My mother, who grew up in Decatur, Georgia, used to tell me about seeing the Ku Klux Klan in their white robes and hoods hoisting their fiery torches as they came riding down from Stone Mountain. They terrorized black communities, but it was another kind of fear that kept them going, that gave them their dreadful legitimacy: the fear of Southern whites that their way of life was slipping away. In their road houses, country clubs and political cloakrooms, they put up a good front of bigoted bravado, but deep down they were afraid. The Klan was their avenging angel.
I hear that same tremulous fear when Ted Cruz rails against Obamacare, when Eric Cantor warns of the culture of dependency created by food stamps. They talk about specific programs, but what they are really fighting are the demographic and social changes that are overtaking them. They feel threatened, and they are angry. The Tea Party wears their white robes and carries their torches.
Not everyone in the south wanted burning crosses and lynchings. Many thought the Klan was an abomination. A few stood up, or sat down, until blacks were treated better. But there were many who did not. Some were the timid sympathizers Martin Luther King spoke of ---“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”---but many secretly wanted what the Klan wanted: a return to the old ways of blacks who knew their place and whites who, however poor, had someone they could look down on.
There are silent groups like that today. Some want health care and immigration reform and a strong and flexible social safety net. Others just want to be left alone. In the Old South, the lines were racial. Now the struggle is not mostly about black or brown or white, although that is certainly part of it, but more about the haves and the have-nots. Intended or not, the policies of today’s Republicans---less discretionary government spending, less regulation, lower taxes---elevate the halves over the have-nots as plainly and effectively as segregated schools separated blacks from whites.
So who is sitting in at lunch counters today? Who is refusing to give up her seat on the bus? You might think those in the front line fighting the Republican Right would be many of the residents of Owsley County, Kentucky. As Timothy Egan pointed out in a recent column, Owsley County has the lowest household income in the United States. Half its residents live below the poverty line. Half receive federal food aid. Surely they are angry that the Republican controlled House wants to take away what little government support they have. But if they are, they aren’t letting it affect their party allegiance. Owsley County, which is ninety-eight percent white, is eighty-one percent Republican.
The reason for that apparent paradox is (as it always has been) fear of change. This go round it’s not the changes associated with ending discrimination against blacks that the good people of Owsley County are uneasy about, but the threat to their way of life that they believe is posed by godless technocrats who want to tell them they have to have insurance to cover contraception, that abortion is a woman’s choice, or that it’s okay for one man to love another and raise children with him. These attacks on core moral beliefs are more threatening than fiscal conservatism. Besides, they’re still getting their assistance checks. That hasn’t changed. Yet.
But if the Republican Right has its way, change it will. Money for most social programs will dry up. People in need will have nowhere to turn. For them it will be like the Great Depression before the New Deal. Or like being black in the Jim Crow South.
When we get to that point, the pendulum will swing back. Poor and working class citizens, and immigrants pursuing the American Dream, will realize that the far right does not have their economic interests at heart. They will vote for a fair shake, for a level playing field. A new progressive era will begin. It may take another generation, but it will happen. I just wish we could avoid the pain we will have to go through to get there.