Lyndon Johnson's aides were n a celebrating mood the day in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act. They were surprised, then, when Johnson interjected this sobering advisory: “It’s also the day we gave the South to the Republicans for the rest of our lifetimes."
Civil rights legislation indeed would serve to drive southern Democrats out of the party.
Georgia Sen. Richard Russell had predicted this in a phone chat with Johnson, who replied, “If that’s the price to pay for this bill, then I will gladly pay it.”
Oh, the Democrats paid. Five decades later, it’s payback time.
Donald Trump, the wizard of the Republican id, can’t stop inflaming and alienating people of color. A too-homogeneous party that after 2012 lectured itself in the mirror about being more inclusive has done just the opposite.
The Democrats continue to be more like the rest of the country in its many hues. The GOP continues to model itself after the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Trump stands to get a mighty shellacking based on 21st century demographics. In that eventuality, he can blame what came from LBJ’s pen in 1965.
But the key player in this payback won’t be the Voting Rights Act, writes Politico’s Josh Zeitz. It will be a less-heralded bill from 1965 supported by the same people who brought us civil rights gains and who drove away the Dixiecrats: the Immigration and Nationality Act.
What that bill did, in short, was to remove race-based considerations about the people the United States allowed to relocate here.
For most of this country’s history, its immigration laws were as racist as, oh, a Klan clam bake. This bit of American history was news to me: The nation’s first immigration act, in 1790, restricted naturalized citizenship to “free white persons.” As the decades wore on, the abominable complexion of the law hardly changed.
Subsequent immigration overhauls simply reinforced a predilection toward European immigrants, although demands rang out at various points to keep the Italians out, or the Poles or Slavs. After all, were they really white?
Regardless, when Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, he overturned quotas that had kept the general demographic makeup stable by controlling the inflow of “white” and strictly limiting the inflow of what the 1790 bill people deemed “other.” Yes, the “others.” Is any of this sounding familiar?
What were we saying about payback?
When Johnson signed the bill, he presumed that having a race-neutral approach to immigration would have a race-neutral effect on America. It didn’t.
The reason was that Western Europe wasn’t having famines and land wars in 1965, and Europeans were deciding that places like France, Spain and Italy were decent places at which to remain. Their people had little reason to flee.
At the same time, that could not be said about strife- and poverty-torn parts of the world like Latin America and Africa, from which a great preponderance of immigrants would come.
Yes: the “others.”
As Zeitz writes, since 1965 and that stroke of Johnson’s pen, 90 percent of U.S. immigrants have come from outside Europe. Guess which political party is least equipped and least inclined to win their loyalty?
Another demographic fact that should cause Donald Trump to toss and turn under satin sheets: First- and second-generation Americans make up roughly one-third of the country.
As the Georgia senator told Johnson, the Voting Rights Act of ’65 would cripple the Democratic Party in a politically vital region for generations.
It’s anyone’s guess as to how many generations it will take for the Republican Party, now embodied by Trump, to recover from how it has ignored the demographic realities of the country.
My guess: a long time.
Longtime newspaper editor John Young lives in Colorado. Email: email@example.com.