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NBC Reporter’s Makes Chilling and Persuasive Case that Reagan’s “Revolution” was All Based on Race

August 3, 2019

NBC News reporter Syreeta McFadden’s opinion piece, “The Democratic Party Can’t Win Back Mythical “Reagan Democrats” Without Forsaking Their Principles“, offers a history of Reagan’s rise to power and, in doing so, offers a compelling case that it was based on race. Here are the two paragraphs that serve as the core of Ms. McFadden’s argument:

The mythical Reagan Democrats don’t exist anymore — if they ever did. They were social conservatives whose party affiliation was rooted in a Democratic Party that thankfully no longer exists; moderates of that time are conservatives now, and their conservatism is and was rooted in decades of a culture war that began with a little thing called the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s the hard truth for many to admit that the delicate push-pull of the American democracy centers around how vehemently politicians believe they can embrace the dismantling of racial apartheid in America, or that the conservatism worldview, particularly, as embodied by Trump, increasingly embraces bigotry as social and political norm — though that certainly did not begin with him.

In the article, Ms. McFadden offers a description of a speech Ronald Reagan gave after his nomination as the Republican’s candidate to oppose Jimmy Carter, a speech I had read about in several articles:

It was deeply intentional that, on Aug. 3, 1980, the newly minted Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the bodies of three civil rights workers were discovered in 1964 after they disappeared trying to register African Americans to vote. There Reagan touted his vision of states’ rights and welfare reform with purported colorblind language to appeal to embittered voters feeling abandoned by the Democratic Party after the civil rights era— those who had yet to fully declare themselves Republicans but were certainly social conservatives.

“I believe that there are programs like that,” meaning welfare, said the man who is widely credited with popularizing the myth of the black welfare queen, “programs like education and others” — this, in the era of desegregation and busing — “that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them,” he finished before thunderous applause to an all-white audience. “I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level.

Perhaps these words don’t resonate in 2019 as they did in 1980 but his audience had no doubt about his references: He was talking about the end of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the end of federal government programs (and state contributions to them) widely seen as benefiting impoverished African American residents more than white ones, the end of federal interference in state efforts to maintain segregation and segregated poverty, and the end of federal oversight that endeavored to bring about America’s mythical promise of justice for all.

For me, those words resonate more today than they ever did… for we have come to see that in the broadest sense “social conservatives” are pro-apartheid, anti-egalitarian social Darwinist libertarians who are willing to live in a world where fewer and fewer individuals control more and more wealth in the country thanks to the natural results of deregulated capitalism o long as that world does not require them to spend any time in the presence of those of a different race. And in the paragraphs that follow, Ms. McFadden illustrates how the Democratic Party shed its principles to reach out to these “social conservatives”:

To the still mostly white Democrats mollywhopped by the 1980 national campaign and examining the electorate, it was easy to fearfully pivot to the stated proclivities of those voters and forfeit policies that would support and sustain communities of color, who made up most of the statistical working class. Reagan’s war on drugs prepared the ground for the Clinton administration’s 1994 Crime Bill. Reagan’s constant invocation of the welfare queen was repackaged under Clinton as the “end welfare as we know it” — still using black women, as Reagan had, as symbols of government dependency.

Today, Democratic Party centrists continue to center their language and thinking to appeal to the same white discomfort with a liberal and inclusive society, the same suspicion that brown folk are getting an unequal share of resources and prosperity in American society.Carter’s defeat in 1980 still looms so large in the Democratic imagination that they are convinced that the nation is and remains center-right and, instead of adopting a vision to capture voters across class and ethnic lines, centrists continue to push the party to direct its energies toward the white working class even as polls, elections and demographics show the actual way forward.

This week’s debates really made it obvious that the moderate platform is simply to obstruct any necessary deep structural changes and to placate voters who fear the younger brown and black progressive “hordes.” But we are actually a coalition of people across class and ethnic lines who recognize, finally, that the moderate forces are not our allies, that the “Reagan Democrats” are not the belles of this ball. We are not willing to cede to Republican policies and undermine the desires of our own base. The center has moved left — and, for those relying on the center-right, the panic has set in.

After reading this, I understood the source of my misgivings for “centrist” Democrats. When I read that the economic programs proposed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are “too far to the left” or that Pete Buttigieg could never be elected because he’s gay or that we need to stay with the “centrists” like Joe Biden who helped develop and support the “third way” policies of Bill Clinton, I realize that my antipathy for them is based on my belief that IF the Democrats want undercut the “bigotry as social and political norm” that Trump embodies, they must propose policies that are explicitly anti-apartheid, policies that are clearly in favor of federal oversight that strives “to bring about America’s mythical promise of justice for all“, and policies that provide the money needed for people to do “as much as they can for themselves at the community level”. That message WILL alienate the hard-core Trump supporters. But it will also send a message that the Democratic party believes bigotry is unacceptable, that the rule of law should apply to everyone no matter their race or economic status, and that every community needs to have the wherewithal to help their residents live a fruitful and fulfilling life. I truly and sincerely hope that those principles are shared by the majority of Americans in our country. 

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