Some great civil rights champions perform immense service for their cause in a short amount of time, early in life. Others live a long life spending decades championing civil rights in many different eras. Some great civil rights champions accomplish a great deal for one cause. Other great civil rights champions are heavily involved in promoting many different causes. Representative John Lewis was in all these categories. When he was only in his twenties, Lewis played a pivotal role in dismantling Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-one, he took part in the Freedom Rides to challenge bus segregation. After cofounding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he assumed leadership of the group at the age of just twenty-three. That same year, Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders organizing the famous 1963 March on Washington by 11 years. Of the speakers at the March, he was the youngest by nine years. He was the last member of either group to pass away. Indeed, his speech at the March was considered so inflammatory towards both white Southerners and the Kennedy Administration that A. Philip Randolph, the oldest of the Big Six organizers and himself no stranger to militancy, had to convince Lewis to tone it down for fear of damaging the Civil Rights Movement’s chances of success. In hindsight, the offending passages seem rather innocuous. For example, Lewis’s original draft said that he “could not support wholeheartedly” the civil rights bill being debated in Congress at the time, as it was “too little too late,” called America “a nation of cheap political leaders,” lamented the presence of civil rights opponents in both political parties, and blasted the federal government for its response or lack thereof to racist violence in Albany, Georgia. He planned to end with a warning: “If we do not see meaningful progress here today the day will come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.” During the 1960s, Lewis was arrested dozens of times and subjected to injuries by racist rioters that ranged from cigarette burns to a fractured skull.
Lewis also consistently opposed the idea of black separatism and promoted a system in which leadership of civil rights organizations was primarily black, while membership was open to people of all races. Lewis’s stance was rejected by SNCC in 1966, when Stokely Carmichael assumed control of the organization and expelled its white members. The following year, H. Rap Brown assumed leadership and maintained the ban on white members. SNCC’s turnabout was a reaction to ongoing anti-black racism and racial inequality generally, as well as to Carmichael being pushed to his breaking point by continuously being jailed. But it proved fatal to the organization. By 1968, what had, just five years ago, been one of the 3 most important protest-based organizations in the Civil Rights Movement had all-but dissolved. While the demise of SNCC was partly due to factors beyond Carmichael’s and Brown’s control, the group had managed to weather great challenges previously, and its cratering under their leadership speaks to Lewis’s integrationist approach being the better one. Lewis was also very supportive of interracial marriage, recalling his acceptance of interracial couples within the movement and repeatedly quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition that it is people, not races, who fall in love and marry. He showed a special distaste for anti-Semitism, pointedly acknowledging the important role many Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement, attending a gala for the Anti-Defamation League, and calling out the anti-Semitic statements of Khalid Abdul Muhammad, an aide to Louis Farrakhan.
Rather than accepting the conservative claim that racism ceased to be a major problem after the 1960s, Lewis continued speaking out on issues such as racial profiling, the Confederate Flag, and voter suppression. He also championed many other civil liberties causes. He was one of 66 Representatives to vote against the Patriot Act and continued opposing the Surveillance State under the Obama Administration. When the NSA was revealed to have complied phone records on all Americans, Lewis supported unsuccessful efforts to end this egregious privacy violation. He was opposed to the death penalty in an era when this position was particularly unpopular, and in recent years, he was a strong advocate for the reform of federal marijuana laws. In his old age, he protested for the rights of immigrants. In contrast to some of the men of the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was a staunch feminist, publicly calling for women to receive more credit for their role in the movement and speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Atlanta. In 1994, he was one of less than a third of Representatives who voted to end the requirement that young men register for Selective Service. While he cosponsored a bill in 2003 that would have reinstated the draft, this was not an actual attempt on his part to bring back conscription but rather a symbolic gesture to use a bill with virtually no chance of passage to draw attention to what he perceived as an unwillingness of many supporters of the Iraq War to fight in it themselves. We know that Lewis’s intention was never to bring back the draft, because, like most of the cosponsors of the bill, Lewis voted against it when it was brought to the House floor. Lewis was nothing if not antiwar, opposing both Gulf Wars and sponsoring a bill that would have allowed antiwar Americans to pay taxes into an alternative federal fund that could not be used for military spending. Lewis also showed a strong concern for preventing cruelty to animals. Having bonded with animals going back to his days as a child practicing preaching in front of his family’s chickens, Lewis cosponsored legislation to crack down on organized animal fights and participated in events with the ASPCA, being photographed cradling puppies.
