When Joe Biden was 21, liberalism peaked on Nov. 3, 1964, as Lyndon Baines Johnson won over 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 of the 535 electoral votes. On his coattails, Congressional Democrats were carried by LBJ to a 68–32 margin in the Senate and a 295–140 edge in the House.
Of the nine presidential elections from 1932 to 1964, Lyndon’s landslide was the seventh Democratic victory. With Johnson having recently ended the cold war embarrassment of Jim Crow with his 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Democrats were the foremost political party of the free world. Their immense prestige and power suggested they would long continue their hot streak.
But in 1968, LBJ dropped out and his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, could garner only 42.7 percent, a drop of 19.4 percentage points over four tumultuous years. After 1964, Democrats lost five of the next six presidential elections, some by landslides.
Are there any lessons for Biden in this history, which he might recall firsthand? What went wrong with LBJ’s ambitious guns and butter policies that are so reminiscent of Biden’s own lavish tax and spend plans?
Much, including, of course, Vietnam.
Strikingly, however, one thing that didn’t fail was Johnson’s Southern strategy. Just as today, there was much paranoia back then about white supremacists and the KKK. But, as it turned out, they had largely been defeated and discredited by 1965.
For the rest of the 1960s, white Southerners remained mostly subdued, the dog that didn’t bark. They eventually came to see civil rights as the price they’d have to pay to join the modern America of NASA and major league sports franchises. The federal government went on to eliminate the remnants of Jim Crow in the South, such as legally segregated schools, by 1970.
Instead, Johnson was stabbed in the back by the people he thought of as his friends and beneficiaries. It was the great liberal cities of the North that turned into battle zones during Johnson’s second term, with riots and the subsequent crime wave emptying out their law-abiding and tax-paying citizens.
On Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated the chance of a Jim Crow comeback in the South by making it in the tangible self-interest of politicians to appeal to black voters.
LBJ was exultant. The future was so bright he needed shades.
What happened next is mostly forgotten, but the details will seem increasingly familiar to us during the Black Lives Matter era.
In Southern California five days after LBJ’s apogee, a 21-year-old black man was pulled over by a white highway patrolman for driving under the influence. Like so many contemporary heroes of Black Lives Matter, the drunk driver resisted arrest. A crowd gathered. Soon his mother arrived to scold him for getting her car impounded, but then she switched sides and joined his brawl with the cops. To show their support of mom and the drunk, the mob began looting.
This was the tragicomic beginning of the Watts Riots, or, as we are now taught to say in reverent terms, the Watts Rebellion or Watts Uprising. Ironically, Watts itself was not a dismal tenement slum, but instead a neighborhood of single-family homes on smallish lots: a budget version of the American Dream.
After Watts, black rioting became a regular thing during the Long Hot Summers of the prosperous and progressives-dominated late ’60s. In turn, the cops retreated to the doughnut shop and the national murder rate doubled.
Just as Black Lives Matter rioting began at Ferguson in 2014 not during an era of vicious oppression of blacks, but instead with Barack Obama enjoying his second term in the White House, the 1960s black riots followed huge political victories for blacks.
White liberals were baffled by this turn of events and were routinely wrong-footed by black rioters. For example, at the time of the catastrophic 1967 Detroit riot, the president, the governor (Mitt’s dad George Romney), and the mayor (the Kennedy-esque Jerome Cavanagh, who had been elected on an anti-police-brutality platform) were all very pro-black white liberals. Still, LBJ ultimately had to call in active-duty paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions to end the panic in Detroit.
White liberals had just handed blacks their biggest wins since Reconstruction, and yet LBJ was repaid with criminal chaos. What could blacks be thinking, they wondered? As Tom Wolfe noted in 1970’s Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers:
Whites were still in the dark about the ghettos. They had been studying the “urban Negro” in every way they could think of for fifteen years, but they found out they didn’t know any more about the ghettos than when they started. Every time there was a riot, whites would call on “Negro leaders” to try to cool it, only to find out that the Negro leaders didn’t have any followers. They sent Martin Luther King into Chicago and the people ignored him. They sent Dick Gregory into Watts and the people hooted at him and threw beer cans.
Actually, a Watts rioter responded to the comedian’s first words by shooting the poor man in the leg.
Then they figured the leadership of the riot was “the gangs,” so they sent in the “ex-gang leaders” from groups like Youth for Service to make a “liaison with the key gang leaders.” What they didn’t know was that Hunters Point and a lot of ghettos were so disorganized, there weren’t even any “key gangs,” much less “key gang leaders,” in there. That riot finally just burnt itself out after five days, that was all.
Eventually, the more realistic intellectuals settled upon the term “revolution of rising expectations” to offer a bloodless but accurate description of the causes of the 1960s riots.
These days, we are less dumbfounded by this zero-sum political thought of the aspiring rapper class: that if, say, Obama is president, then Michael Brown should be allowed to rough up an Asian shopkeeper and walk down the middle of the street without getting hassled by a cop. This is something that, even if we don’t agree with it, we at least expect.
But white liberals of 1965 were astonished by the black assumption that if whites had been defeated and shamed by LBJ’s civil rights triumphs, then of course blacks should get to do whatever they feel like. Way back then, white liberals thought in terms of equal protection of the law, while inner-city blacks thought, as they do now, in terms of who has the whip hand at the moment: If whites could no longer impose the rigors of Jim Crow on Southern blacks, then Northern blacks could drive drunk and resist arrest.
Even after the riots sputtered out after Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, crime continued to soar. Murder remained disastrously high for the rest of the century, only falling after decades of restored tough-on-crime policies.
As America’s cities slowly regained their pre–Great Society livability, 21st-century elites forgot the lessons of the recent past and decided that the big urban problem was too much rule of law. Democrats stoked black rage from 2014 to 2016, with BLM getting about an order of magnitude more lives murdered than lives saved. The Establishment only iced the BLM movement after its supporters’ massacres of police officers helped Donald Trump win the White House. But then the Establishment foolishly revived BLM after George Floyd’s death, instantly setting off riots and murders that almost got Trump reelected.
Despite expectations that, once in office, Biden would flip the switch and turn off the Minneapolis Effect, he so far seems little inclined to put the word out to local authorities to end the looting and the huge increase in criminals carrying illegal handguns on the street that has led to an explosion of mass shootings.
Instead of enforcing existing gun-control laws against crooks packing heat, Biden seems obsessed with virtually nonexistent problems such as “ghost guns” assembled by do-it-yourself hobbyists, who, I’m guessing, don’t much overlap with urban murderers. And Joe also wants to integrate the suburbs, although the obvious prerequisite for that is exactly what we don’t have in the Biden Era: strong law and order.
In the first quarter of 2021, homicides increased over 2020 by 14 percent in New York, 33 percent in Chicago, and 36 percent in Los Angeles.
And now April seems exceptionally nuts, with Minneapolis thugs warming up for who knows what is coming with the George Floyd verdict by rioting over armed robber Daunte Wright having been shot while resisting arrest.
And while bizarrely motivated mass shootings by whites, such as the Indianapolis fan of My Little Pony who murdered eight at FedEx last week, get most of the publicity, last weekend was jammed with exuberant black-on-black mass shootings such as nine children being shot at a 12-year-old’s birthday party in LaPlace, Louisiana.
Even before we get to the first Long Hot Summer of the Biden Era, we still have a Long Hot Spring to get through.
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