Americans are not especially good at embracing change. Most Americans are at once not incredibly tolerant and not incredibly intolerant. We support the pursuit of justice as long as achieving it does not threaten us personally or require that we do much ourselves.

Jason Pesick

Americans are uneasy watching society change as the debate over gay rights has risen past abortion as the pre-eminent social issue of the day. But we’re equally disturbed when Pat Buchanan launches into a tirade condemning gay Americans and the progress the country has made over the past few decades, as he did at the 1992 Republican National Convention. And while Americans don’t support racial discrimination, it took pictures of firefighters hosing down protesters to convince us to support the civil rights movement.

Our presidents understand this complex and the consequent primacy of moderation that can characterize the American people’s ideology. Lyndon Johnson foresaw the current two-tone U.S. electoral map of the United States 40 years ago when he signed the important civil rights legislation of the ’60s. He knew that he had handed the South to his opposition.

And different presidents have handled this attitude of the American people in very different ways. Johnson pushed Americans, making civil rights the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. Richard Nixon took advantage of the uneasiness Americans had with the progress of the ’60s. His Southern Strategy and his campaign for “law and order” exploited Americans’ discomfort with change, not our discomfort with the injustices of segregation and racial discrimination.

Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where in the ’60s three civil rights workers were murdered trying to register blacks to vote. Reagan talked about the importance of “states’ rights”. This was the dawn of Morning in America.

Bill Clinton was surely personally comfortable with social change, but not always comfortable supporting it. He wanted Americans to know he shared their reservations about the excesses that can come with social progress. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton criticized rapper Sister Souljah, calling her statements “extremist” and comparing them to something David Duke might say.

But now it seems that the country is on a rightward lurch for no apparent reason. Gay rights have indeed risen to the forefront of American politics, but the magnitude of that issue pales in comparison to that of the changes that took place during the ’60s. The conventional wisdom is that President Bush won his re-election on moral and social values issues — moral and social values issues that he incubated and put on the ballot.

All 11 attempts to ban gay marriage at the state level passed this year by favorable margins ranging from 57 and 59 percent in Oregon and Michigan to 86 percent in Mississippi. And to many Americans, that was the most important issue in the election.

People who live paycheck to paycheck were willing to put their Social Security in jeopardy so that gay people can’t get married. Payroll tax revenue that should be dedicated to ensuring the long-term viability of the program is being used to decrease the size of the federal budget deficit — a deficit that is in large part being created by very large tax cuts for very wealthy individuals.

And U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of the few moderate Republicans left in Congress, might lose his rightful spot as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee because he is a pro-choice Republican. This weekend, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said on “Fox News Sunday,” “Arlen made some statements the day after the election. They were disheartening to me; they were disheartening to a lot of different people.” There may no longer be a litmus test for federal judges and U.S. Supreme Court nominees, but now there is a litmus test for Senate committee chairmen.

And further evidence of this lurch can be found in the fact that even though ABC has shown “Saving Private Ryan” on television twice before, on Veterans Day, 66 of the network’s 225 affiliates did not air the movie because of fears the Federal Communications Commission would fine them due to the film’s explicit language. Apparently there’s a growing movement in this country that believes people saving the world from the Nazis shouldn’t be swearing while bullets are flying at them.

Our best hope is that this trip backward through time doesn’t last very long.

 

Pesick can be reached at jzpesick@umich.edu.

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