But perhaps Lewis’s boldest and most cutting-edge work during his time as a Representative came in an area for which he is probably less remembered: LGBT rights. Long before he held office, it might be said that Lewis subtly defended gay rights by being part of a faction within the “Big Six” also including King, Randolph, and James Farmer which called for Bayard Rustin to be placed in charge of putting together the 1963 March. Two other members of the Big Six, Whitney Young and Roy Wikins considered this to be too risky, but the Lewis-Randolph-King-Farmer faction brought about a compromise wherein Randolph would be officially in charge of the March but would be able to delegate most of his actual duties to Rustin. For the rest of life, Lewis did his best to ensure that Rustin’s crucial role in the movement generally and the March on Washington in particular was never forgotten. During his first year in Congress, Lewis cosponsored legislation to ban workplace discrimination against gay people. In 1993, he voted against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting openly gay military personnel.
1996 represented his most courageous stand in favor of gay rights. Lewis was one of 67 Representatives to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) banning federal recognition of gay marriage and preventing states from having to recognize gay marriages entered into in other states. Even many politicians who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act avoided outright endorsing gay marriage, but Lewis showed no fear. “Mr. Chairman,” thundered Lewis, “this is a mean bill. It is cruel. This bill seeks to divide our nation, turn Americans against Americans, sew the seeds of fear, hatred and intolerance. Let us remember the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths self-evident that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right. You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriage and I quote, `Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.'” This was a position that most of the Democratic Party came around to over the next 20 years, but it was a fringe position within the party in 1996. Lewis was never afraid to draw parallels between the struggles of black people against racism and the struggles of LGBT people against homophobia and did so repeatedly in the years following 1996, while also implicitly acknowledging that black gay people such as Rustin faced double discrimination. He was also supportive of transgender rights. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “Congressman Lewis worked closely with Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) during the drafting of the Equality Act and was a lead sponsor of the legislation — a bipartisan bill which would finally add clear, comprehensive non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people to our nation’s civil rights laws. He has a perfect 100 rating on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard and, among other things, was also the lead sponsor of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit federally funded child welfare service providers from discriminating against children, families and individuals based on religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status.”
I would be remiss if I did not discuss my own experience meeting Representative Lewis. My mom has long considered him one of her greatest heroes, and that was how I first became aware of him as a kid. My dad was a Republican at the time (who has since begun voting Democratic), but Lewis was one of the Democrats he respected most. As I got older and became involved in civil rights activism myself, I started learning more about Lewis’s activism in the 1960s and his more recent advocacy. The more I learned, the more I admired him. When I started college, I knew I was going to focus my undergraduate thesis on looking at how to formulate a strategy for achieving equal rights for gay people, largely by examining the tactics of previous movements such as the abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements. I felt that interviewing Lewis would be invaluable to this project. I was able to secure a meeting with him in the Spring of 2014. Lewis sat down with me for an interview that covered a broad range of topics, including his activism in the 1960s, the tactics that he used in the movement, why gay rights was so important to him, and the importance of allies and marginalized people working together. Throughout the meeting, I was struck by Lewis’s friendliness, humility, and lack of any of the bitterness that would have been so understandable given his experiences. He treated me like an old friend and seemed eager to continue talking until one of his staffers warned him that he had an upcoming meeting. He expressed a wish that he hoped I would visit him at his Washington office, but I knew that this would likely be the first and last time we met. I left the meeting immensely grateful for both Lewis’s decades of civil rights advocacy and his willingness to sit down with me. I am even more grateful for both of these things now. Longtime readers know that one of my favorite historical figures is the abolitionist, Wendell Phillips. I like to think that Phillips is welcoming John Lewis into Heaven and that they are now swapping stories, the Golden Trumpet of Abolition meeting the Conscience of Congress.
John Lewis, my mom, and me
Since 2015, Donald Trump has repeatedly advocated for a common conservative, anti-free speech position: a ban on burning or otherwise desecrating the American flag. I already explained in detail back in 2016 why I feel that the flag desecration laws that once existed in America, as well as attempts to revive them, were and are dumb and dangerous. I also demonstrated in 2016 that support for these laws has long been a fairly standard conservative position: it did not emerge as a reaction to recent “cancel culture,” and it is not unique to Trump as opposed to other recent Republican presidential candidates. But today, I want to address Biden’s problematic record in this area and how he can deal with it and move forward. It was recently pointed out that Biden favored flag desecration bans as a Senator. In 1989, he spoke up for an amendment against flag desecration. By 1995, he opposed an amendment but favored a statutory ban, which likely would have been struck down by the Supreme Court. Later in his Senate career, he voiced support for the proposed Flag Protection Act of 2005 offered by Senators Hillary Clinton and Robert Bennett, which included a clause banning flag desecration if done with the intent to incite violence. As I explained in 2015, “The problem is that neither Clinton nor her cosponsor, Senator Robert Bennett, saw fit to define what constituted an attempt at inciting violence. This would have necessarily been left to judges, juries, and district attorneys, and it is not far fetched to imagine many of them using the law to punish people ostensibly for intending to incite violence but really for the act of desecration itself. And since any act of flag desecration is likely to result in violence by angry bystanders against the person doing the desecrating, Clinton’s proposed law was particularly ripe for abuse.” To be clear, all of this is not evidence that liberals or Democrats were or are equally supportive of flag desecration laws compared with conservatives or Republicans. As I referenced in my 2016 posts on the subject, Republicans have consistently voted for anti-flag desecration amendments at much higher rates than Democrats, and many of the Republicans who have dissented were moderates, not conservatives. Many of the Democrats who voted for these amendments were centrist “Blue Dog Democrats.” Many of the Democrats who supported statutes such as the Flag Protection Act as halfway measures or stealth bans were moderately liberal Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama, who were likely attempting to appear centrist. Meanwhile, more hardline liberal Democrats such as Daniel Inouye, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy, John Lewis, Jerrold Nadler, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Tammy Baldwin tended to oppose all anti-flag desecration laws on free speech grounds. To Obama’s credit, shortly before leaving office, he categorically stated that flag desecration was free speech, making him perhaps the first sitting president to do so. Joe Biden was recently asked to clarify his position on flag desecration laws. According to The Washington Post, “’This is a long-settled constitutional question, with the Supreme Court ruling that flag burning is free speech. For Donald Trump to try to politicize the issue is just that: politics,’ Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told me. He added that Biden does not support a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning.”
