When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he supposedly told an aide, “We (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation.” If he really said that, he missed it by a couple of generations. After 50 years, the South is still solidly Republican. That’s a price Johnson and the Democrats paid for doing something morally right.
In recent years, too, Democrats have traded victories in policy for electoral ones. The passage of the Affordable Care Act, combined with a still struggling economy, led to the Republican wave of 2010. Add in the battle over marriage equality and the 2014 election became another sweeping victory for the GOP.
Democrats have paid a steep price at the ballot box for victories that provide equality and protection for members our society. History will tell us they were prices worth paying. Health care reform is very much a work in progress but it’s already given access to care to 20 million Americans. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act effectively ended the horrendous Jim Crow era and the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage quality begins treating members of LGBT community like everybody else, at least as far as family structure is concerned. These fights are far from over, but, in the aftermath of these victories, the battlefield changed for the better.
The next fight that could cost Democrats in elections is the fight over Confederate monuments. It’s certainly past time for them to be removed from public property, but the battle could be painful if Democrats make it a central part of their message moving forward. According to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 62% of Americans think “statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy” should remain in place. A plurality of African-Americans, 44%, agree with this sentiment.
I doubt that more than 60% of Americans sympathize with the Confederacy. It’s just that the vast majority of them don’t care. Removing Confederate statues is not something they think about. Those statues are relics of the past that hold little symbolism for most people anymore.
And that’s where Democrats get in trouble. If they make the 2018 election a referendum on removing statues, they will look like they’re out of touch with the majority of people who are more worried about jobs, wages and their personal economic security. The knock on Democrats is that they’re more attentive to the concerns of activists than those of middle class Americans.
The monuments need to be moved, but Democrats should tread carefully. The battle over monuments is not comparable to the ones for civil rights, marriage equality or health care. The primary focus of their message moving toward 2018 should remain economic. A Democratic victory at the polls next year is the fastest way to move those statues.
Donald Trump and the Republicans want very much to be talking about the monuments and the Civil War. It plays to their base and distracts from their failures. It also highlights their criticism that Democrats spend too much time calling people racists and too little time worrying about the middle class.
Since the tragedy in Charlottesville the discussion has been more about the reemergence of the white supremacist movement and its relationship with Trump, to his detriment. Now, he’s trying to shift the conversation to monuments. It’s not a difficult pivot. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said yesterday, “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” After 2016, Democrats should heed his warning.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >