Where do we go from here? — Martin Luther King Jr. The last election was the moral equivalent of a second civil war.
In the first, the lines were drawn between the North and the South. In the second, it was drawn between two different visions of whose America this is.
One vision was defined by a unity that transcended race, sex or where you were born.
It did not matter that Barack Obama is black; it mattered that he could lead. This America has a heart; it is an America in which no one should be without health care, where the needs of the elderly (read Social Security) are sacred, where there are loans for students to go to college, where women still have the right to choose what to do with their bodies.
On the other side was a party not merely of no but “Absolutely no!” to the idea of black man as president. Detroit rocker Ted Nugent captured the hatefulness of this group. “Obama could suck on his machine gun,” he stated. This was dog-whistle racism.
The whistle was loud because the demographics of America are changing. People of color are becoming the majority. The tea party invoked an Us vs. Them argument which holds that when blacks — and other non-whites — make progress it is at the expense of whites.
In the Civil War, the goal of Gen. Robert E. Lee was to overthrow the federal government. The goal in the second one was eerily similar. Grover Norquist, who has led the no-taxation movement, stated, “We want to shrink the federal government to the point where we can drown it in a bathtub.”
True to that vision, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney proposed to eliminate not only the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — but also the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “Give it back to the states,” he said. Had this group taken the reins of America, we would have had to turn our clocks back on Saturday not an hour but to 1929.
Obama’s victory was surprising because the Republicans had the majority of “white America,” backing by billionaires and Fox News. They had a supposedly invincible machine but they were defeated by an army they could not see.
Attorney Karen Andre, a key Obama strategist in Florida, called it a “blue Ninja army.” Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, younger whites — ordinary people — all banded together. They came to vote with the same fervor that brought a previous generation to civil rights demonstrations. They did not merely express their right to vote; it was a fight to vote.
If this had been merely a political campaign, the Republican Party would have treated blacks and Hispanics as potential supporters. We were treated as the enemy by the Republicans. We were targeted variously by voter suppression and disinformation campaigns that compare well with those waged in third world countries. But when the smoke cleared, Obama had not only won; he had a mandate.
If the campaign was a second civil war, our era now must be an era of reconstruction.
The focus of the first Reconstruction was changing the law to give former slaves the right to vote. Obama should begin our new reconstruction by issuing a national ID card that would forestall future subterfuge of voter ID laws. True reconstruction must include rebuilding America’s cities. Inner city schools have become warehouses; roads and bridges in some cities have potholes large enough for a car to fit into.
Reconstruction can happen only if Obama chooses peace instead of war in the Middle East. We must also rebuild the criminal justice system. The one we have is broken in urban areas.
WAR NOT OVER
In the aftermath of the Civil War, while the North defeated the army of the South, the philosophy that had put the Confederates in the field, the philosophy of Dred Scott, of racial inequality, was still alive. This is the kind of problem that confronts Obama. For the president, the war is not over. Some in Texas and Louisiana have already petitioned to “peacefully secede” from the United States.
Obama needs to divide the Republican Party like Gen. William Sherman divided the South in his march to the sea. He should talk only to the moderates. They may listen now. The ship of extremism has run aground. It is morning in America again.
*Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables.