So The Fix thought it was time to check in with a group of experts to figure out why it seems to be such a big deal, and whether they see parallels between the Davis case and another moment in history when Southern government officials insisted on their right to resist federal dictates.
Our experts had thoughts on all of that. Lots of them. Also: A few about Donald Trump.
First, here's a little about our panel:
- Ferrel Guillory founded the Center for Public Life at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and teaches public policy and journalism courses at the school. A former journalist, he has written about political and cultural change in the South for decades. This year, Guillory will also co-teach a course on reporting on race and civil rights in modern-day America.
- Bruce Bartlett served in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bartlett is also the author of several books including 2009's "Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past."
- Lewis Gould is a professor emeritus in history at the University of Texas at Austin. He too is the author of several books about American politics, including his 2003 book "Republicans: A History of the Grand Old Party," republished last year.
The panel's Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.
Fix: Much has been made of the fact that Kim Davis is a Democrat. Why has that a attracted so much attention?
Guillory: You know, it's politics. She clearly is not the kind of the New South Democrat that put three Southern states in the list that helped to elect the nation's first African-American president [in 2008]. So, you know, yes, she’s a Democrat but not in the way that all these folks mean. It's just something for folks to focus on.
Bartlett: I hadn’t really noticed any commentary noting that Davis is a Democrat. What I keep seeing is that she has been married multiple times.
Gould: It's just a silly game of gotcha. Given the present Republican position on racial matters and civil rights, they reach out for any evidence of Democratic [Party] hypocrisy.
There are vestiges of Democratic loyalty that survive in parts of the South to this day. Whether that carries any substantive content or alignment with the party is another question. If you ask Ms. Davis, I would be deeply surprised if she said, 'Oh yes, [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.] is my favorite person.' The point being made about her political affiliation is almost completely irrelevant because it tells you virtually zero about the set of beliefs and legal arguments at the center of this bring-your-own tea pot, we-want-to-have-a-tempest matter. Republicans ought to own that, as a party, they currently believe same-sex marriage is wrong and, if [Sen.] Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is to be believed, they don't think she's wrong either.
Fix: Are comparisons between massive resistance to civil rights expansion in the 1950s and 1960s and the actions of Kim Davis and others who do not want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples today reasonable or fair?
Guillory: Yes and no. [Davis] no longer represents the prevailing sentiment in Southern politics. There is still an overlay of cultural conservatism. So on issues of race, religion, other kinds of cultural issues, the South is not totally different than the nation, but different enough to matter in certain circumstances. Still, all of Kentucky hasn't rallied around her either, you know.
There are similarities in the sense that conservative white voters and white elected officials exercised in some cases massive resistance and in other cases just plain resistance to federal court orders. Eventually, they lost. And the South is better off for it. I mean, for all the issues we still face of poverty, you can hardly imagine the modern South with major metro areas and international corporations and high-tech centers in Austin and Research Triangle [in North Carolina] without the removal of all of those barriers to civil and human rights.
Bartlett: So far, I see no comparison. Massive resistance to integration was indeed massive, especially in Virginia. The resistance to gay marriage looks to me more like isolated cases.
Gould: There are some similarities, sure. Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock [to enforce a federal court order allowing nine black students to integrate a previously white school]. Now, I don’t expect the 82nd Airborne deploy to take Ms. Davis to jail. But, it is true that in her civil capacity as a clerk and not as a lay preacher when the Supreme Court says stop it she has to. The alternative is that we live in a country where you get to pick and chose the laws you like. And that ain't the way the system has worked since 1789. As our British friends would say, "She is batting on a sticky wicket."
Fix: How would you describe the role that anxieties, anger and what some consider moral resistance to social change have played in the history of both the nation's major political parties?
Guillory: Of course they played a role. It's true that post-Reconstruction, Democrats regained control of the South and instituted Jim Crow. That put in place a little more than half-century of solid Democratic party rule and a political terrain that was characterized largely by racial segregation. During that period, the role of major public officials in much of the South was to defend it.
