- Historic Sites
The Fifty Biggest Changes In The Last Fifty Years
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
The nexus of national politics has moved from New York to the South and West
The suppression of voting rights in the South was hardly a secret. It was the sort of injustice that mainstream politicians sometimes ignore, or, worse, indulge, for their own political reasons. But in 1965, a Democratic President from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, decided to put an end to the government’s complicity in this outrage. He demanded, and in due course received from Congress, a voting rights bill that would demolish obstacles placed before black voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, enforced by the full weight of federal power, brought an end to the days of whites-only voting in the South. Within 25 years, black registration in seven Southern states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, and the Carolinas) was roughly the same as it was for whites. The number of black elected officials went from zero in 1960 to nearly 300 in 1992. And, by the 1990s, holdovers from the Jim Crow era of Southern politics found themselves in the unlikely position of courting black voters.
And there’s more. This revolutionary piece of legislation continues to influence American politics, long after poll taxes and literacy tests were tossed into history’s dustbin. The Justice Department aggressively monitors congressional reapportionment throughout the country, not just in the South, to make sure that gerrymandering does not dilute the voting power of minorities. That mandate flows from the Voting Rights Act, the single most important change in American politics since 1954.
In 1954, it was still what the humorist Fred Alien called a piece of talking furniture. Politicians didn’t know what to make of it, if they ever thought about it at all. President Eisenhower said he couldn’t imagine anything more boring than watching himself on television. He wasn’t kidding. Ike’s TV appearances were made for radio.
Then, of course, came John F. Kennedy, tan, young, and handsome, and neither television nor politics has ever been the same. The familiar story of JFK’s first debate with Richard Nixon in 1960 sums up the power of this new medium and the way it changed politics. Those who listened on radio thought Nixon was the winner; those who let their eyes do the thinking backed Kennedy. And we’ve been feasting our eyes ever since.
With the profusion of local cable channels and public-access programming, candidates for even the lowliest local offices must consider the power of TV. Presidential candidates began to adapt to the medium’s demands in the 1960s; today, even candidates for state legislature or city council are coached to speak in sound bites and may be drop a few pounds to look better for the cameras.
It is easy to bemoan television’s influence for all the obvious reasons (will we ever elect another bald President, even if he happens to be a five-star general?). But those harsh studio lights also allow us to see our leaders up close and sometimes unscripted. Fifty years ago, politicians communicated with their constituents via letters and newsletters that were written by their staffs. Now when mayors, aldermen, and dogcatchers answer questions on live television, there is nothing between the viewer and the official’s thought process. It is sometimes a scary prospect. But it is also illuminating.
With the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, moderate Republicanism seemed triumphant. Robert A. Taft, the isolationist conservative from Ohio had been defeated at the 1952 Republican convention by the party’s moderates and liberals. The New Deal would not be repealed; the era of consensus politics had begun. The postwar era would belong to internationalist, big-government Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller.
But then a dissenter from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, won the party’s presidential nomination in 1964. He was defeated in a landslide, which was interpreted at the time as another repudiation of the Republican Party’s right wing. Not exactly. In 1980, another politician from the Sunbelt, Ronald Reagan, defied expectations, upset the party’s old guard (which supported the moderate, internationalist George H. W. Bush) and captured the Presidency. Conservatives were no longer mere political curiosities who read National Review . They were, in fact, mainstream politicians who clearly had a message millions longed to hear.
Reagan’s election and the movement that supported him reordered the nation’s political demographics. They created a new voting bloc known as Reagan Democrats. In the Northeast and the Midwest, these voters were, generally speaking, white, Catholic sub-urban homeowners, solidly middle-class and often members of labor unions. In the South, they were blue-collar white Protestants. Their parents and grandparents had been stalwart New Dealers from the old industrial cities, but by 1980, they were alienated from the party of their forebears. Ronald Reagan spoke to them in a way Democrats hadn’t since Harry Truman. By 2000 they were no longer Reagan Democrats. They were simply Republicans.