I believe that where there is a political problem in America, you can usually trace that problem to racism. Wanna try me? How about the corrupting influence of money in politics? It means corporations control Congress, right? And because there’s so much money in politics, getting into Congress nowadays is often not much more than a job interview for a lucrative future gig as a lobbyist for big business. Representatives don’t even want to govern. They just want to win big for their potential future employers. And in 2008, when an unregulated, out of control financial sector crashed our economy, all that political money and greed played a huge role.
But what does this have to do with race? Bear with me a minute and read on.
In Republic Lost, Harvard Law Prof Lawrence Lessig tells an interesting story. From 1933 to 1995, Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. In the early part of those years, Democrats gave us the New Deal. They also gave us Social Security, among a host of other programs, the legacies of which we mostly take for granted. Meanwhile, Republicans were the minority party of the rich. They played a powerful role, but mainly as a counter-weight to Democratic liberalism.
But then came President Johnson. He sacrificed himself politically to the project of getting the Democratic Party behind Civil Rights. This started a racist backlash among a key demographic in the Democratic base – white Southerners. To racially conservative white Southern Democrats, many of whose ancestors turned Democrat because Lincoln the “liberator” was a Republican, Civil Rights was a deal breaker.
Evidence that racism could get culturally conservative white Southerners to switch parties gave wealthy corporate interests hope that the GOP might once again become the majority party, even after screwing things up so royally leading up to the Great Crash of 1929. They began investing unprecedented millions into political campaigns aimed at turning economically liberal but racially conservative white Southern Democrats into Republicans.
By 1995, Republicans took the House. Along the way, millions more were invested in eliminating campaign finance restrictions and deregulating corporations. In order to be competitive, Democrats jumped into the money game as well. Once both sides were bought, important regulations on the financial sector like the Glass-Steagall Act, intended to never again allow something like the market crash of 1929 to recur, were repealed (under Bill Clinton, BTW).
To give you some sense of the scale of the change, in 1974, the total of all Congressional campaign expenditures was $77 million. By 2010, it was $1.8 billion. Between 1995 and 2010, control of Congress changed as many times as it had in the previous 45 years. During this period, what Lessig refers to as “the fundraising Congress,” was born, wherein leadership is determined by one’s ability to raise campaign cash.
Racism was the fissure in the Democratic coalition that led Republicans to hope that they could rule again, and racist messaging was the wedge Republicans used to turn that fissure into a divide so wide it would split the Democratic coalition that led the U.S. out of the Great Depression. This split caused elites to view conservative campaign contributions as potentially lucrative investments. The success of those investments is what positioned them to deregulate finance, and lack of regulation and oversight is what, in large part, led to the crisis we now find ourselves in – a crisis that has messed up the current financial status of those formerly Democratic, now Republican, poor white southerners for generations to come.
So, why care about race? I lost a house and my savings to the crash of 2008. What’s your story?