Liberal Retreat

Brass Tacks

Liberals are reacting to Governor Wallace's coup in Wisconsin with an optimism bordering on the quixotic. James Farmer of CORE disposed of the Wisconsin returns with the rather obvious if not reassuring, observation that "there are many prejudiced people in the North as well as in the South." President Johnson tried to smooth ruffled feathers by reciting the vote totals with a curious voice inflection: "Seventy-five percent voted against Wallace, while only twenty-five percent voted for him." Smiling after a disaster is, admittedly, part of politics. However, with another crisis, the 1964 elections looming seven months away, a realistc furrowing of brows might be more appropriate.

The President can hold conservative Democrats in the North, but only by presenting the civil rights issue as something it isn't. If he praises the present rights bill but hedges on its enforcement, stresses specific legal rights but avoids discussing general racial equality, kisses babies but remains mute on their parents' "flight from the cities," the President can neutralize civil rights as an issue. Such a strategy ignores many important racial problems facing the country, but there is time for reality after November.

The important racial problems, as liberals see them, can only be scratched by the civil rights bill. Liberals want the government dedicated to complete integration, not just perfunctory desegregation. This requires a frontal attack on such politically sticky areas as the tax structure, fair housing legislation, and public school financing.

Before the Wisconsin primary, many liberals hoped to see their ideas incorporated into the 1964 Democratic campaign. Ideally, Mr. Johnson would present civil rights as a moral not a legal issue. He would exhort whites to open their suburbs and private clubs to Negroes.

At the same time massive demonstrations throughout the country would stimulate violence in the South but a "crisis of conscience" in the North. Confronted with bigotry in his backyard, the white moderate would feel shame for himself rather than sympathy for his Southern counterpart. In the cities, liberals hoped that the fusing of economic and civil rights issues would more firmly unite the Negro and the trade-unionist. The President's homespun drawl would hold the South.


After the Wisconsin primary, this strategy is bankrupt. Wallace received disturbingly heavy support from Milwaukee's workers; the trade-unionists of Gary will probably behave similarly in the Indiana primary. Furthermore, white suburbanites, both the very rich and those on the lip of Milwaukee's industrial area, gave Wallace many votes. The white revolt has materialized, dashing liberal hopes for a "crisis of conscience" or an interracial alliance of the urban lower classes.

The old liberal strategy on civil rights aimed at telling the truth, educating the nation, and almost incidentally electing Mr. Johnson. Now the priorities must be reversed. The major task is the defensive one of fighting the propaganda of urban racists and reassuring the white worker that the rights bill and the Democratic ticket will not "go too far." Economic issues need not be stressed, for none of the Republican candidates under consideration can snare the labor vote if the race issue remains dormant.

In the suburbs, the campaign should reassure rather then educate. The key here is not race, but status. Many suburbanites rarely see and never look at a Negro. Their fear of the revolution resembles their anxiety over creeping socialism, the Communist conspiracy, high income taxes--anything, in short that challenges their newly-won status. They are sincerely attracted to Wallace's conservatism and only tangentially fascinated by his racism. Negro demands should be painted as traditionally American and mainly legal, as pleas for human rights, not for social or racial equality. Talk of de facto segregaton and housing covenants should be judiciously avoided. The campaign, in short, must counter racist demogoguery by appealing to the paternalistic self-righteousness of the suburbanite.

Perhaps the most odious facet of this strategy involves the liberal's relationship with the Negro: the liberal must again urge patience. Demonstrations in the South should focus on specific grievances that the Northern moderate can comprehend easily. If violence occurs, blame must lie clearly with the white Southerner. In the North, violence could prove fatal to the President's chances; the white is incapable of understanding why irrational treatment of the Negro should elicit an irrational response. In general, direct action in the North should be discouraged this summer.

The liberal then has a thankless task. He must swallow his principles, obfuscate the issues, and pander to the ignorant. This might all be more-or-less good political fun if he did not also have to turn his back on the Negro and again mutter "wait a little longer." There is but one consolation: if the liberal plays the hypocrite well, there will be ample opportunity to make up for it next year.