As a civil libertarian, this response did not thrill me. Biden did not categorically state that he considers flag desecration to be freedom of speech or that the Supreme Court ruled correctly on this issue. His argument seemed to be that the issue was settled and that Trump was being divisive for bringing it up. The former claim is an odd one, because there are Supreme Court cases older than Texas v. Johnson which are still being debated, and some of them, such as Terry v. Ohio, absolutely should be reversed. Nor did Biden talk about the way in which flag desecration laws represent a grave threat to a free society. Now, Trump’s acolytes will attack Biden for changing his mind and use Biden’s past support for flag desecration laws to defend Trump’s current support. And I very much doubt that there are a significant number of people who are open to voting for Biden but will flock to Trump if Biden unequivocally defends the legal right to desecrate an American flag. With that in mind, I have written a statement that I believe would be a better way for Biden to address and disavow his past support for flag desecration while underscoring his commitment to free speech:
“For the last five years, Donald Trump has, on multiple occasions, called for a law against desecrating the American flag. I have been asked about whether I still support a law against flag desecration, as I did when I was a Senator. Part of being a capable statesman, particularly a president, is stating when you were wrong. I was wrong on the issue of flag desecration laws. Going back to some of the protests I witnessed during the Vietnam War, I was appalled by flag desecration. I felt that it was disrespectful to our soldiers, including those who sacrificed their lives overseas, to our veterans, including those who came home mentally scarred and physically disabled, and to their loved ones. I still believe that flag desecration is deeply hurtful to vast numbers of soldiers, veterans, and their families. I still would never desecrate an American flag, and I would personally discourage others from doing so.
But I have come to realize that when it comes to what the law ought to be, my personal feelings on flag desecration are not relevant. Flag desecration is free speech, plain and simple. It may be incendiary, hurtful, or tasteless, but so are many other forms of expression that we legally permit in order to live in a free society. If you burn someone else’s flag, that is theft and destruction of private property. If you burn your own flag, it is a form of peaceful protest that I do not personally endorse but which the State ought not to interfere with. As the late Senator Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm fighting in World War II, put it, “Our country’s unique because our dissidents have a voice. Protecting this freedom of expression even when it hurts the most is a true test of our democracy.” Perhaps this is why a significant contingent of veterans have long supported the right of flag desecration. William Kunstler, a lawyer who challenged flag desecration laws in Texas v. Johnson, received the Bronze Star during World War II. William J. Brennan, the Supreme Court justice who wrote the decision striking down flag desecration bans in that case, also served as an officer during World War II and lies buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The change in my views was also influenced by Senator Tammy Duckworth, one of the most decorated veterans of the United States military, who lost both of her legs in Iraq and who is adamant that one of the freedoms she fought for was the right to show anger at the government by desecrating the American Flag.
I also have become aware of the grave danger to our freedoms that banning flag desecration poses. Burning an American flag is almost always done to protest the U.S. government. If we reestablish the principle that the government has a right to ban a form of nonviolent protest against itself, then we stand on the precipice of a police State. These are the types of laws we see in countries such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia. They have no place in the Land of the Free. And I would hope that given our president’s statements calling for nonviolent protests and condemning rioting, he would not be so quick to call for outlawing a method of nonviolent protests. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. If we ask that those protesting racial injustice do so nonviolently, we cannot prohibit them from engaging in certain forms of nonviolent protests because we find these protests offensive.
