June 5, 2008
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End of an Era (fortunately!)

Rick Perlstein (Nixonland) reminds us just how important Obama’s nomination is, by going back to Paul Douglas’s last campaign for the senate. Douglas held the seat that Obama now occupies; from 1948 on he was a liberal lion who fought indefatigably for civil rights against a Democratic Party that was still in thrall to the solid south. Perlstein opened up box 722 of the Douglas archive — the letters he received about Open Housing in Chicago, the hottest of hot topics in that hot summer.

They are filled with frightful racism. The mildest letters would make a modern Republican blush today. But that is how people felt, and so the working men and women of the cities began a forty-year embrace of the Republican cause.

This was The Backlash. And today, at last, it is over.

Here is the fundamental tragedy of the backlash: Voters like this empowered a party that decided they didn't need protection against predatory subprime mortgage fraud. Didn't need affordable, universal health insurance; made it easier for companies to rape their pensions; kept on going back to the well to destroy their Social Security; worked avidly to shred their union protections. Fought, in fact, every decent and wise social provision that made it possible in the first place for mere factory workers to live in glorious Chicago bungalows, or suburban homes, in the first place.

Now a black man from the city King visited in 1966 and called more hateful than Mississippi is running for president, fighting for all those things that made the mid-century American middle class the glory of world civilization, but which that middle class squandered out of the small-mindedness of backlash.