Author Michael Lind discusses his book about the South and George W. Bush.
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GUEST: Michael Lind
I’m Richard Heffner, your host for nearly a half century now, here on The Open Mind, well I would assume that my guest today political commentator and fifth generation Texan, Michael Lind, would make no claim at all to being open minded, in his new Basic Books mega-analysis titled “Made in Texas, George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics”.
The New York Times notes that Mr. Lind “Sees George W. Bush as an Axis of Evil all by himself” to say nothing of his friends. And historian Robert Dallek, biographer of JFK and LBJ writes, “How seriously future historians of Bush’s Presidency will take Lind’s book partly rests on what happens in the next several years. Were Bush to win a second term and inflict a series of retrograde measures on the country, Lind’s analysis would become a standard for measuring the historical forces shaping Bush’s Administration. By contrast,” he writes, “if Bush shows himself to be a skillful politician, as he already has in part, Lind’s book will be remembered as too much of an anti-Bush polemic to be considered a reliable history.”
And I wonder, Mr. Lind whether you think that’s a fair comment to make about your incredible book?
Lind: Well, I don’t think it’s an accurate description of the book itself …
Heffner: Because why?
Lind: The book is not simply about George W. Bush. It’s about the rise to power within the Republican Party and thus within the country as a whole of the Southern Right. Which historically was a part of the Right Wing of the Democratic Party. So, I don’t want the viewers to get the misleading impression this is just a criticism of George W. Bush personally. Bush is the leader of a movement rooted in the states of the former Confederacy that has enormous power now in the Federal government. But he’s not the only leader, he’s not the first, he won’t be the last. It’ includes other Texan politicians like Senator Phil Gramm, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay House Republic leaders. It includes Trent Lott, the former Senate Majority Leader. So my book is really about how two different traditions in Texas, the New Deal tradition associated with Lyndon Johnson and the old Southern Democratic Conservative tradition that fought Franklin Roosevelt, fought Truman, fought Kennedy, fought Johnson. It is now represented by politicians like a George W. Bush and Armey and DeLay … have, have battled throughout the 20th century and continue to do so in the 21st.
Heffner: But you know what you’re saying fascinates me because, as I read your book, and I read it very carefully, I wondered whether you had intended to play on the George W. Bush angle because you wrote an incredible history of Conservatism in the South. And what you wrote was the triumph of the South, ultimately, a century after the Civil War, it seemed to me. And I was reminded very much of Bob Caro’s section on the Senate in his most recent volume on LBJ.
Lind: Well, you can take George W. Bush out of Texas and out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of George W. Bush. I don’t think that you can talk about the Bush Administration as though all of these ideas had just simply been dreamed up by George W. Bush and Karl Rove and everything from foreign policy, the preference for unilateralism which is very popular among White Southerners, much more so than in the rest of the country, to domestic policy, to this low taxing, low public spending approach to government.
The Bush Administration is shaped by the legacy of Southern Conservatism which as I say, historically is associated with the Democratic Party, not with the Republican Party. Ironic as it is, with the Republican Party today based in the Deep South, is really more the party of Jefferson Davis and the Confederates and the Segregationists of the mid-20th century than it is the party of Abraham Lincoln and his Northeastern and Midwestern successors, like McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt and the Tafts.
Heffner: Do you think that’s why George W. Bush laid a wreath or had a wreath lain at the tomb of Jefferson Davis?
Lind: Well, it’s not only that, he hasn’t criticized displays of the Confederate flag, which I have to say it again … I’m fifth generation Texan, a Southerner back to 1628, I had ancestors on both sides of the Civil War, most of mine fought for the Confederacy … this whole Confederate flag business goes back to the era of desegregation. That’s when a lot of these Southern states incorporated the Confederate flag. It wasn’t after the Civil War … after they’d lost it. So, in the South it’s not just a symbol of regional pride and heritage, this is a myth. It’s a symbol of opposition to civil rights for African Americans.
Heffner: Who won in 2000? Was it George W. Bush or was it the South that rose again?
