StarTribune, August 22, 2012
A look back at U.S. history uncovers an undeniable vein of intolerance and right-wing fanaticism. Recent discussions about the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 revealed ugly calls for genocide and ethnic cleansing by Gov. Alexander Ramsey.
Ramsey was a Republican. But from the birth of the Republican Party in 1854 until about 1965, the real home of right-wing fanaticism was the Democratic Party.
In our own time, the far right has migrated to the Republican Party, where today it is challenging for that party’s soul.
Democrats dominated the Southern part of the United States after the Civil War and ruled Dixie in the interests of white manhood. In 1928, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, the dean of Southern historians, proclaimed that maintaining the South as a “white man’s country” was the “central theme” in Southern history.
The South experienced regularized and public lynching for more than 50 years; disenfranchised millions of black voters, and created a segregated system of life that was dramatically unequal.
But the Democratic Party was a complicated organization. As the great American humorist Will Rogers said long ago: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.”
And sure enough, as the Democratic Party reorganized itself in the North following the Civil War, it became the home of millions of immigrants, most of them from Eastern and Southern Europe, and many of them Catholic and Jewish.
In 1924, the Northern wing asserted itself at the Democratic National Convention. New York Gov. Alfred E. Smith attempted to become the first Catholic to be nominated for president by a major party. Before the nomination battle, Smith’s forces attempted to pass a resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan. The resolution failed, and, after 103 ballots, so did Smith’s run for president.
In 1928, Smith would win his party’s nomination. And 32 years later, Democrat John Kennedy would become our first Catholic president.
Al Smith and his supporters had challenged the anti-Catholic bigotry and the Ku Klux Klan that dominated the Democratic Party. After 1928, those who felt committed to anti-Catholicism had to find a new party.
Twenty years later, at the 1948 Democratic Convention, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey delivered a speech declaring that “the time has now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
After Humphrey challenged the white supremacists for power, the entire Mississippi and Alabama delegations walked out of the convention and soon, with other Southern states, formed the so-called Dixiecrat party. Led by South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrats’ platform left no doubt about where they stood: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”
Americans like to believe that with the triumph of the civil-rights and women’s movements, the nation overcame its legacy of intolerance. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The far right did not disappear. It suffered setbacks between 1954 and 1973, but it never gave up, nor did it fade away.
And now, the radical right feels empowered and is challenging to dominate the Republican Party.
Just as Hubert Humphrey used to sit in caucus with notorious racists, today well-meaning Republicans caucus with crazy folk like Missouri congressman Todd Akin, who believes that women who are “legitimately” raped can shake it off to prevent a pregnancy.
Well-meaning Republicans caucus with colleagues who would deny basic human rights to gays; who oppose birth control; who protest background checks for buying the most lethal forms of firearms; who question the loyalty of Muslim Americans, and who deny the legitimacy of the president’s citizenship.
Courageous Democrats fought a struggle for the soul of their party and won. If the same struggle were to happen within the Republican Party, we might at last become a nation where no national party welcomes the intolerant and the bigoted. But who among the Republicans has the courage of Alfred E. Smith or Hubert Humphrey?
Jeffrey Kolnick is an associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.