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Dissensus Politics

A strategy for winning economic rights

Express Newspapers/Getty

In the week after his death, Martin Luther King was memorialized as both leader and symbol of the Southern black confrontation with white America, a confrontation of such moral clarity and intensity that it moved a majority of Americans to unite in support of the civil rights legislation of 1964 and ‘65. This interpretation confirms the widely held belief that Negroes cannot obtain justice unless they coalesce with other groups in a majority alliance - which means, of course, the national Democratic coalition. According to this view, it is the wishes of a majority that finally impel political leaders to act. The task, therefore, is to identify the issues and exchanges by which a unified majority can be culled from a people divided by class and region, by race and religion.

But the political dynamics of the Southern phase of the civil rights movement may have been quite the reverse of what is commonly supposed. We would argue that its legislative victories were not the product of a majority consensus, but of cleavage in the North-South Democratic coalition. The political impact of non-violent protests, of “moral confrontations,” was to widen that cleavage. The legislative concessions of 1964 and ‘6^ owed less to the numbers of people committed to the civil-rights movement - whether blacks or their white allies - than to the sharply divisive impact the movement had upon an already strained North-South Democratic partnership. And if this theory is correct, it may be that blacks and other minorities can also compel future gains from the majority coalition by threatening to disrupt it.

Negroes have been part of the Democratic coalition for almost four decades - that is, beginning with the reorganization of the Democratic Party during the elections of 1928 and 1932, when an alliance was struck between urban ethnic groups in the North and

the traditionally Democratic South. In 1936, a majority of blacks voted Democratic for the first time, As members of that coalition, blacks have obtained minor concessions. In 1940, for example, a Roosevelt-oriented Supreme Court declared the white primary unconstitutional and in 1941 FDR established the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Each concession to Negroes was fiercely resisted by Southern Democrats who succeeded in warding off civil rights legislation of any significance for nearly three decades.

The first overt signs that the North-South partnership was in danger of dissolving appeared during the presidential campaign of 1948. Early in February, Truman, responding to the swelling numbers of blacks in the North, urged Congress to act on the recommendations of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which had reported the previous year. He went on to press for a strong civil-rights plank in the party platform. Incensed, delegates from the Southern states convened in July to get a States’ Rights Party on the ballot. An irate Georgia congressman summed up Southern sentiment with the declaration that “Harlem is wielding more influence . . . than the entire white South.” In the subsequent election, four Deep South states ~ Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi - actually delivered their electoral votes to the States’ Rights presidential candidate. The South has not been “solid” since.

At the convention of 1952 and again in 1956, Democratic leaders backed off, trying to placate the Dixiecrat delegates by adopting a watered-down “compromise” civil-rights plank and, after long drawn-out intraparty struggles, seating them without a “loyalty” pledge. The Dixiecrat states duly returned to the Democratic columns in 1952, but South Carolina and Louisiana by very slim majorities. Elsewhere in the South the Republicans made big gains: Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas went for Eisenhower in 1952, to be joined by Louisiana and Kentucky in 1956. Missouri also voted Republican in 1952, although it returned to the Democratic fold in 1956. The party’s hold on the South was slipping rapidly.

The South was, of course, provoked by the civil- rights challenges made by the Northern wing of the party, however ineffectual those challenges had so far been. Southern opinion was especially aroused by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision against segregated education, won by NAACP attorneys in 1954, and which marked the emergence of desegregation as a national issue. But if that issue aroused fury in the South, it evoked considerable sympathy in the North, especially among the growing black electorate of the cities. Nevertheless, conciliation of the South was still the order of the day. Campaigning in 1956, Stevenson called for “slow but deliberate” efforts to desegregate.

It was not until 1955, when Martin Luther King led the Montgomery bus boycott, that organized civil-rights protests seized the attention of the nation. With each wave of protest. Northern black voters grew increasingly restive, and the Democratic Party could not ignore it. Appeasement of Southern racism was becoming a political liability, for Negroes who had been staunchly loyal to the party of the New Deal were beginning to defect. In 1952, Eisenhower won 21 percent of the black vote; in 1956 he won 39 percent. And in 1957 and i960, a Democratic Congress passed the first civil-rights measures of the 20th-century.

By 1960, when John Kennedy campaigned on a strong civil-rights platform, the collapse of the Southern wing of the party was plainly visible: in the three previous presidential elections only Georgia, Arkansas, and North Carolina consistently gave their electoral votes to the Democratic candidate. Convinced that he could not resurrect Southern allegiance, Kennedy appealed to black voters in the industrial states. The choice was correct. While the Democratic showing in the South was poor, it was no worse than during the conciliatory Stevenson campaigns. The States’ Rights Party won Mississippi and Alabama; Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia voted Republican. And although Negro skepticism toward Democratic pledges on civil rights persisted, costing Kennedy 30 percent of the national black vote, the ghettos in a number of strategic Northern cities turned in extraordinary Democratic percentages, swinging several critical states in very close races to assure his election.