Finally, in the last few years, I have come to understand why some people engage in protests that seem to target our flag, our National Anthem, our Pledge of Allegiance, and other patriotic symbols. The increasingly widespread practice of taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest mistreatment of minorities forced me to look at the history of protests of this nature. Before then, I had thought that anyone who did not adhere to my definition of patriotism simply didn’t appreciate our nation’s greatness. But I found out that these kinds of protest tactics have their roots in the abolitionist movement dedicated to making the American promise of freedom a reality. The great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, burned a copy of the Constitution to protest federal support for slavery. Other abolitionists flew the flag upside down. These types of protests were also used by civil rights activists in the 20th century. The first Supreme Court case dealing with flag desecration involved a black man named Sidney Street who burnt an American flag to protest the attempted murder of another black man, James Meredith, by white supremacists in Mississippi. I will never agree with flag desecration as a method of protest, and I respect the fact it causes pain for many people, but I have a better understanding now of why someone might choose to do it. We cannot stop activists from burning the flag by imprisoning them, and we cannot honor our soldiers and veterans by eliminating the freedoms for which they have fought. I regret that it took me so long to come to this position, but I appreciate the civil libertarians of all kinds–activists, lawyers, Supreme Court judges, veterans, and athletes–who have helped broaden my understanding.”
When we discuss the many horrific results of the Trump presidency, we ought not to forget the result that many social conservatives with rap sheets of bigotry longer than the Golden Gate Bridge have been held up as heroes by liberals for doing little more than denouncing Trump. We saw it with George W. Bush. We saw it with David French, the National Review writer who revoked his support of gay marriage because he thought gay marriage activists were not magnanimous enough. But today, I want to talk about it as regards Mitt Romney. Romney is not like some conservative bigots such as Bush and French, who have been pretty consistently anti-Trump. Nor is he like other conservative bigots such as Glenn Beck, David Marcus, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Erick Erickson, who went from “NeverTrump” to “Never Take Their Lips Off Trump’s Posterior.” In the last four years, Romney has, by my count, gone from anti-Trump, to pro-Trump, to anti-Trump, to pro-Trump-but-thinking Trump is too soft on DREAMers, to anti-Trump. Yes, Romney voted to remove Trump from office–and make Pence the president. Yes, he went to a Black Lives Matter rally and spoke about addressing root causes of riots, which I do find commendable in a way that rallying behind President Pence was not. But there is a certain cruel irony that as we enter Pride Month, many LGBT rights supporters are heaping tributes on a man whose gay rights record is in some ways even worse than Trump’s–and yes, Trump’s gay and trans rights record is horrendous. When cataloguing a record so full of disgusting moments as Romney’s, I think that a timeline of his various missteps on LGBT rights is worthwhile:
1965: As a senior at Cranbrook School, Romney is alleged to have participated in, if not instigated and led, an assault against a now-deceased student named John Lauber. According to the allegation, Lauber, who later came out as gay, ended up in the crosshairs of Romney and friends for having bleached-blond hair draped over one of his eyes. According to a classmate and (presumably former) friend, Matthew Friedemann, Romney complained, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” According to the allegation, Romney and friends held Lauber down, and Romney began vigorously cutting the boy’s hair. According to The Washington Post, “The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them — Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal — spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be identified. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.” Romney responded to the allegations in 2012 by saying, “As to pranks that were played back then, I don’t remember them all, but again, high school days, if I did stupid things, why, I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it.” Now, I myself was not as woke in my senior year of high school as I am now, but if you ask me whether I participated in a hate crime back then, I won’t have to fall on, “I don’t remember.”
Circa 1992: According to The New York Times, Romney talked his son, Tagg, out of becoming a Democrat partly by warning that Democrats would eventually push to legalize gay marriage.
1994: Romney ran for Senate against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts. Massachusetts would become the first state to legalize gay marriage 9 years later, and a socially conservative Republican would have had an uphill battle there. Romney said he supported a federal anti-discrimination law for gay people covering employment, credit, and housing and called on both the military and Boy Scouts of America to welcome openly gay people. All of this would come back to bite Romney later, but looking back, he may wish he had consistently stuck to these positions.
2004: After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage for the state in November of 2003, Romney not only fought the decision tooth and nail but testified before Congress in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage in all 50 states. According to The Deseret News, although Romney coyly expressed a desire “for each state to preserve its own power in relation to marriage,” “he prefers a version that uniformly defines marriage itself as between a man and a woman but allows states to permit as many benefits for same-sex ‘civil unions’ as each deems appropriate.” In other words, Romney did not want Massachusetts to have the power to legalize gay marriage but wanted Utah to have the right to keep it illegal. This position put him to the Right of many more moderate opponents of gay marriage at the time who, while disagreeing with the Massachusetts court’s decision, felt that gay marriage should be decided by each state without a constitutional amendment. For example, John McCain, hardly a gay rights advocate, considered the amendment overkill.