Lind: Oh, the South not only won, it won even more in 2002. Remember they lost the Senate, the Republicans lost the Senate because of the defection of Jim Jeffords, a moderate Northeastern Republican from Vermont. They won it back in 2002 fair and square. And immediately they began putting pressure on Centrists. And this is happening even as we speak in Washington. In the past couple of weeks the Southern Conservatives who control the House and the Senate are pressuring moderate Northeastern and Midwestern and West Coast Republicans to fall in line with this Right Wing Southern agenda or to lose their Committee Chairmanships … you know to be marginalized in their own party. Consequently, in the past couple of decades as the Southerners have consolidated their control over the GOP, many people who used to be Liberal and Moderate and even some Conservative Republicans in the, in the North have switched to become either Democrats following the lead of John Lindsey, the former Mayor of New York or to become Independents, voting for Ralph Nader.
Heffner: Well, what do you think the future brings then? What you … as you talk about the pressure, the Southerners, the Southern Republicans are now putting on moderate Conservative members of their own party and perhaps even Democrats … don’t you think there’s a possibility, a real possibility that it will work the other way?
Lind: I think they’re committing suicide. Politically. Because they’ve driven off African Americans, they have failed to appeal to Latinos, although George W. Bush had some personal popularity in Texas, but it’s not translating into national popularity among Latinos. You would think that with their lack of appeal to minority Americans they would have to reach out to White Americans who are not Southern Conservative Protestant Fundamentalists. You know. They tried to reach out to Catholics in the 2000 election, but when George W. Bush made his pilgrimage to Bob Jones University, that was mostly discussed in terms of the prohibition on interracial dating and the racism of that fundamentalist institution.
But Bob Jones University was also associated with the theory that the Pope and the Vatican are the anti-Christ and that Catholics are a threat to a Godly Christian Protestant America. And that’s why Bush’s numbers just dropped in the midwestern swing states and why he almost lost the election … he was losing the Catholic vote. So if you drive away Black Americans; you fail to win over Latino Americans, Catholics, others in the rest of the country, then it seems to me suicidal to drive away the moderate and Centrist members of your own party.
Heffner: Well, your book is so much more important in its emphasis upon what’s happened to the political divisions of this country than it is as a focal point for an attack on George W. Bush that I kind of wish your title had been somewhat different.
Lind: Well, my argument in the book is that the United States really was two countries until the middle of the twentieth century. It was a first world industrialized democratic nation state in the Northeast and the Midwest after the Civil War. The South and many of the Western states lagged behind. They were basically, you know, Third World countries within U.S. borders run by the small oligarchies of powerful families who controlled the economy, society and politics simultaneously. And, of course, in the South it was a one party Democratic dictatorship. When I was growing up in Texas I knew of Democratic vote counters who would throw away every third Republic vote. That’s how crooked it was. There were two revolutions that started breaking down this kind of third world system in the South.
The first was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal which brought rural electrification, hydroelectric power, roads, laid the infrastructure for a modern industrial society in the South. And second, was the Civil Rights Revolution which combined with immigration, largely from Latin America is transforming Texas and eventually will transform the South into societies much more like California, where the non-White majority in Conservatives will survive, but this kind of old-fashioned Southern Anglo-Saxon Protestant Conservatism will not survive much longer in states like Texas which have the demographic profile of majority non-White states like California.
Heffner: Well, you know when you write about Maverick, who was a maverick. And you write about him as a symbol of Liberal populist Texans … I, I understand. But when you get to LBJ and to get to Sam Rayburn, I had such great difficulty in separating, in my own head those names from the Conservative Southerners of today. How did that split come about?
Lind: Well, Johnson and Rayburn were both sort of left of center in their economics and in their support for New Deal social reforms. However, their power in Washington depended on an alliance, in Texas, between the New Deal reformers and these reactionary Dixicrats, as they were known.
For example, Lyndon Johnson, when he was a Congressman, was much more of a radical New Dealer than when he was a Senator because the only way he could be elected statewide was to make compromises with the big business, with the Conservative elite. What you can’t …
Heffner: Well, you see when I think of Brown and Root, those are the names that surface for me when I think of Lyndon Johnson.