Nevertheless, Kennedy did virtually nothing on civil rights during his first two years. He had won office, but narrowly. Moreover, his overall legislative program was being throttled by the conservative coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats, and the midterm elections of 1962 threatened to further deplete his congressional strength. It was not only that he wished to avoid fanning the fires of white resistance in the South; the racism of the white working class was also beginning to become an unmanageably divisive factor in the Democratic urban coalition. Accordingly, he signed an Executive Order barring discrimination in federally subsidized housing, but did nothing to implement it; he backed a bill to ease voter literacy requirements, but sent no substantial civil-rights legislation to Congress. And he waited apprehensively for the midterm election.

However, the Democrats in 1962 won an unprecedented mid-term victory, gaining four seats in the Senate and suffering only minimal losses in the House. Significantly, the small Republican advances were in the South, where they added five House seats (and very nearly won a Senate seat in Alabama); thus. Southern support was still eroding, despite continuing Democratic efforts at conciliation.

Meanwhile, civil-rights agitation reached its crescendo, with sit-ins, demonstrations, and boycotts which Southerners repaid with killings, jailings, burnings, and bombings. As the drama played itself out, North-South sentiments on civil-rights issues became sharply polarized, creating the political tension that would finally force legislative action. In February 1963, the President informed Congress of new civil rights proposals, dealing primarily with public accommodations, voting rights and equal employment. He submitted a bill in June.

But the proposed legislation was moderate, and even so it seemed likely to fall prey to the conservative coalition in Congress. Demonstrations escalated. In August, several hundred thousand people assembled for the March on Washington, and throughout the fall demonstrations were mounted in hundreds of cities and towns. In November, a much-strengthened bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee, a bill which Lyndon Johnson, following Kennedy’s death, pushed through the Congress, using all the political resources of his office to obtain the necessary Republican support, including votes to shut off a filibuster in the Senate. The 1964 Civil Rights Act became law.

The reasoning underlying Johnson’s extraordinary commitment to civil rights is not difficult to deduce. He was bidding for heavy Negro support in the upcoming presidential election. Like Kennedy before him, he judged that the Deep South would defect to the Republican Party, as five states subsequently did. But the Negro vote turned out to be decisive in a number of Southern states which hung in the balance, such as Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. More important, Johnson received an astonishing 94 percent of the national black vote, which helped to give him the largest percentage of the popular vote in history.

A year later, with a voting rights bill before Congress, Martin Luther King led thousands of supporters in the Selma marches. Congress enacted the bill. That phase of the civil-rights struggle was over.

We review this history so as to underline the fact that legislative victories were not a simple response to majority sentiments. Left to themselves, labor and liberal and minority groups in the North would not have taken the initiative. Nor was it the sheer numbers involved in the Southern movement that yielded those victories; the protesters were too few to compel the Administration to champion measures that would fracture the North-South coalition alliance. Rather, it was the divisive impact of protest tactics that produced legislative gains by accelerating defections among Southern white voters and threatening to produce defections in the urban ghettos as well.

Legislative concessions were made to mollify pro- civil-rights groups in the North. Notice, however, that the Civil Rights Act of 1965 also laid the groundwork for renewed Democratic strength in the South through provisions to enfranchise Southern Negroes. In time. Democratic constituencies may be rebuilt by drawing together white moderates and newly enfranchised Negroes. So far, Negro registration has increased from 8^6,000 to 1,493,000 in the six states covered by the

Voting Rights Act. A few states in the Deep South may remain in doubt (Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia went Republican in ‘64), but Negro voter registration (up from 8 to 47 percent in Mississippi, for example) may eventually restore even these states to the Democratic columns.

Although the civil-rights movement aggravated tensions in the regional coalition of the Democratic Party, it did not create them. These tensions were produced by the steady movement of blacks to the North and into the big-city Democratic folds, a process which has slowly shifted the balance of political forces in the North-South Democratic partnership. Disruptive protests made it impossible for majority politicians to persist in placating the South. Thus, although the party platform proposed desegregation of interstate transportation in 1946, it was the freedom riders and the brutality and public attention they provoked that produced an ICC order desegregating interstate transportation facilities more than a decade later.

The civil-rights movement is therefore an example of what might be called “dissensus politics”: a cadre, acting on behalf of a minority within a coalition, engages in actions which are designed to dislodge (or which threaten to dislodge) not only that minority, but more important, other significant constituents groups in that same alliance. Through the cadre’s ability to generate defections among other groups in a coalition, its impact becomes far greater than the voting power of the minority. If the strategist of consensus looks for issues and actions to bring groups together, then the strategist of dissensus looks for issues and actions which will drive groups apart.