2006: In an interview with the conservative National Review,, Romney called the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act which he had once considered too narrow, “an overly broad law that would open a litigation floodgate and unfairly penalize employers at the hands of activist judges.” On “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he said that, “I agree with President Bush’s decision to maintain this policy and I would do the same.” That same year, he tried to put gay marriage on the ballot for Massachusetts voters with the goal of repealing it.
2007: Romney ran an ad that, according to The New York Times, included “trumpeting his role in fighting gay unions in Massachusetts and his support for a federal marriage amendment banning them.” In a Republican presidential debate later that year, Romney reiterated his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and explicitly stated that his opposition to it in the 1990s was wrong. As a bonus, Romney also gave an interview with Tim Russet in which he affirmed his family’s support for racial equality while failing to state point blank that the Mormon Church’s openly racist policies until 1978 had been wrong.
2011: Romney signed a pledge put forth by the National Organization for Marriage promising to support various anti-gay marriage policies if elected. These included backing a Federal Marriage Amendment and defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court. On the plus side, he changed his position on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” somewhat, disavowing any intent to reinstate the policy now that it had been recently repealed.
2012: In February, his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, stated, “Gov. Romney believes a family with one mother and one father is the ideal setting to raise a child. That doesn’t mean adoption by other parents — whether they be single or same-sex — should be outlawed. States have to make decisions that are in the best interests of children, and where possible that should be in a home with one mother and one father.”
At his RNC convention speech, Romney promised, “I will honor the institution of marriage.” He appointed Robert Bork, who had helped write the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, as well as opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Griswold v. Connecticut, and the decision to allow women into the Virginia Military Institute, to his Justice Advisory Committee. His running mate, Paul Ryan, also voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment. Romney and Ryan repeatedly denounce gay marriage during the election.
2019-2020: The Equality Act was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate in May of 2019. If passed, the Act would extend most of the protections to LGBT Americans that cis women, immigrants, racial, and religious minorities enjoy under our federal anti-discrimination laws. Romney is not among the 46 current Senate cosponsors, who include Republican Susan Collins. Some things, it seems, never change.
I have wanted Cory Booker to be president since back when I was an undergrad, and he was a mayor. I originally envisioned him as a 2016 vice presidential nominee for someone like Andrew Cuomo as a way of building up his experience and name recognition, leading to a presidential run down the road. But now, Booker is out of the running. You might say that he was doomed to failure in a primary with too many candidates louder, richer, more left-wing, and more famous than him. In a race of Socialists and Billionaires, a social liberal-fiscal moderate with a $1.5 million net worth may have been doomed to failure.
With all that in mind, the question for me becomes who to vote for in the primary now. I really like Yang and Patrick. But Yang has somehow managed to promise everyone $12,000 a year and still not pick up much traction, while Patrick wishes he had as much traction as Yang. With Booker out of the running, I would like the next candidate I throw my support behind to have some chance of getting the nomination. Or at least get a percentage of the primary vote that does not start with a decimal point and a zero. For me, this narrows it down to Sanders or Warren. Longtime readers of this blog know my feelings on Gabbard. Suffice to say that defending an anti-gay marriage organization when you are in the process of rehabilitating your image on gay rights is a bit like calling yourself antiwar while criticizing Obama for not bombing enough. Come to think of it, she managed to do both. But perhaps she can win the endorsement of a big money donor such as Bashar al-Assad or Narenda Modi. Biden is a good man and probably one of the top three best vice presidents ever, but there are other people in this race with most of the good aspects of his policy record and less of the drawbacks. Klobuchar has some laudable policy views, but her record on LGBT rights is good-but-not great, and she is so supportive of the Surveillance State that she would probably have the NSA search my Netflix queue. Buttigieg is a trailblazer with some very good policies, but while I consider him to be solidly anti-racist, he has badly mishandled key issues involving police racism and misconduct in South Bend, Indiana. All too often, Buttigieg has discarded the velvet glove for a cat’s paw. 15 years ago, Buttigieg would have been one of the most progressive Democratic candidates on criminal justice issues. But 15 years ago, the special effects in the Star Wars prequels were considered great too. Which brings me to Bernie, Warren, and Steyer. Bernie and Warren are basically tied for my first choice among Democrats who are polling reasonably well. Steyer, however, is me. And he is all of us—all of us who admire both Bernie and Warren, that is.
