I started this essay a few days before the massacre of school children in Connecticut. Looking it over again this morning, I’m glad I didn’t finish it because the ground is shifting under our feet and maybe, just maybe, the shaking has brought us to our senses. Well, maybe not ALL of us, but enough to break out of the mental and emotional prison that has built up over the past thirty years.
What got me thinking about all of this was an interview last week on MSNBC of the father of a black teenager killed in Florida by a man who didn’t like the loud music the kids were playing in their car. The man told the kids to turn it down, they didn’t, so he shot them. The father of the dead boy was asked how African-American parents prepare their children to live in a racist society where they are in danger wherever they go. The father’s reply got me thinking about how impotent our elected representatives in the national Congress are today compared with decades past.
The father of the slain teenager said he thought America was better than that now. He recalled growing up in NYC during the 70’s when civil rights was the topic of the day and everyone made an effort to do the right thing. His son had friends of all colors and nationalities, so he hadn’t had “that conversation that every African American parent dreads” with him. When asked about Florida’s “stand your ground” law and millions of residents with concealed carry permits, the grieving father said that the federal government used to step in when states “got too far out of line.”
That reminded me of how President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to guard the first few black students at the high school. Each student was assigned a soldier to accompany him/her throughout the day to classes. Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 actually meant something, and the federal government intended to enforce the law of the land.
As devastating as it would be for his own political party, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He knew his party would “lose the South for a generation.” The following decade, even under Republican presidents Nixon and Ford, we saw an explosion of progressive laws, especially those protecting the environment. Acid rain from factories in the midwest was killing trees and making people sick in New England, so we had to control that for the benefit of the common good. We could do things like that back then. We thought of ourselves as one nation, and we would no more harm our neighbors in other states than we would our neighbors next door.
When I taught American history in the 1980’s, I used Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Cycles of American History because it was so obvious. I’d draw a long wavy line across the blackboard with the progressive eras on top and conservative backlash eras on the bottom. Every 30 years like clockwork, the mood of the country would shift. I’d walk five steps forward and two steps back to explain why the conservative cycles were necessary. People need time to adapt to change, try the new rules on for size and adapt them as necessary.
After the explosive changes of the 60’s and 70’s, it was time for two or three steps back. During the Reagan era, people stepped back to take a breath and digest all that had happened to our society. It was during this needed pause that the conservatives regrouped and solidified their agenda. Presidential historian, Douglas Brinkley said the other night on TV that the Roosevelt Era actually lasted until 1980 when the Reagan Revolution stopped it dead in its tracks.
One of the new “free market” groups that grew out of the frustration of conservatives during the 60’s and 70’s was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) With strong financial support from corporations, ALEC is able to host conferences where they bring state legislators together with lobbyists and officers of private companies to write model bills which then go back to the states for debate and votes. If you can picture the “alumni” of these ALEC get-togethers as tadpoles turned into huge, angry frogs obsessed with having their own way, you might better understand why the U.S. House of Representatives last night had to leave town without voting on a tax bill. The ALEC graduates in the House truly believe the government has no business helping individual citizens and should dismantle all the public programs that make up our social safety net. Cut out food stamps and child care tax credits, but don’t annoy the billionaires who might want a new yacht for Christmas.
Now shift that focus to the state level. Although Missouri has not received the national attention that Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin and Virginia recently have, we face many of the same issues – especially high levels of corporate political spending that can, if left unchecked, tip the balance of power away from our citizenry. ALEC’s destructive power is most obvious when it comes to public education in Missouri. In fact, Missouri gets the top grade in ALEC’s “Scorecard” for moving away from support for public education. Whether it’s workers’ rights, pension funds, environmental regulations, photo ID laws, or “repealing Obamacare,” the end goal is the same – moving power and wealth from the many to the few.
Look at this link to one of ALEC’s web pages.
Then compare ALEC’s list of legislative priorities with those of the new Speaker of the Missouri House, Rep. Tim Jones. The list might be reworded or shuffled around, but the goals are the same. Rep. Tim Jones is the co-chair of the Missouri delegation to ALEC meetings. He held a “get acquainted” event in the Capitol building last spring and encouraged members to attend. His plan now is to remodel the historic Capitol building to put offices for Republican legislators in the areas currently set aside for the public and the press. There seems to be no end to this man’s drive for power. He could very well end up an ALEC “alum” in the U.S. Congress if we don’t stop him at this level.
So what is giving me this glimmer of hope that we might actually be able to unite for the common good again? Reactions to the Connecticut massacre by individuals all over the country, even owners of stores that sell assault rifles and private equity firms who are selling their shares of gun manufacturing companies, make me believe there might be a chance to revive what we’ve lost in recent decades – a sense of community and caring for our fellow citizens.
President Obama said it better than any of us can.
“These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.”
Enjoy some holiday cheer. Then get ready to storm the barricades.
Susan Cunningham is a retired teacher of American history. She lives near St. Louis, Missouri.