Lind: Well, Brown and Root … you know, the Liberals have had corporate allies as well as Conservatives. Kaiser Aluminum, Brown and Root, many of these corporations … Bechtel, even, in the 1940’s and ‘50s, these played a key role in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal infrastructure projects. So the mere fact that people made money out of it, doesn’t mean that this wasn’t part of a reform program. And in this case, the reform program was using Federal dollars to build up these backwood, agrarian areas in the South and the West and even California to create the modern suburban high-tech areas that we take for granted today. But this was not the result of natural growth. It certainly wasn’t the result of the efforts of the local Conservatives. This was the result of national program between the 1930s and the 1960s like the Interstate Highway System.
Heffner: How did you make, and I can’t help but ask you this … I mean talking about Southern conquest of American political life intrigues me. But I’m equally intrigued and must ask you about your own odyssey, your own political, intellectual odyssey.
Lind: Well, I grew up in Austin, the state capital and so politics was sort of the major industry in town. My background was that of a moderate centrist Democrats in the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson tradition. That tradition, as you know, more of less died out in the turmoil of the 1960s and the Democratic Party veered way to the Left. And the Conservatives veered …
Heffner: You’re talking about the National Democratic Party.
Lind: The National Democratic Party, at the local level… you know, and this is still the case, you know … and at the state level … there have always been, you know, Centrist and even Conservative Democrats. So for a while in the 1970s and ‘80s, when my chief concern was foreign policy, I associated with neo-Conservative Democrats, who like Bill Bennett and Gene Kirkpatrick were Scoop Jackson Democrats. They came out of the pro-Labor, pro-Civil Rights, but anti-Communist, anti-Soviet wing of the Democratic Party. Which was marginalized at the national level after McGovern’s campaign in 1972. The neo-Conservative Movement fell apart in the 1980s and the more moderate neo-Conservatives went back either towards the center or became new Democrats, of the Bill Clinton type. The more conservative ones just threw themselves in whole-heartedly with the Right … which at that point, and it’s still the case today, is being defined today by the Right in Mississippi and Alabama. In East Texas. So I’ve, I’ve tried to, you know, stick towards the center of the political spectrum. Ted Halstead and I published a book in 2001 called The Radical Center and we chose the title to distinguish our views from the squishy middle. But I think that’s where most Americans are right now.
If you look from the 1960s until the present, the number of Independents and self-described Moderates has grown from almost zero to 30, 33, 35 percent. If it were a third party, the party of Independents would be as big as the Democrats and the Republicans.
Heffner: You mentioned third party. Is that because you think there’s some real possibility now … in the very near future?
Lind: No. Until the Electoral system is reformed and I favor some electoral reforms like a system called “instant run-off voting” which would permit you to rank candidates: one, two, three. And then if your first choice didn’t win, your vote would go to the second choice. If that system had existed in the Electoral College, for example, in 2000, most Nader voters would have put Gore as their second choice. And then their votes would have been redistributed. So instead of helping to elect George W. Bush as the Nader voters arguably did, they would have elected the candidate they preferred after Nader, which is Gore.
However I am a political realist. There’s not going to be fundamental structural change in our Electoral system in the foreseeable future. And that means that in most races, in most three, four way races, if you vote for an Independent candidate, you really are wasting your vote. You may hurt the candidate whom you like the most after your own, while electing the candidate whom you like the least. So just as a matter of political rationality … as long as we have our voting system, which punishes third parties, it really makes more sense to work within one of the two parties.
Heffner: Yes, but you use the phrase “political rationality”. And certainly in the year 2000 one saw very little political rationality in terms of those who did not want Bush … didn’t want Gore … and elected Bush.
Lind: Well, that’s right. But you could argue the same thing happened in 1992. Many of the “pro” voters had previously been Republican voters. And it’s not clear that they wanted to elect Bill Clinton instead of George Herbert Walker Bush. I think the story of 2000 is the sheer size of the absolute vote against George W. Bush. When people say, “Well, the American people chose him.” No, the Electoral College and the Supreme Court chose him. Most Americans, an overwhelming number wanted someone else to be President … either Nader or Gore.
And I think much of the blame lies with Gore and the Democratic Party for not offering these Nader voters a home within the Democratic Party; permitting them to defect and to help elect George W. Bush.
Heffner: You don’t think Nader would have permitted that, do you?
