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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fighting Civil Rights Revisionism

As we prepare to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., on Monday, it’s time for progressives to prepare ourselves for a fresh effort by conservatives to purloin his legacy and rewrite the history of the civil rights movement. Just yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul, a serial offender, tried to compare defenders of the filibuster–the filibuster!–and other restraints on popular democracy to advocates for the civil rights of racial minorities. I addressed this effort at WaMo today:

Last April [Paul] gave a speech at Howard University that pursued the ridiculous theory that the New Deal was essentially a complement to Jim Crow in its “enslavement” of African-Americans to the terrible indignity of material living assistance. And now we have this, via WaPo’s Aaron Blake:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in an interview Thursday, likened President Obama’s governing philosophy to the kind of “majority rule” that led to Jim Crow laws and Japanese internment camps.
Speaking on Fox News, Paul reacted to Obama’s repeated assertions that Republicans should win elections if they want to control the agenda in Washington. Obama has also suggested in recent days that he might pursue more executive actions — changes made without Congress.
“The danger to majority rule — to him sort of thinking, well, the majority voted for me, now I’m the majority, I can do whatever I want, and that there are no rules that restrain me — that’s what gave us Jim Crow,” Paul said. “That’s what gave us the internment of the Japanese — that the majority said you don’t have individual rights, and individual rights don’t come from your creator, and they’re not guaranteed by the Constitution. It’s just whatever the majority wants.”
Paul added: “There’s a real danger to that viewpoint, but it’s consistent with the progressive viewpoint. … Progressives believe in majority rule, not constitutional rule.”

Don’t be confused with the conflation of the Japanese interment outrage–a temporary product of wartime hysteria which no one at the time regarded as “progressive”–with Jim Crow. The original Constitution which Paul and his followers worship certainly didn’t concern itself with the rights of racial minorities. It took the most egregious exercise of “majority rule” in U.S. history–the Civil War–to abolish slavery. Only a majority given extraordinary power by the self-exclusion of southerners was in a position to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, the most important efforts taken until 1964 to vindicate the rights of racial minorities. It was a failure of will by the majority that led to the abandonment of Reconstruction and the establishment of the Jim Crow regime. And it was the power of the minority in the Senate (and by the 1930s or so, the minority in the Democratic Party) to thwart majority rule via the filibuster that kept Jim Crow in place for so very long.
And BTW, it’s conservatives, far more than progressives, who perpetually chafe at judicial enforcement of individual rights, unless it happens to coincide with their own policy goals. But in any event, Paul and others like him really need to stop trying to invoke the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement to attack “majority rule” on behalf of a “constitutional conservatism” aimed at creating a oligarchical or even theocratic dictatorship of absolute private property rights and puny government. The “minorities” they want to protect are snowy white and very privileged.

It’s very important, morally and politically, to fight back against the kind of egregious revisionism and phony parallels offered by those who are the ideological (and in some cases, literal) descendants of the people who fought against King and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the least we can do to honor the sacrifices made by so many to create the kind of society the “constitutional conservatives” are determined to bury.

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