Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Politics of Courage

This past weekend I attended the opening of Tim Kaine’s campaign office in Richmond. I first got to know Tim when he was a member of the city council. He subsequently became our mayor, then lieutenant governor, governor, and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Now he’s running to succeed Jim Webb in the US Senate.

Kaine opened his remarks to the highly partisan crowd by paying tribute to a Republican: his father-in-law, Linwood Holton, who served as governor from 1970-1974. Kaine said that Holton turned Virginia from a backward-looking to a forward-looking state.

Virginia had been dominated for decades by conservative, vehemently segregationist Democrats under the leadership of Harry Byrd, a governor and later US senator. Holton took a courageous stand for school integration in a state where a previous governor had led a campaign of Massive Resistance against mixing black and white children. When the courts ordered cross-town busing in an effort to enforce integration, he made front page news by placing his daughter, Ann, in the mostly African American public schools.

An increasingly conservative Republican party (which included former Democrats) shunned Holton. He was succeeded by Mills Godwin, who had earlier served as a Democratic governor but was re-elected as a Republican. 

As Holton, now 89, sat in the front row of the campaign rally, Tim Kaine called him “my personal hero.” It was a stirring reminder of what politics at its best can be.

Kaine said that when you see a proud party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, declare that its primary goal is to defeat President Obama (rather than restoring the economy or the job market) you know something needs to change. Of course, many Democrats demonized George W. Bush from the day he took office and he suffered ferocious attacks on his policies such as the invasion of Iraq.  When Democrats gained control of the House, some were over-eager to exact revenge for the Republican years. But the assault on Obama seems prompted less by what he has done by than who is. After all, as even some traditionally conservative commentators have noted, many of the accusations are simply irrational. Deeper emotions are at work.  

Just twenty-four hours before Kaine’s rally, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary in a stunning upset over Romney. While Gingrich’s undoubtedly superior debating skills scored him points, the result was also a sharp reminder of how North-South cultural and racial divides continue to infect national politics and often trump other considerations. Forty-four percent of (mostly white) evangelicals voted for the former House Speaker despite his philandering, his disciplining by the House for ethics accusations, his questionable lobbying practices, and his utter lack of Christian humility.

Gingrich tapped into a gut reaction in the electorate. His reference to a “food stamp president” is a perfect example of “dog-whistle politics” where coded language targets the prejudices of a specific audience. Ronald Reagan used the same tactic with his “welfare queen” references. Politicians often don’t believe their own rhetoric. But in their thirst for political power, Republicans may be in danger of unleashing emotions that they are unable to control.

Prior to Obama’s victory, no Democratic presidential candidate had won Virginia since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That year, after he signed the Civil Rights Act, he remarked to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, with the astuteness of a master politician, “We have lost the South for a generation.” Republicans won seven of the following ten presidential elections.

Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” says that poor whites felt socially demoted during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. They did not experience greater job opportunities or receive college scholarships. They were the ones bused to integrated schools while wealthier whites escaped to private institutions or moved to outer suburbs. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities. (Challenging a racial caste system)

Joseph Montville has written and spoken extensively about the need to heal the North-South divide. In a recent email to me he comments: “Lyndon Johnson was saying that the civil rights laws kicked away the crutch of black degradation on which Southern white fragile self-esteem had been sustained. I am convinced that the passion for defeat of the first black president comes directly from the rage of perhaps 35 percent of the America’s population made up of very conservative whites in the South and other parts of red state America.”

He is also adamant that the North, in particular New England, needs to acknowledge its “moral indebtedness to the South for centuries of insult and contempt toward everything Southern” as well as its own complicity in profiting from slavery. 

Montville believes that this history is “a major impediment to serious study of political collaboration between liberal and conservative/Northern and Southern politicians and leaders of other social and economic sectors of the country."  In the context of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Montville recently moderated a panel of distinguished historians in Washington, DC, that explored how the unhealed wounds of history are playing into the political polarization. (Building a healthy democracy requires healing history's wounds)

As in Holton’s time when Virginia chose the path of progress, the country is at a fork in the road. Leaving Tim Kaine’s campaign headquarters, I kept thinking about his father in-in law. Where are the Linwood Holtons of today who will have the courage and foresight to call on “the better angels of our nature” and lead a great party away from a potentially dark and destructive path?


  1. Coded language and "framing the debate" are important parts of political rhetoric. George Lakoff has written about this very persuasively. You can read a review of some of his work here :

  2. I am so glad and grateful to read this article. Although I am not a historian, I have long thought that the shame and injustice experienced by white Southerners at the hands of the North following the Civil War contributed to the aggressive shame and injustice they forced upon the emancipated slaves. As someone raised in the North, I believe it is time for representatives of the North to begin reconciliation by issuing a formal apology for the indignities and exploitation suffered by white Southerners during reconstruction. As Albert Schweitzer said, “Until mankind can extend the circle of his compassion to include all living things, he will never, himself, know peace.”

    Shame and fear are toxic emotions that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. They put a negative spin on our perceptions of the intentions and actions of others and they reduce our access to “the better angels of our nature” by reducing our natural tendency toward altruism, kindness, and generosity. They also have a negative impact on learning. Scientific studies show that shame, fear, and toxic stress interfere with higher order thinking, creativity, and executive functions such as planning, attention, self-control, and working memory. I discuss the scientific research on the negative impact of shame and fear on learning and its implications for the school-to-prison pipeline in my book The Ecology of Learning: Re-Inventing Schools (www.ecologyoflearning.com).