Lind: Ah … well, you know, the Nader voters presumably are looking for something … you know, whether it was a commitment to campaign finance reform or, or distance between politicians and corporations. And that’s what parties do. These third parties, these single issue movements arise and then one or both of the major parties will then co-opt whatever that issue is. That’s how the Republican Party originally rose … it co-opted the issue of anti-slavery from single-issue parties.
Heffner: Well, I really didn’t mean the Nader voters. I meant Ralph Nader.
Heffner: Would not have permitted that to happen.
Lind: Oh, he might have run anyway, but he would have drained off less support from the Democrats if they had co-opted his issues.
Heffner: You know in Made In Texas and the picture on the cover, of course, is George W. Bush and the subtitled is “George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.” And it’s intriguing in this analysis of the South’s role, or the role of what you consider “Southern-ism”, Southern politics. But there is George W. Bush, what do you thinks going to happen to him now?
Lind: Well, we’ve seen this week that his popularity has now dropped into the fifties. The story was his popularity after 9/11, but if you connect the dots, it’s a pretty steep slide. And they’re starting to get worried at the White House.
Heffner: Yeah, but look … we’re taping today toward the very end of January … this program may be seen six weeks from now, and if is, who knows which way the line of dots will be going. There may be another … God willing not another 9/11 …
Lind: Well, there could be a war in Iraq …
Lind: That could boost his ratings temporarily. But at the end of the day, he has to have voters who voted against him in 2000 … have to vote for him next time, according to calculations … largely because of the growth of the Latino population. Between 2000 and 2004 Latinos tend to vote Democratic. If the same region’s ethnic groups, races, religions, vote the same way in 2004 as they did in 2000 … a Democratic candidate, any Democratic candidate … even a weak one … wins. And that’s just sort of a mathematical exercise. But the point is that unless George W. Bush gets people who voted for Gore and who voted for Nader to vote for him in 2004, he is going to lose the election in 2004. And that’s just a certainty.
Heffner: And you said … a moment ago … anyone, any Democratic candidate … which one do you think is the strongest …
Lind: Well, at this point it’s hard to tell. The front-runners, in terms of name recognition tended to be members of Congress like Dick Gephardt, Senators like John Kerry, John Edwards, Joseph Lieberman. As you know from having watched many of these Presidential races, the Senators tend to fade over time and the obscure Governors come from behind. And there’s a reason for that … there are a couple of reasons. The Senators are very vulnerable as candidates because they have 20 or 30 years of voting on controversial issues that will annoy somebody somewhere. Whereas a Governor doesn’t have to have had all of these positions on controversial issues that can be used against him.
Second, Governors have the biggest political machines of donors and of activists of any politicians in the country short of a President. Even more than a Senator, even in a small state. And whether it’s legal or not, in practice … you know, they tend to use these machines, including some of their civil servants to promote their candidacies. And finally, a Governor can run against Washington … can say, “I’ve run a state, I’ve balanced a budget.” Unlike these fellows who are simply one of a hundred or, you know, one of several hundred members of Congress. So my prediction would be that Howard Dean the Governor of Vermont may emerge fairly rapidly, eclipsing some of these Senators. He’s already positioned himself to appeal to the Liberal base of the Democratic Party supporting the extension of single payer health care to cover Americans under the age of 23. Proudly defending his approach on Gay civil unions in Vermont which is not that popular with the general public, but its popular with the Democratic base. That’s just my estimation. There are a number of strong candidates. But as I say, when it comes to winning general elections, if not the primaries, Governors have a great advantage. I mean George W. Bush was a Governor, Clinton was a Governor. I think you have to go back to Kennedy and Johnson to find someone who’d been a sitting Senator before becoming President.
Heffner: And ah ….
Lind: Carter as well, of course.
Heffner: Yeah. Let’s not forget … everyone has the habit of … tendency to … forget that other Southerner.
Heffner: And, so the South has had a much more impressive, important role …
Lind: Well the South isn’t just … the Conservative South … as I point out in my book … there are these rival traditions. I mean even among White Southerners, it’s often assumed that all White Southerners are reactionaries and that all of the Liberals in the South are African Americans. This is not the case, it never has been the case. Bill Clinton got one-third of the White Southern vote, both in 92 and 96. There’s the White South of Clinton and Carter and Johnson …it’s Liberal in a different way than Northeastern Liberalism exists for a Midwestern or a California. It’s tends to be a bit more socially conservative, a bit more pro-military; a bit more populist in supporting the little guy against the big guy. But it is liberal … it’s a variant of Liberalism. So there is a Liberal White South.
