s, historian C. Vann Woodward acknowledged there was a considerable leap between the politics of the 1960s and 1970s and the provincial language and sometimes cranky ideas that shaped the grievances of late nineteenth century farmers. But there was a connection, he argued. The original populists spoke for the little man against the establishment, the provinces against the metropolis, the poor and deprived against the rich and privileged. The issues they addressed centered on the unequal distribution of wealth and income, and the unjust distribution of power. These issues included prices, wages, money, taxes, unemployment, monopoly, big business corruption of government and government selling out to business.4
And their ideas resonated long after the movement itself disappeared.
If Woodward defended these late nineteenth century reformers, he acknowledged that other scholars saw them in a more unfavorable light. Populist leaders may have defended workers and agricultural producers, but they sometimes seemed afflicted by conspiratorial delusions, nostalgic dreams of a golden age that never was and hostility to industrial progress. And there is no doubt that some of them were racist, antisemitic and xenophobic.
Whatever their multiple personalities, none of these earlier populists embraced bankers, oil companies, free-market capitalism and government policies that slavishly catered to big business.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, George Wallace helped upend this long-standing tradition.
For the most part, we still remember Wallace through the prism of race. After his 1958 race for the governorship, swearing to his friends that his opponent had “outn*ggered me” and “I’ll never be outn*ggered again.” At his inaugural address, which included the famous declaration “Segregation today, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever.” Wallace standing at the Schoolhouse Door, and later running for the presidency in 1964 and showing surprising strength in the North by attacking the pending Civil Rights bill of that year.
And then there was the coda to his career: his 1972 near death at the hands of a deranged would-be assassin that led to the redeemed George Wallace, repenting his earlier racist sins and running and winning the Alabama governorship in the late 1970s and 1980s with overwhelming Black support.
That we remember; the beginning, the end. It’s the middle part that is often ignored.
So let us briefly look back to his 1968 third party run for the Presidency.
The election, you may recall, was one of the most tumultuous in our modern history. Lyndon Johnson had been forced to withdraw from the Presidential race; Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and a bitterly divided Democratic Party had nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the Presidency. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, led by a reborn Richard Nixon, settled down for what seemed an inevitable victory.
And then came Wallace. As he campaigned across America, the crowds began to grow: from 5,000 to 10,000 to monster rallies with as many as 30,000 followers chanting their support.
His campaign benefited from White backlash to the urban race riots of the 1960s, new challenges to de facto housing, employment and educational discrimination in the North and the linkage of Blackness with rising criminality and welfare costs in the minds of many White Americans.
With an instinctive sense for language, he exploited these racial fears through the skillful use of what soon came to be called coded language. He railed against federal, state and local officials for their timid response to Molotov-throwing urban rioters, but he never referred to them explicitly in racial terms.
He talked about brutal and marauding criminals who transformed America’s urban streets into war zones. But he did not directly mention race.
He constantly complained of shiftless free-loaders, collecting their welfare checks—paid for by the hard-working American. But he scrupulously avoided using racial language to describe this new parasitic welfare class.
Even when he dealt with explicit racial issues, he always insisted that his objections to busing or affirmative action had nothing to do with race, but fairness for White as well as Black Americans.
So it is clear that race remained a central element of his appeal.
But his exploitation of a new form of “populist” conservatism represented more than the exploitation of racial issues.
Wallace was not an analytical thinker but he knew that a substantial percentage of the American electorate despised the civil rights agitators, anti-war demonstrators, bra-burning feminists, and longhaired hippy students as symptoms of a fundamental decline in the traditional compass of God, family (the patriarchal family, that is), and love of country. They believed that decline was reflected in the rising crime rates, legalization of abortion, a rise in out-of-wedlock pregnancies, increase in divorce rates, the Supreme Court’s decision against school prayer, and the proliferation of “obscene” literature and films. Even when local communities seemed untouched, the nightly news vividly brought home the sights and sounds of a social revolution into the living rooms of millions of Americans.