Why is that? Well, let’s recap. We were treated to the “Game of Telephone from Hell” when anonymous press sources repeated Elizabeth Warren’s private account of a private conversation with no transcript, no recordings, and no witnesses. According to the players, Bernie told Warren in a private meeting that he believed that American sexism, weaponized by Sexist-in-Chief Trump, would prevent a woman from being elected president. The alleged comment, if it was made, was not made in the context of gloating about how a woman could supposedly never make a good president. According to the Warren team’s own account, the comment was made as an indictment of American sexism, not as an indictment of the ability of women to be good leaders. Then, the floodgates of social media opened, and a minority of Bernie and Warren supporters went at each other’s throats. All manner of accusations were hurled. Bernie was working deep cover for the Klan when he protested segregation. Bernie votes on women’s issues like Pat Schroeder but thinks about women’s issues like Pat Buchanan. It’s Bernie’s fault that Clinton lost, Trump won, and Rory got pregnant on the Gilmore Girls revival. No, the minority of angry Bernie supporters said. Warren is a mole from Big Pharma. Warren is a secret white supremacist who rode with the Seventh Cavalry. Warren is an Oklahoma Iago. Warren is a treacherous snake whose fangs drip with private health insurance. Then, those of us who liked both candidates tried to run for the online equivalent of fallout shelters. Meanwhile, Joe Biden stands to make out like a bandit. He has to be liking this dustup more than the Patriot Act. Don’t get me wrong, I love Joe Biden. He’s someone I’d love to go grab a beer—well, in my case, a root beer—with and thank him for the great job he did moving the needle on gay marriage as vice president. But I would like this meeting to take place somewhere in Wilmington, Delaware—not the White House.
Bernie denied ever saying a woman could not be elected but admitted that he warned his old comrade that Donald Trump would subject her to sexist attacks if she ran. Warren declared that the press sources’ version of events was accurate but called Bernie her friend and said she had no interest in litigating the matter further. Which naturally led a CNN debate moderator to litigate the matter further at the following night’s debate. Bernie repeated that he never said a woman could not win. Warren repeated that he had, that he was a friend, and that she wanted to put the matter behind her. They then had an esoteric debate about the meaning of time more fit for a Philosophy seminar than a presidential debate.
I was very pleased that they kept things civil. Then, the aftermath came. Warren approached Bernie. Bernie, for once, chose to extend his hand instead of gesticulating with it. As a gesticulator myself, I sympathize with his plight there. Warren did not shake his hand, which may have been an oversight and may also be my punishment for all the years I spent wishing that the party nominees in the general election debates would stop with the phony handshakes. A phony handshake would have been nice that night. Instead, Warren accused Bernie Sanders of calling her a liar on national television, perhaps implying that calling her a liar on local cable television would have been acceptable. Bernie attempted to deescalate things like only a pugnacious New Yorker can, saying that she had called him a liar and insisting that they have this conversation elsewhere. Normally, I would agree, but in a roundabout way, having a conversation in private with no recordings or witnesses is what started this mess. During this fracas, Tom Steyer came in like manna from Heaven and excitedly said hi to Bernie. Maybe he was oblivious to how agitated the two candidates were. Maybe he was just excited to meet his hero. Maybe he likes photobombing. But in that moment, he stood for all of us who think that Bernie and Warren are both good people, good feminists, and good civil rights advocates generally. Those of us who think that Bernie and Warren would both be great presidents. Those of us who believe that we aren’t experts on an unrecorded conversation we didn’t witness. Those of us who believe that it’s possible for a comment to come across differently than intended or for two people to remember something differently. Steyer should work as a mediator between warring nations, warring spouses, and warring friends. In a world of acrimony, Steyer is the great peace maker.
If you’re interested in free speech, check out my latest piece for Areo Magazine!
Everybody should check my new article published by Areo Magazine! If you think the struggle for LGBT rights over, think again.
Readers of this blog should check out my essay, published in Areo, about the history of authoritarianism and identity politics on the Right!
Williamson writes that it is “remarkable how far back the ideological-partisan lines of U.S. politics are at least partly visible and comprehensible. In the Wilson era, you have a Democratic party pursuing centralization and central planning, suspicious of free markets and competition, allied with academic elites, and pursuing an agenda of regimentation that Democrats presented as ‘scientific’ and supported by dispassionate, empirical evidence. Against that, you have a Republican party allied with business interests, hostile toward taxes and redistribution, promising a restoration of an idealized prelapsarian American order—the ‘return to normalcy.'” As stated in my previous post, this only deals with economic issues, not social issues–more on that later. But even if we only focus on economics, this is an oversimplification. For one thing, “Progressivism” was promoted and opposed by different members of both parties. As Williamson himself references, Teddy Roosevelt left the presidency four years before Wilson entered it and was also a “progressive.” (“Progressive” refers to those who shared the progressives’ economic vision of greater regulation. A progressive in this era could be a social conservative like Wilson, a social moderate like Roosevelt, or a social liberal like Robert LaFollette, Jane Addams, and John Dewey.) As I discussed previously, some of the major supporters of black rights in Congress during this era were Republican progressives. In the nineteenth century, some Republicans, such as Orville Platt and William P. Frye, supported increased rights for black people and government support for American industry mixed with “up by your bootstraps” capitalism for working class and poor Americans. Others, such as Charles Sumner, Henry Wilson, and George Frisbie Hoar, were economic leftists, sometimes even backing radical labor union groups. Democrats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were similarly divided. Grover Cleveland, the last Democratic president before Wilson, was a social and fiscal conservative with certain fascist tendencies. In 1924, Democrats nominated another social and fiscal conservative, John W. Davis, for president.