Heffner: And the populist tradition in Texas itself right now?
Lind: Well, unfortunately we get this kind of phony cartoon populism which has been the norm in Texas. Well, from the 1920s up until recently Texas has usually been run by a very conservative business elite. And the formula is you get some kind of front man Governor, like George W. Bush … we had a country music singer named Papio Daniel back in the 1940s who has the sort of folksy, hillbilly type style, you know, and then you let the lobbyists run the State. I know this. I used to work in the Texas State Legislature. One of my jobs, when I was 19 was to pick up laws from lobbyists at various honky-tonks around town [laughter] including a saloon called “The Sundowner” and then, you know, I would go and enter them into the … as Bills, you know, in the Senate the next day. So I’m … this is not some outsider just complaining about this. So there’s that kind of phony populism, you know, where there’s a show for the public. But the real business is done between economic and political elites in the back rooms. And that’s the negative side of populism. You know it’s waving the Bible, you know, and, and the flag to divert people’s attention from what’s really going on.
Heffner: You know, it’s fascinating to me as I was reading your book and eliminating the picture and focusing on the Southern takeover of American politics, I was thinking of LBJ’s assumption … basic, basic assumption that no Southerner was ever going to be President of the United States, or not for a long, long, long, long time.
Lind: You have to remember he was born in a period between the Civil War and Franklin Roosevelt’s accession in 1932 when the South was not just despised by the rest of the country … and still is to a certain extent … let’s face it … and sometimes the antipathy is mutual …
Heffner: Is this sensitivity on your part, perhaps?
Lind: Oh, I’ve encountered it. I lived in New York for four years, I worked for Harpers, for The Atlantic, for The New Republic …
Heffner: And you repeated what?
Lind: Well, this assumption that Texans are uneducated. That there’s no intellectual culture in Texas, that everyone’s some sort of moronic hillbilly. Now having said that, I’m not complaining. The Northeastern journalistic establishment tends to have stereotypes about every group, including people in their own neighborhoods, you know. So stereotypes are just the shorthand that people use.
Heffner: Here in New York.
Lind: No, but throughout the media world, in general. Unfortunately, George W. Bush has been playing into this. I’ve got a little ranch not far from his and it just amuses me and my fellow Texans no end to watch this drug store cowboy on television, you know, where he wears the giant Stetson …
Heffner: You’ve got it on the cover of your book.
Lind: Look, I’ll tell you … real ranchers wear little, you know, caterpillar tractor hats, and you know little visor hats. You know they wear lace-up boots, they don’t wear this big, you know, $500 lizard skin boots when you’re out in the country. No real rancher, take it from me, clears brush on an August vacation day at 1 o’clock in the afternoon [laughter] so the cameras can show him. This is all Hollywood. That’s all fake. And it goes back to Ronald Reagan. I mean LBJ, who was the real thing … he did what Texan ranchers, you know, would do, on vacation on the ranch, which is to drive around at breakneck speed in his Lincoln convertible Cadillac drinking beer. Bush got, you know, this whole Crawford act from Ronald Reagan, you remember because they always showed Ronald Reagan riding on horses … chopping wood …
Lind: You know I thought about writing the Reagan White House a letter one time, and, and asking if in that part of California they had electricity yet?
Lind: Because down in Texas, you know, we had … we had indoor air conditioning and universal heating, you know, we didn’t have to cut wood anymore.
Heffner: It works, doesn’t it?
Lind: Well, I don’t … even, even rural people know this is sort of an act. But they, they feel that since this fellow is acting so hard to pretend he’s one of us, even if he’s doing it somewhat ineptly … at least he’s on our side. And we’re not so sure about those pointy-head, you know, Liberals who made fun of Dan Quail for misspelling potato. So, in that sense it works.
Heffner: This is the point at which I have to thank you for joining me today … Michael Lind and say that the Southern takeover of American politics … a fascinating book, I hope a lot of people read it … Thanks again for joining me.
Lind: Thank you for having me.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.