Perhaps Wallace’s greatest contribution was his appropriation of classic populist language in claiming to speak for the forgotten Americans—what he called in every speech the “average man in the street, the man in the textile mill, the man in the steel mill, the barber, the beautician, the policeman on the beat.” (He proved to have a much more sensitive ear to the electorate than Barry Goldwater who said many of the same things, but in a language that often seemed to appeal only to readers of the National Review and the nearest Country Club locker room.)
In speaking for what he called working and middle America, the fiery Alabama governor used the language of populism— its attacks on shadowy and evil conspirators, its sense of victimhood—but the villains were no longer Wall Street Bankers and malefactors of great wealth.
His target was that alien city on the Potomac, Washington, D.C., where a shadowy coven of liberals—bearded, briefcasecarrying bureaucrats, cowardly politicians and arrogant judges—ran roughshod over the rights and freedoms of the American people, issuing judicial edicts that were little more than exercises in social engineering; decisions that turned the notion of equality on its head and forced state and local governments and school boards to engage in contorted plans to fit a preconceived blueprint for racial equality and in the process trampled the rights of working people who often had to bear the burden— and the financial costs—of their decisions. The wealthy liberals who backed higher taxes for welfare abusers (again, no race mentioned) could afford to pay the bill; when out of touch judges ordered busing, well-to-do liberals could send their kids to private schools and live in communities in which they escaped the consequences of their left-wing politics.
The federal courts were a special target for Wallace. These were the “judicial activists” who used meaningless technicalities to turn criminals loose in the streets. As they forbade children from bowing their heads in school prayer they unleashed a torrent of pornography upon the streets of America on the fatuous grounds of the First Amendment. (Wallace, I should note, was the first American politician to testify in favor of a school prayer constitutional amendment).
“Question authority” was the slogan of a new, emancipated class of intellectuals and social liberals in the 1960s. For that generation, and I was certainly a part of it, there was something enormously liberating about throwing off what seemed to be the repressive prejudices of an older generation. Liberation was possible in our politics and in our own lives. But Wallace looked out upon the disorderly political landscape of the 1960s and instinctively sensed that millions of Americans were gripped by a sense of betrayal. Discipline, hard work, self-control, and yes, traditions of racial hierarchy and patriarchy were still embraced emotionally as essential shelters in a world of turmoil and change.
By September of 1968, major polls showed him at 21 percent, neck and neck with Hubert Humphrey among decided voters, and only 9 percent behind Richard Nixon.
Wallace had discovered what journalists eventually came to call “the social issues”: a vague conglomeration of fears and apprehensions revolving around the notion that traditional standards of morality were crumbling. He didn’t know these were “wedge” issues—he just knew they worked.
On election day, many would-be Wallace voters returned to the two major parties and his final vote was a little less than 14 percent. But I believe his success in that election was one of the factors that set in motion a major realignment of American politics. It is obvious when you read Richard Nixon’s memos and review conversations with his staff that Wallace’s success was a key factor in encouraging Nixon and the Republican Party to adopt a political strategy based upon combining traditional Republican conservatism with a solid Republican South and angry White working class Democrats mobilized by these new social issues. By the 1972 presidential campaign, Wallace seldom gave a speech without complaining that Nixon and his vice-President Spiro Agnew had cribbed his ideas.
In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan’s sweep of the old Democratic South and his appeal to traditionally Democratic blue collar and working class voters laid the foundation for today’s Republican dominance in American politics.
As a historian, reading backward from the present, it is all too easy to see this as an inevitable trend in American politics. From Goldwater to Wallace to Nixon to Reagan to Bush I and Bush II. The trajectory has its byways—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—but always it turns to the right.
And yet there seems nothing historically inevitable about this process. Beginning as early as the early 1970s, there were a number of pocketbook issues that should have benefited the “old populism.” The purchasing power of middle income and lower middle income families rose 40 percent between 1947 and 1966, an average of more than 2 percent per year. But that steady ascension came to a stop between 1966 and 1972, when actual purchasing power remained stable and failed to decline only because of the accelerating entry of women into the workforce. During the 1980s, globalization in the labor market placed a lid on wages even as the Reagan administration adopted policies that exacerbated the growing divide with the wealthy and upper middle class on one side and the struggling middle and working classes and the poor. By the middle of the 1980s, we were already on our way to the creation of a society divided between Walmart and Saks Fifth Avenue. And nothing fundamentally has changed over the last 20 years, as working and middle class income stagnates and productivity gains go directly into the bank accounts of the already super rich.