Tactics to provoke dissensus are probably most effective at times when widespread social or economic change has already undermined a majority coalition, making it vulnerable to attack. Since the leaders of the coalition will tend to resist realignments of power and policy as long as possible, the disrupters must expose the underlying political tensions being produced by changing conditions. Then, confronted with actual or threatened electoral realignments, majority leaders will make concessions in an attempt to restore a weakening coalition or reorganize a shattered one.

Nevertheless, most leaders of the civil-rights movement remain committed to a strategy of influence through consensus politics, as advanced by Bayard Rustin in his article, “From Protest to Politics” (Commentary, February 1965). With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Rustin called for blacks to move from the streets to the polls, especially in alliance with other voting blocs in the traditional liberal-labor- minorities coalition. He pointed to the potential power of newly enfranchised Southern blacks and to the

growth of Negro electoral power in Northern cities. But Mr. Rustin does not see that mass action in the streets did produce mass action at the polls - not merely by blacks, but also and primarily, by whites. If this interpretation has merit, then Rustin was not recommending a shift “from protest to politics” so much as a shift from one political strategy to another - in effect, from dissensus politics to consensus politics.

Xn the interim between Selma and King’s assassination, the central concern of civil-rights forces shifted from legal rights to poverty. King himself began to work in the urban ghettos and to prepare plans for a poor people’s campaign for jobs and income. Implicit in this shift is the belief that the tactics which produced legal victories in the South can produce economic gains in Northern cities, and for the same underlying political reasons.

In the past, the Democratic coalition was based on the state parties of the rural South and the big-city parties in the urbanized North. And while Southern defections have lent greater weight to the big-city organizations, the citie5 have become more important in their own right. Two-thirds of our population now live in metropolitan areas. The regional configurations which formerly dominated national politics are rapidly giving way to urban configurations.

The migration of blacks to the North which undermined the regional coalition has also undermined the Democratic coalition in the cities. As their incomes have risen, many traditional Democrats - Irish, Italians, Poles - have moved to the suburbs. Those remaining in the central cities confront growing numbers of newcomers, who are feared at the outset for being both poor and black. That fear deepens as the swelling masses of poor blacks threaten white residential enclaves and neighborhood institutions, compete for scarce jobs, and now for control of city government itself.

The urban parties are less capable of containing group conflicts than they once were, chiefly because of the passing of the political machine. In an earlier day, political support was built from among the diverse groups in the cities by the conversion of public goods into private favors. With greater affluence and a changing class structure, however, the better-off majorities in the cities no longer require the personal services of machine politicians but demand instead public services to improve their environment and entrench their newly won class position. These services - whether in education, housing, law enforcement, or urban renewal - have become the grist of urban politics. And with the vast increases in migration during the ‘50’s, it is these services which are the focus of political conflict, for they serve older groups in direct proportion as they victimize newcomers.

Divisive strains are already taking their toll. Besieged by internal conflict, the urban party machinery can no longer mobilize resources and voters in support of national candidates as vigorously as before - a circumstance from which Stevenson suffered badly in the campaigns of ‘52 and ‘56. As the racial crisis worsens, the spectre of massive electoral defections looms larger, especially in local contests. The white working classes deserted the Democratic Party in extraordinary numbers in the recent mayoralty elections in Cleveland and Gary, and the same pattern will be repeated in other cities where blacks are sufficiently numerous to challenge white hegemony. These conflicts are debilitating the local organizations needed to carry national elections, and may weaken the allegiance of Democratic voters in national contests as well.

Federal programs initiated for the cities in the last few years were an effort to ease strains among competing groups and to solidify the urban coalition. But they have run aground as a result of the rising costs of the war in Vietnam. Eventually, however, the national party must move more vigorously to rehabilitate the cities. The black poor can hasten that day by exploiting class and racial divisiveness in the cities. For as these divisions are widened, the Democratic coalition is endangered, and national leaders will proffer concessions to shore up their urban base. In sum, what urban blacks cannot get by playing consensus politics within the Democratic coalition they may win by dissensus politics.

Divisive tactics have already paid off. The school boycotts and demonstrations in various Northern cities which mobilized blacks around the cause of integrated education, produced violent hostility among whites. But although they failed to achieve desegregation, the resulting dissensus was probably an important factor in the national Administration’s decision to press for enactment of the Primary and Secondary Education Act - a measure which can be understood as an effort to blunt the attack against de facto segregation by raising the level of ghetto education. Similarly, although urban renewal stirred bitter protests among the dislocated poor, while drives for open occupancy engendered profound anger among whites, the resulting turmoil was a key force behind the Model Cities legislation - a measure to ease the conditions of blacks within the boundaries of the ghetto, and so avoid arousing the hostility of whites. Those of the middle class who place a high priority on heterogeneous communities may regard programs to improve the ghetto as Pyrrhic victories at best; among the black poor, however, the priorities are somewhat different.

