A recent article in The Birmingham News noted that Democrats, in the wake of the midterm elections, might be nearing extinction in Alabama. That makes you wonder if the same could hold true in other states.
It's an absurd notion, of course. Nothing reminds voters of Democrats' good qualities like several years of Republican rule. But the News' article raises a deeper issue that definitely is worth pondering.
It notes the profound impact of race on the rise of the Republican Party in Alabama--and elsewhere. And that raises this troubling question: Has America's white majority become so addled and agitated with race-based fears that it is incapable of making rational decisions to address the nation's problems?
We can't ponder that question without thinking back to "White America Has Lost Its Mind," a Village Voice article from a couple of months ago. Writer Steven Thrasher presented Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Glenn Beck, and other right-wing luminaries as evidence that white people in America are playing with a few loose shingles.
Thrasher's piece is alternately alarming and entertaining, and here is his central theory: White Americans started going around the bend when Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008.
In our minds, Thrasher definitely was onto something--and the midterm results seem to confirm it. But we can't help but ask this question: Did the unraveling of white America begin way before the rise of Barack Obama?
Thrasher's piece was a fascinating read before the election, and it might be an even more enlightening read now. But we're not sure that we agree with Thrasher's core theory. In fact, we would argue that he is being way too kind toward white Americans. We submit that signs of mental instability were present in our "honky precincts" long before most of us had ever heard of Barack Obama.
I feel qualified to comment on this subject because: (A) I am definitely a honky; and (B) Before finally pulling my head out of a certain orifice in the early 1990s, I was part of the problem. It shames me now to write these words, but I voted Republican through much of the 1980s. Do I have an explanation for this depraved behavior? Nope--other than, "I must have temporarily lost my mind."
You see, I know what it's like to have your mind twisted by the conservative noise machine. Been there, done that. But I think Thrasher is mistaken if he thinks it started with Barack Obama.
The Birmingham News, in its assessment of Alabama Democrats, seems to agree with me. Here is how reporter Charles J. Dean opens his piece:
What do dinosaurs and Democrats have in common?
They once roamed Alabama.
That's one of the jokes making the rounds after what was a triumphant election for Alabama Republicans and a disaster for state Democrats.
But behind the joke is a real question: In the wake of a historic election that saw Democrats lose every single statewide race and lose control of the Legislature for the first time in 136 years, is the Alabama Democratic Party, like the dinosaur, extinct?
Natalie Davis, a professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College and a one-time Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has harsh words for her party:
"This party has tired leadership and it offers voters nothing that speaks to their daily concerns and needs," Davis said. "Name me a policy proposal that has been passed with Democratic leadership which speaks to the needs of working families. . . . I have a hard time coming up with one."
Did the Democrats' problems, as The Village Voice contends, really begin with Barack Obama? Without his funky name, I suspect many Americans would forget that Obama is even black. Heck, the guy makes Don "No Soul" Simmons look like James Brown.
But The Village Voice says even a black president "lite," such as Obama, is too much for white America to handle. Here is how Thrasher puts it:
About 12:01 on the afternoon of January 20, 2009, the white American mind began to unravel.
It had been a pretty good run up to that point. The brains of white folks had been humming along cogently for near on 400 years on this continent, with little sign that any serious trouble was brewing. White people, after all, had managed to invent a spiffy new form of self-government so that all white men (and, eventually, women) could have a say in how white people were taxed and governed. White minds had also nearly universally occupied just about every branch of that government and, for more than two centuries, had kept sole possession of the leadership of its executive branch (whose parsonage, after all, is called the White House).
But when that streak was broken—and, for the first time, a non-white president accepted the oath of office—white America rapidly began to lose its grip.
That's darned good writing. And it's accurate--as far as it goes. But Thrasher needs to take a trip on the way-back machine. Why did white America begin to rapidly lose its grip with Obama's inauguration? Because it already had been losing its grip for years.
Consider the Clinton years. In December 1992, I distinctly remember seeing my first "Impeach Clinton" and "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Bush" bumper stickers--and President-Elect Clinton had not even taken office yet.
"Are these people nuts?" I remember saying to myself. The answer, it seems clear now, was yes.
And I would submit that the ungluing of white America actually goes back farther than that. I trace it to the founding of the Moral Majority in 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president. Many Americans believe that the Moral Majority, and the "Christian Right" that followed it, started out of a concern about abortion rights. Actually, Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority in reaction to a Carter-administration plan to remove the tax-exempt status for private schools that practiced segregation.
With Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ruling the White House for 12 years, white Americans felt a sense of security through the 1980s and into the early '90s. I am convinced that many whites thought Republicans would dominate presidential politics for the foreseeable future. So when Clinton proved them wrong about that, they reacted with extraordinary vitriol.
And it went way beyond bumper stickers. At the first opportunity, Republicans launched the Whitewater investigation, which dealt with matters long before Clinton was president--and even before he was governor of Arkansas.
Could you imagine Democrats investigating George W. Bush over events that started 14 years before he was president? Could you imagine the country tolerating such an abuse of prosecutorial power? I certainly can't. Hell, Barack Obama is afraid to support an investigation of apparent crimes while Bush was president.
White America put up with Whitewater because Bill Clinton was a Democrat. And in retrospect, that might have been a glaring warning sign that white America was starting to lose its mind.
As we noted in a recent post, a warped interpretation of Christianity seems to be driving our democracy into a state of dysfunction. That's why I lay much of the blame for our current mess at the feet of religious "leaders" such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson--and many of their lesser-known brethren.
How much delusional garbage spews forth from America's pulpits every Sunday morning? Huge amounts is my guess. Much of it is un-Christian, un-Biblical, and certainly un-American.
Want a profound take on the 2010 midterms? Consider the words of William H. Stewart, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama:
Stewart said what happened Nov. 2 in Alabama was the final fulfillment of President Lyndon Johnson's prediction when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
"President Johnson at that time said the act would eventually lead to the death of the Democratic Party in the South, and he was essentially right," Stewart said. "What happened election night has really been coming for almost 50 years. I think the Republican Party began its ascent in 1964 and in 2010 it completed the journey in Alabama."
Where do we go from here? Steven Thrasher's piece in The Village Voice made me laugh out loud several times. But the harsh reality is this: White folks still make up a solid majority of the U.S. population. And when a significant proportion of that majority acts in irrational ways, it is not a laughing matter. It is downright dangerous.
Huge numbers of Americans in the midterm elections voted to restore the policies that brought us to the edge of economic ruin. That is a sign of warped thinking, which can have catastrophic consequences. And there is nothing funny about that.
If you are like me, you could use a little humor after examining this grim subject. So let's return to Don "No Soul" Simmons, an unforgettable character from the 1987 comedy classic Amazon Women on the Moon. If Obama is too much, what kind of black guy can white America handle? Maybe "No Soul" is the answer. (Warning: This clip includes "No Soul" Simmons singing Three Dog Night's Joy to the World, plus a hysterical cameo from B.B. King. If you aren't prepared for it, you might hurt yourself.)