At the same time, a new entrepeneurial class and its ideological allies unapologetically practices a ruthless form of capitalism that treats workers as another factor of production—to be discarded when they are no longer useful. Even as they have kept up a steady barrage of attacks against “government,” however, they have successfully bent the state to their own interests in a way that would have left the legendary Robber Barons gasping with envy. It is difficult to imagine a group of men—and they are mostly men— who are further away from the producer class of hardworking Americans extolled by the populists.
But there was magic in this new rancid populism, to borrow William Greider’s apt phrase. And the magic still works.
Witness the passage of the Georgia Voter ID law this past spring. Within hours after Republicans introduced the measure in the Georgia House, the Black caucus began pointing to the discriminatory consequences of the legislation. As it quickly moved through the state house and senate, members of the black caucus were joined in opposition by more than two dozen civic groups, including the AARP of Georgia and the League of Women Voters.
Immediately, however, Republicans and their conservative allies went on the attack. The opponents of such “good government reform” were defenders of the tired old corrupt political system, subservient to the liberal elites and pandering, as the House Republican leader said, to “special interest groups.” Certain words began regularly appearing. A prominent conservative columnist in the Atlanta Journal Constitution called the Democratic house minority leader a “notorious race baiter” for pointing out that the ID law would disproportionately affect African Americans; the opponents of the measure were “aggressors” against needed reform; they were “ruthlessly conspiring” with liberal elites; they were nothing more than professional “microphone-grabbers who gain financially and politically by stoking the fears of the ignorant and insecure,” “promoting victimhood,” all the while building a moneymaking industry that made its profits “selling racial pessimism.”
These quotes are not from far-right mouthpieces like Atlanta talk-show host Neal Boortz. (He complained that the measure did not go far enough by taking away the vote from welfare recipients.)5 They are from main-line conservative journalists and politicians who have learned the lessons first taught by Newt Gingrich in his famous seminars for young Republicans in the late 1980s. You may recall that Gingrich distributed to aspiring Republican candidates a list of 58 words that were always to be used in referring to Democrats or liberals, among them: sick, traitors, corrupt, bizarre, cheat, steal, devour, self-serving, criminal rights, soft-on-crime, free loader, greed….6
Proponents of the new restrictive voter requirements had the added support and legitimacy of more than 500 conservative and right-wing foundations and think tanks which conservatives have created at a cost of more than $2 billion over the last 35 years.7 Well before the introduction of the Georgia Voter ID measure the Cato Institute had issued its position paper on election procedures, insisting that any complaint of discrimination was nothing more than the “rhetoric of victimization.” Scholars at other conservative think tanks have agreed, repeatedly deploying social science analysis to “prove” that there is no evidence that African Americans continue to suffer from structural or deliberate discrimination. As Abigail Thernstrom, a Manhattan Institute Fellow has argued in a series of well-placed op-ed pieces this summer, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was not only superfluous, it had done “more harm than good.” The “era of redneck registrars, fraudulent literacy tests, violence, and intimidation at the polls is over, she assured readers of the Richmond Times- Dispatch.”8 The states should be “free to make their own decisions about voting equipment and voter registration systems” without federal interference.9
The success of conservatives in framing the issue in Georgia was made easier because television stations, in their state and local coverage, gave the issue their usual short shrift, a garbled forty or fifty seconds at most, following the now familiar: “he said,” “she said” and then on to the latest multi-car accident or celebrity trial. With the partial exception of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the print media was little better. Listening to television or reading the state’s newspapers, the average consumer of news would have absolutely no sense that there are things that we used to call facts; there were only opinions. When asked to choose between the opinions of those who supported an honest ballot and the opinions of defenders of the status quo who were pandering to special interests, it was no contest. By the time the issue came to a vote in the legislature, a poll commissioned by the Atlanta Journal Constitution showed that four out of five Georgians—including a majority of Black Georgians—supported the new voter legislation.10 Truth, in philosopher Theodor Adorno’s formulation, had simply become an artifact of power—or in less elevated language—the outcome of the best marketing campaign.11
Events can quickly change. Chronologically, it is only a few years from William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt; Calvin Coolidge to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And who in 1953 could have anticipated the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965?
Hope springs eternal; it has to if you live—as I do—in one of the reddest states in the union. But I believe in honesty, and the truth is: I find my optimism challenged by what I see on every hand.
I look out at the faces of my students: polite, anxious to please, even intellectually curious on occasion. But the great passions of my lifetime—racial and economic justice—seem antiquated and irrelevant and debates over the relationship between political policies and economic inequality and injustice are as incomprehensible as a discussion of the seventeenth century controversy surrounding Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomians.
And I certainly don’t want to single out my students; they are simply responding to the world of their parents and their friends. Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippman noted the political advantages of creating what he called a “fear economy.” By making voters fearful of losing their jobs, fearful that their old age will not be secured, fearful that their children will lack opportunity, they become, in Lippman’s nineteenth century language, a “servile and dreaming race,” clinging desperately to the niche on which they precariously hang.
And even the prescient Lippman could not envision the political dividends of a permanent war on terror.
At the same time, the corruption of both political parties by vested economic interests continues apace, without restraint from an electorate increasingly adrift, cut loose from the anchors of old institutions that once bound them to an understanding of their self-interest. This has happened even—ironically—as millions of Americans accept an economic theology that insists that a market ruled by self-interest will cure all our social ills and usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth.
And of course we are all being swept downstream into a political culture in which entertainment, politics, makebelieve, and breaking news have become as indistinguishable from each other as from the commercials that separate each meaningless and disconnected factoid.
As one of my conservative friends, said: so much indignation, so little time.
And yet. And yet.
In 1955, at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Memphis, Tennessee, the novelist William Faulkner shared the platform with a group of Black and White educators. His very presence was a daring act of defiance at a time when whites across the region were rallying to the defense of racial segregation and the White Citizens Councils—Klansmen in business suits— ruled his home state. This was not an easy choice for Faulkner. While he was a Nobel Prize winner in literature, he lived in Oxford, Mississippi. Most of his friends and neighbors believed that segregation was right and just and moral. If he was emmeshed in a quarrel with his region, it was a lover’s quarrel for he was Southern to the core.
But when it came his turn to speak, he did not mince words. Whatever the difficulties of ending segregation, he said, it was essential to recognize the core of segregation’s inhumanity. Those who loved the South had a special obligation to “speak now against the day, when our Southern people who will resist to the last these inevitable changes… say, “Why didn’t someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time.”
In the end—whether optimistic or pessimistic —our obligation as scholars, as citizens, as human beings, remains unchanged. We must speak now—and act—against the day when a future generation asks: “Why didn’t someone tell us this before? Tell us this in time.”
- The Georgia measure was prepared with the assistance of Erick Erickson, a self-described right-wing political junkie from Macon who is a part of a network of other conservative political activists and groups working to enact similarly restrictive measures across the nation. Indiana has passed such a measure (now being challenged in the courts); the Wisconsin Democratic governor vetoed a measure enacted by that state’s legislature and similar measures have been introduced in at least a dozen other states controlled by Republicans. Macon Telegraph, March 17, 2005.
- Four other forms of photo identification other than a stateissued driver’s license or state-issued identification card were acceptable for voter identification at the polls: a valid U.S. passport, a U.S. military ID card, a tribal ID card or a municipal or state employee identification card with photo. The inclusion of these on the approved list does little to mitigate the extent of the broad-gauged restrictions included in the law.
- Bill Shipp, “Georgia is a Tough Place to Cast a Ballot,” Athens, Ga., Banner-Herald, July 23, 2005.
- C. Vann Woodward, “The Ghost of Populism Walks Again: The New Populists,” The New York Times Magazine, June 4, 1972, p. 16.