Race and class conflict in the cities, we have said, is being played out in the arena of public services. But because blacks are newcomers, and not well organized, policies have not generally been much modified in response to them. When existing policies blatantly ignore changing constituencies, disruptive tactics can expose them as anachronisms and force new accommodations. Public welfare practices are a prime example of such outmoded adaptations, and a national movement of welfare recipients is now growing whose strategy is to disrupt and expose them. In response to older constituent groups - the white working class which is concerned about taxes, and many in the middle class who suppose that poverty is better solved by “rehabilitating” the poor than by redistributing income ~ the administrators of public-welfare agencies keep the rolls low and budgets down. They refuse to inform the poor of their eligibility for assistance, erect a tangle of bureaucratic barriers against those who do apply, and simply reject many eligible applicants illegally. The public-welfare system distributes its meager benefits to but half of those who are legally eligible.

The welfare receipients movement is disrupting this pattern by mobilizing many of the poor to claim their entitlements under the law. Mounting claims mean higher costs and higher taxes. Predictably, spokesmen for the working classes are already showing alarm and indignation, liberals are troubled; but the masses of the black poor are also becoming aroused. Welfare reforms are to be a major demand of the “poor people’s campaign” this summer.

In the short run, the result will be chaos in the welfare program. But that chaos will expose the ways in which the poor have been sacrificed to more powerful groups in the Democratic coalition. To cope with the resulting dissensus, the national Democratic Party will try to lessen welfare costs to localities, while also liberalizing the entire program. Relieving localities of the financial burden would placate the working class and others in the urban coalition, and a more liberal income maintenance system (a federally guaranteed income, perhaps) would be a major concession to the black poor.

Similar dissensual strategies can be employed to force concessions in other areas - for example, in housing, which, for the black poor in the cities is sub-standard, overcrowded and overpriced. Small-time landlords grub a profit from slum housing by short- cutting on repairs and services, buying “political insurance” against code enforcement with active support of local Democratic clubs. Eiberals and “good government” groups, for their part, are satisfied with perennial reforms of the housing codes, to which political leaders acquiesce, knowing that cumbersome procedures of legal redress will do little except to satisfy the reformers. And even when legislation for new construction or rehabilitation is passed, only token funds are appropriated out of deference to other groups.

Housing agencies are thus the managers of a system of collusion; they do not enforce codes because to do so would bankrupt the slumlords and compel government to house the minority poor - a circumstance that would entail either diverting funds from programs serving other groups or raising local taxes. To avoid the ire which such actions would evoke, municipal government uses its enforcement powers gingerly and selectively, content to let the slumlord reap the fury of the ghetto.

These arrangements could be disrupted through massive withholding of rent, with tenants advised to spend the money instead for food and clothing. City governments would then be under great pressure to forestall evictions for fear of provoking widespread violence in the ghetto. Considering the marginal character of the slum market, many owners of deteriorated buildings, unable or unwilling to make the required repairs, would be forced out of business, propelling government into taking over slum housing. The consequent drain on municipal revenues and the conflicts engendered among urban groups would intensify local political conflict. But local conflicts reverberate in the national Democratic Party, generating pressure for federal subsidies for low-income housing in large US cities.

As the foregoing examples suggest, to effectively disrupt the coalition in the cities, something more than the marches, demonstrations and sit-ins of the Southern movement will be required. Segregation in the South was an entrenched symbolic system, and tactics of moral confrontation were sufficient to provoke pervasive electoral discord, particularly since it cost the North little to support the extension of constitutional rights to Southern Negroes. But in the era which Martin Luther King foresaw, blacks will be making economic rather than legal demands, and so challenging major class interests in the city. These interests will not be overcome by protests alone. They will be overcome, for example, by enrolling the poor to bankrupt the welfare system or inciting rent revolts to close down the slum society.

It will be said that dissensual politics may so aggravate the working class that it moves further to the right, or even out of the Democratic coalition altogether. While this danger exists, it must be said that the working class is now being held securely in coalition by policies which work against the black poor. It has opted only for specific and limited economic reforms, and has now become a major impediment to economic advances by the Negro.

It will also be said that disruptive tactics may spur greater violence in the cities, arousing so strong a backlash that politicians can no longer ease conflict by making concessions to different groups in a coalition. Violence is a danger, but since the conditions which breed violence already exist, the occasions which provoke it are manifold. To assume the burden for keeping the peace by refraining from disruptive tactics may be to forego the major reforms upon which a more enduring, less volatile peace depends.

A dissensual political strategy is risky for another reason. The poor who generate disruption have little control over the responses to it. Still, the only recourse of an impoverished minority is to create the kinds of crises to which political leaders must respond, hoping that reforms will follow. In Martin Luther King’s words, “We are aware that we ride the forces of history and do not totally shape them.”