The long shadow of 1964

I have spent close to four years not only recording the major contemporary events of America’s political collapse, but fitting pieces into a backstory.

Major structural vulnerabilities were there since the ink dried on the Constitution, but the present collapse was really set in motion in the early 1960s.

If I had to choose three events for a summary, I would choose these:

Democratic president Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, setting off an enormous generation-long exodus of racists from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

The same year, according to Kevin Kruse, “NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller tried to win the party back from ‘extremists’ but was heckled and harassed” at the national convention where moderate and liberal Republicans sought to “make a stand.” It proved to be a last stand.

In 1979, “evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.”

Possibly one could omit item two, or combine it with item one. For a third item one might instead choose Roger Ailes’ takeover of Fox News in 1996, or perhaps the “Powell Memo” of 1971 which called for such projects. Certainly the establishment of right-wing media is significant; “Researchers have concluded that if Fox News hadn’t existed, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the two-party vote would have been 3.59 points lower in 2004 and 6.34 points lower in 2008. Without Fox, in other words, the GOP’s only popular vote win since the 1980s would have been reversed and the 2008 election would have been an extinction-level landslide.”

I wonder, however, what research might find if it could measure the political impact of a cynical and incredibly effective project to persuade millions that the opposing political party stands for mass murder of infants. I can’t help wondering if this—intentional promotion of a previously niche belief that aborting a pregnancy constitutes child murder—is the single most destructive political campaign in American history. This basically replaced any possibility of remotely rational political debate or compromise, for millions, with a religious conviction which obliges them to see nonbelievers as evil.

I also wonder, however, if the seemingly permanent loss of the Republican Party—to a fanatical sect bent on imposing politically toxic policies through subversion of open, democratic political input—was the most important event of all in setting America on a path toward collapse.

America’s political institutions and customs and other conceptual infrastructure were so ossified by the second half of the 20th century that “the two-party system” was far more immutable than the written parts of the Constitution. Our formal rules, at a fundamental level, barely even recognize the existence of political parties; the habits and stories and conceptual infrastructure which shape how people actually think and behave are firmly reliant on Democrats and Republicans, bipartisanship, balance, red and blue, etc.

Within this system, the permanent loss of an entire political party to illiberalism was more consequential than the loss of elections, of legislative chambers, of states, even of judicial appointments.

In theory it should be possible to thwart this, but in practice we’re more than half a century on and no new framework seems to be emerging to replace the unworkable model of Democrats and Republicans, bipartisanship, balance, red and blue, etc. Significantly, not only does America not know what to do with political parties which are largely “sorted” rather than interchangeable parts, the sorting itself took a long time even after the 1964 “last stand” for pluralism as any real influence within the Republican Party. Even as Republicans won landslide national victories in the 1980s, voters kept reelecting Congressional incumbents with the result that it took until 1994 for a Republican House and Senate majority.

The trend toward the Republican Party’s corruption was gradual, but steady and continuous. Fifty-six years later this has effectively made America ungovernable, and there is no evidence that America knows what to do about this.

Logically, the options are 1) rehabilitate the Republican Party, 2) find a way to function without it, or 3) this toxic force and the resulting state of perma-crisis will continue to get worse.

Scenario three seems the most likely by far.

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