In the 1964 presidential election, we get [President Lyndon] Johnson vs. [Sen. Barry] Goldwater. Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act. So, he becomes a figure aroud which a lot of white conservative Southern voters rallied. Johnson wins in a landslide nationally, but the party understands that a continued civil rights push is a destabilizing thing for the party. The really big moment came with the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Johnson famously says, we have signed the South over the the Republican Party for the next generation and he was prescient. Get to the 1968 presidential election and LBJ [Johnson] steps aside. [Vice President Hubert] Humphrey steps in. Martin Luther King is killed. Robert Kennedy is killed. And then you get George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, running [for president] as an independent.
For a lot of white conservatives in the South, Wallace is a midway point. Wallace became a way to express discontent without going all the way over to the Republicans [previously a Democrat, Wallace launched a third-party presidential bid in 1968]. Nixon and his people came up with what is known as The Southern Strategy. Then you get Ronald Reagan. He knits together evangelical Christians and the switch over Democrats. Race was clearly a part of this but not the whole story. Social change is also part of this story. You don't get the parties and the voter coalitions we have today without it.
Bartlett: I don’t know that those things shaped the major parties so much as they have fueled various third-party efforts over the years. Certainly, the populist movements of the late-19th century and early-20th century were. I think the same can be said of the Socialist Party, Ross Perot and George Wallace. These efforts were obviously unsuccessful, but largely because the major parties co-opted their popular issues and sometimes their leaders as well. William Jennings Bryan ran on both the Democratic and Populist Party tickets.
Gould: There is no doubt that the Democratic Party throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, was a racist, segregationist party. No serious historian will deny it. The boys in the [President Woodrow] Wilson administration wanted to repeal the 14th and 15th amendments. But just as clearly, no one with any understanding of history would deny that in the '60s and certainly by the '70s, the two parties changed places, with the Democrats supporting civil rights expansion and Republicans taking on a kind of neo-Confederate stance. The party includes other strains too. But those ideas are there.
Fix: Are those same anxieties and types of anger part of our political present?
Guillory: Sure. These things are part of America. Both political parties have their outliers. We don’t have a multiplicity of parties in this country. I mean, the closest we have to a socialist runs in the Democratic Party. We don’t have a nativist party or anything like that, but those who want to build immigration walls run in the Republican Party.
Bartlett: I don’t so much see anxiety as frustration -- especially among Republicans. I think this is the result of Republican leaders who oversold what they could accomplish just with control of Congress. Secondly, Republicans are perpetually betrayed by their leaders, they believe. I think this is much of what is making [Donald] Trump and [Ben] Carson so popular — they are not politicians, whom conservatives equate with no adherence to principle, double-dealing etc. The big missed story in the media, I think, is how well Carson is doing.
You have written about the decline of white voters, but I think the deep hostility of Millennials to the Republican agenda is as important politically. Young people are very open-minded on race, gender, religion and almost everything else. Republican dogmatism is a huge turn-off.
The Davis story looks to me less like genuine anxiety than the way powerful groups use people like her for their own agenda. I gather that her lawyers have a history of inventing ridiculous defenses for not following the law. I imagine there are people raising a lot of money off her. When she has served her purpose, she will be tossed aside like a used tissue and forgotten.
Gould: Well yeah, considering how much the issuance of a marriage license in Kentucky is dominating national politics right now. [Davis] seems to embody the tension around what do we mean when we say marriage and equality, etc., at this time. The judge's order and her trip to jail reflect the impact of this social change. To paraphrase Mr. Dooley, social change ain't bean bag either.
And of course we cannot forget [Donald Trump]. Obviously among white Americans there is a great anxiety that the country they have known and their parents and grandparents have known is somehow different. People who look different and sound different are coming in and participating in The Great American Experiment and they are looking for someone to express those anxieties and grievances. Trump may not be the perfect vessel, but you do see people say Trump is speaking their language.
It would be interesting to know from him, in what decade was America so great. When did this Valhalla exist?