It is certainly true that some socially conservative Republican did defend black rights during these years. For example, Senator Boies “Big Grizzly” Penrose of Pennsylvania was anti-women’s suffrage, anti-Chinese immigration, and pro-suspension of civil liberties in wartime. He also opposed segregation, including bans on interracial marriage. Meanwhile, his 1914 Senate Election opponent, Representative A. Mitchell Palmer, was seen as a progressive Democrat and favored women’s suffrage but voted to ban interracial marriage. Still, close analysis does not support Williamson’s assertion. Firstly, Palmer became infamous as Attorney General for his suppression of leftists’ civil liberties via the “Palmer Raids” that were a precursor to the Red Scare. He may have leaned left, but he was hardly a Robert LaFollette. Additionally, the 1914 Pennsylvania Senate race was a three-way contest. Penrose and Mitchell also ran against Gifford Pinchot. While Pinchot was nominated by the Progressive Party in this election, he spent most of his career as a Republican and was liberal on most domestic issues besides crime. He was also generally supportive of African Americans’ rights. Conservatives like Penrose did not support civil rights because they were conservatives. They supported it because they were Yankee Republicans. I previously argued that Southern Democratic support for segregation was so entrenched that even a liberal Southern Democrat like Bilbo could champion it. I would also submit that support for black rights was entrenched enough among Northeastern and Great Lakes Republicans that even conservative Republicans from those parts of the country often subscribed to it.
What about Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s Republican successor. Williamson says he was “allied with business interests, hostile toward taxes and redistribution, promising a restoration of an idealized prelapsarian American order—the ‘return to normalcy.'” Again, while Harding was fiscally conservative, his social views were moderate. In addition to being markedly less anti-black than Wilson, he voted against the Sedition Act and pardoned Eugene Debs, a Socialist presidential candidate arrested in the Wilson Administration for encouraging draft resistance. Williamson goes on to reiterate his points about Wilson’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s racism, which I have already discussed at length in my previous essay. He then continues conflating social and fiscal liberalism and conservatism, which, again, has already been throughly covered by me. Williamson poses the question: “If the southern Democrats were ‘conservatives,’ then the New Deal was passed on conservative support, which is a very odd claim to make. What do we call the Republican anti-New Dealers, then?” Based on the facts of their record, I believe we should call them social conservative-fiscal liberals or populist authoritarians. But it begs another point. Throughout the bulk of their history, Southern Democrats have generally opposed not only emancipation and later desegregation but also such liberal ideas as women’s suffrage, nonEuropean immigration, Separation of Church and State, and civil liberties for leftist radicals. They generally favored suspension of individual rights in the name of national security, capital punishment, harsh “law and order” policies generally, traditional views on gender, etc. If they are labeled “liberal” or “left-wing,” what, then, do we call the people who disagreed with these social views? Similarly, before the 20th century, many Republicans favored not only more rights for black people but also women’s rights, nonEuropean immigration, environmentalism, ending the death penalty, and Separation of Church and State. They also voted for many of these policies at a much higher rate than Democrats. The support by many Republicans of keeping religion and government separate is worth looking at in some depth. It was Charles Sumner who helped kill a constitutional amendment that would have virtually declared Christianity the State Religion. It was Republican president and 1884 GOP presidential nominee, Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine, respectively, who were some of the most prominent opponents of taxpayer funding for religious schools. In Illinois and Wisconsin, Republican state Supreme Court judges were pivotal in ending or severely scaling back official Bible readings, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and Devotional Hymns in state public schools. (This, of course, was different from students choosing to recite and read religious texts themselves, which most social liberals have favored allowing.) My previous post discussed both Teddy Roosevelt’s and Robert Taft’s support for separation of Church and State. If being pro-black rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-nonEuropean immigration, pro-environmentalism, pro-Separation of Church and State, and anti-death penalty in the 19th and early 20th centuries makes one a conservative, then the term loses much of its meaning.
I want to first apologize for the lateness of this blog. I have been very busy recently with a 10-day trip to Maine and a new puppy named Wendell Phillips Boyd.
