Turn Back the Clock?

Presidential campaigns are built on webs of contingency.  If Joe Biden’s candidacy had failed at some stage, Amy Kobuchar or Pete Buttigieg might have run the table against Bernie Sanders. Or Sanders might have run the table against one of them. Or Mike Bloomberg might have gained the Democratic Party’s nomination.

But US Representative James Clyburn’s speech endorsing Joe Biden ten days ago in the South Carolina primary established a two-person race practically overnight and vaulted Biden into the lead. “I know Joe,” Clyburn said.  “We know Joe.  Most important, Joe knows us.”  To better understand how eleven words could have been so powerful, I turned to The Age of Entitlement: America since the Sixties, by Christopher Caldwell (Simon and Schuster, 2020.)

Caldwell, a contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books and an occasional opinion columnist for The New York Times, is one of a handful of authors I follow hoping to understand what has happened to the Republican Party.   Myriad streams of opinion influence Republican position-taking, of course. I am interested mainly in those that can be described as revisionist history.

They don’t come much more revisionist than Caldwell. Globalization and technology have little do with the polarization of the present day, according to him.  The vile mood stems instead from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What was intended to be “a transitional measure leading to a stable, racially-mixed society,” metastasized into the template of a bill of rights for women, immigrants, LGBTs, the handicapped, the aged, and environmentalists, Caldwell says. Courts and bureaucracies have replaced democracy. The ideology of civil rights, relabeled human rights, hardened into a body of legislation and case law that today amounts to a second constitution, according to Caldwell, at odds with the version of 1788.

Those who lost most from the new rights-based identity politics were white men, he writes, because the new laws helped everybody but them. “They fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country, and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.”

In this telling, the Fourteenth Amendment, with its guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law, was a bridge too far, passed in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, would have been enough. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, in 1954, was a mistake, in that it “put certain public bodies under surveillance for racism.” Rosa Parks was not a weary seamstress looking for a place to sit down on a bus; she was trained agitator, an intellectual leader of the Montgomery, Ala., chapter of the NAACP, a soldier in what Harry Kalven, Jr., a long-ago University of Chicago professor of law, described as “an almost military assault on the constitution.” Robert Bork was “a towering figure in American legal philosophy” for expressing his misgivings about the constitutionality of civil rights legislation. And 1992 presidential candidate Pat Buchanan was a seer, for having run the first campaign against globalization. (For a fuller account of The Age of Entitlement, see Johnathan Rauch’s incisive review.)

Today, Caldwell concludes,

Democrats, loyal to the 1964 constitution, [cannot] acknowledge, (or even see) that they owed their ascendancy to a rollback of the basic constitutional freedoms [of association] Americans cherished most.  Republicans, loyal to the-1964 constitution, [cannot] acknowledge (or even see) that the only way back to the free country their ideals was through the repeal of the civil rights laws.

It’s a coherent position, vigorously argued. Its resentment of elites of all sorts, real and imagined, is certainly the tacit position of President Trump. Surely it is a distillation of views opposition to which inspired Rep. Clyburn’s endorsement of Sen. Biden.

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