- Neal Boortz is an attorney and the host of radio’s The Neal Boortz Show. His success is in many ways a reflection of the rightward shift in American politics. His show is syndicated in nearly 200 markets across the nation; he has twice been a finalist for the National Association of Broadcaster’s Marconi Award as the nation’s number one radio talk-show host and his latest book, The Fair Tax Book—a work of almost imbecilic inconsistencies and inaccuracies —has been puffed onto the nation’s best-seller list thanks to the efforts of various conservative media outlets such as Fox News.
- The actual full list was: “decay… failure (fail)… collapse(ing)… deeper… crisis… urgent(cy)… destructive… destroy… sick… pathetic… lie… liberal… they/them… unionized bureaucracy… “compassion” is not enough… betray… consequences… limit(s)… shallow… traitors… sensationalists… endanger… coercion… hypocrisy… radical… threaten… devour… waste… corruption… incompetent… permissive attitudes… destructive… impose… self-serving… greed… ideological… insecure… anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs… pessimistic… excuses… intolerant…stagnation… welfare… corrupt… selfish… insensitive… status quo… mandate(s)… taxes… spend(ing)… shame… disgrace… punish (poor…)… bizarre… cynicism… cheat… steal… abuse of power… machine… bosses… obsolete… criminal rights… red tape…” The positive words to be used to apply to conservatives were “share, change, opportunity, legacy, challenge, control, truth, moral, courage, reform, prosperity, crusade, movement, children, family, debate, compete, active(ly), we/us/our, candid(ly), humane, pristine, provide, liberty, commitment, principle(d), unique, duty, precious, premise, care(ing), tough, listen, learn, help, lead, vision, success, empower(ment), citizen, activist, mobilize, conflict, light, dream, freedom, peace, rights, pioneer, proud/pride, building, preserve, pro-(issue): flag, children, environment; reform, workfare, eliminate good-time in prison, strength, choice/choose, fair, protect, confident, incentive, hard work, initiative, common sense, passionate.” From Language: A Key Mechanism of Control
- Lewis H. Lapham, “Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History,” Harper’s Magazine, (September, 2004), p. 34; The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy estimated that the top 20 of the more than than 500 conservative, tax-free foundations alone spent $1.1 billion between 1990 and 2000. National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, $1 Billion for Ideas: Conservative Think Tanks in the 1990s (New York: NCRP, 1999). In “The Money Man: Can George Soros’s Millions Insure the Defeat of President Bush,” New Yorker writer Jane Mayer contrasts the conservative uproar that greeted the relatively modest contributions of wealthy liberals like George Soros with the lack of attention given by the media to the huge contributions of wealthy conservatives to their ideological cause. The New Yorker, October 18, 2004. Literature on these new conservative advocacy foundations is surprisingly thin. Jean Stefanicic and Richard Delgado’s No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996) is a useful summary of the interlocking relationship of these groups and a summary of their policy positions, but it breaks little ground. In his excellent study, The Idea Brokers, James Allen Smith seeks to put them in a larger historical context, but one of his more important conclusions—that these conservative policy research organizations would survive only by moving toward the center and away from strong advocacy positions—has been proved wrong in the 13 years since he published his work. A useful recent work is by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
- Richmond Times Dispatch, August 5, 2005.
- John Samples, Cato Institute Policy Analysis No 417, “Election Reform, Federalism and the Obligations of Voters.” http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa417.pdf
- The only mistake the Republican leadership may have made was in underestimating the impact the bill would have on middle class white older voters. There is little downside to giving a swift boot to the poor and powerless, but taking on the “geezer” voters (as one commentator put it), is not a politically smart move.
- “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power, a process that truth itself cannot escape if it is not to be annihilated by power, not only suppresses truth as in earlier despotic orders, but has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false, which the hirelings of logic were in any case diligently working to abolish. So Hitler, of whom no-one can say whether he died or escaped, survives.” Theodor W. Adorno, Minima moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life. Translated by E. F.N. Jephcott (London: New Left Books, 1974), p. 109.