Anyhow, I have finally gotten around to responding to another article by National Review‘s Kevin Williamson. I plan on writing another two rebuttals to other essays written within the last couple of weeks or so by James Kirchick and Tom Woods as time permits. I also feel that while the article by Williamson that I am responding to is from June 23, the claims he made are repeated frequently by conservatives and have become effectively a timeless issue. Williamson recently attempted to further argue that segregationist Democrats were liberals. After touting his admiration of William F. Buckley as a disclaimer, Williamson writes that, “Professor Kevin Kruse of Princeton, pretending to correct my assertion that it is a mistake to call the segregationist Democrats of the Roosevelt era ‘conservatives,’ correctly notes that WFB believed he had found a kindred conservative spirit in some of those Democrats and thought that they might be pried away from the Democratic party by the Republicans, among whom self-conscious conservatism was ascendant by the middle 1960s.” Williamson then insists that Buckley was wrong, because “with a tiny handful of notable exceptions (the grotesque opportunist Strom Thurmond prominent among them) the segregationist Democrats remained Democrats.” While I agree that Thurmond was a grotesque opportunist, it is not at all true that only a “tiny handful” of white Southern Democrats left the party. Kruse gave a rather lengthy list of racist Democratic defectors here, while also pointing out the problem with focusing only on politicians who switched parties and ignoring rank and file voters. And it has been demonstrated that racism is critical to explaining why so many white Southern voters left the Democratic Party. It is also worthwhile to consider ticket splitting. In the 1968 presidential election, George Wallace won a plurality of votes in Georgia, with Democrat Hubert Humphrey coming in third place in the Peach State. At the same time, Georgia voters reelected Talmadge in a huge landslide. In North Carolina, voters backed Republican Richard Nixon for president and Sam Ervin for Senator. In 1972, Alabama voters backed Nixon for president and Sparkman for Senate. Arkansas did the same with Nixon and McClellan. Mississippi reelected Nixon and Eastland. Similar patterns could be observed with other segregationist Democratic Senators. Interestingly, a parallel pattern took place with antiracist Republicans in liberal Northern states. In 1968, New York voters supported Humphrey for president and reelected Javits to the Senate. In 1972, Massachusetts was the only state to vote for Democratic presidential candidate, George McGovern, yet also reelected GOP Senator Edward Brooke. In 1976, both Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, and Republican Senate nominee, John Chafee, handily won in Rhode Island. In 1988, Minnesota voters backed the Democrat Michael Dukakis for president and Republican David Durenberger for Senate. Thus, even if many racist, white Southern voters did not stop voting for racist Democratic Senators after 1964, they did often begin voting for Republican presidential candidates. And even if many pro-civil rights Republican voters in the North did not stop voting for pro-civil rights Republican Senators after 1964, many voted for Democratic presidential candidates.
After repeating his old points about Dixiecrats’ support for left-wing economic policies–which, as stated in my last post, give no insight into the Dixiecrats’ social liberalism or lack thereof–Williamson writes, “WFB helpfully published a list of those Democrats he thought possibly ready to defect to the Republican party. You would have done well to bet against him. James Eastland? No. John McClellan? No. John Stennis? No. Sam Ervin? No. Herman Talmadge? No. Allen Ellender? No. Spessard Holland? No. John Sparkman? Strike . . . eight.” Let’s consider the 1962 ratings for these Senators by Americans for Democratic Action, a group dedicated to advancing liberal positions in the party. Eastland and Stennis of Mississippi both either abstained or voted against the ADA’s position on every issue used for ratings purposes. McClellan voted with the ADA two times out of twelve. Ervin voted with the ADA one time out of twelve. Talmadge abstained once and voted against the ADA’s position eleven times. Ellender voted with the ADA only twice. Holland voted liberal three times out of twelve. Sparkman voted liberal four times, making him look like the radical lefty of the group. What about some of the Republicans who had pro-civil rights voting records? Were they basically Tom Cottons who just voted liberal on race issues? Not quite. Take Jacob Javits and Kenneth Keating of New York, two of the great civil rights champions of the Senate, both Republicans. Javits voted conservative twice, abstained twice, and voted liberal…eight times. Keating was less liberal but still voted with the ADA half the time. Senator Clifford Case of New Jersey voted liberal eight times out of twelve. Representatives Frank Morse and Silvio Conte of Massachusetts voted liberal four times out of eight. Robert Stafford of Vermont, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and William Cahill of New Jersey voted liberal six times out of eight. Representative Florence Dwyer of New Jersey voted liberal seven times out of eight. Representatives Seymour Halpern of New York and Stanley Tupper of Maine voted liberal eight times out of eight. Even many pro-civil rights Republicans who received lower ratings scored higher than most of the Dixiecrats mentioned above. Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut voted liberal four out of twelve times. Senator Thomas Kuchel of California voted liberal five times out of twelve. Diehard conservatives they were not. What about the man Buckley referred to as “liberal,” Olin Johnson? Johnson voted liberal four times, abstained once, and voted conservative seven times. Not a diehard conservative voting record, but not a strong liberal one either.