President Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965

The Roots of Polarization: From the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to September 11, 2001 to Today

I’ve been working on an annotated bibliography about social and political polarization for a foundation and the Greater Good Science Center. I was surprised to discover, in a stack of political-science papers, a lesson from the Department of Unintended Consequences: You can trace today’s polarized society to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Tucked within that lesson is one about September 11.

A reminder (you might skip this paragraph): The Voting Rights Act empowered the federal government to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution on a local level. Before that, it was incredibly difficult for African Americans to participate in Southern electoral politics. Legally, they faced poll taxes, literacy tests, and bureaucratic restrictions; extralegally, voting was just dangerous — going to a polling station could get you fired from your job or even killed. As a result, few Southern blacks were registered voters and they had almost no representation in the South or nationally. It took a huge, diverse national movement to get the Act passed. When it did pass, many of the bureaucratic hurdles vanished, almost overnight. The federal government sent examiners and federal agents to the South to put eyes on registration and voting. Southern jurisdictions needed permission from the courts or the U.S. Attorney General for any new procedures. And so on — there were a lot of other changes, adding up to the most significant infringement on states’ rights since Reconstruction. Within a year, a quarter of a million new black voters had been registered.

Here we come to predictable but unintended consequences. The South was once a stronghold of the Democratic Party, which helped pass programs that were essentially socialism for white people. Within a decade, thanks to the GOP’s Southern strategy, that ended. Conservative Southern Democrats crossed over to the GOP. Meanwhile, with legal and extralegal barriers to voting lifted, minority participation in electoral politics surged. This process made Democrats more liberal (and racially diverse), Republicans more conservative (and more dependent on whites for votes), and parties more geographically differentiated. In response to the Civil Rights realignment, Republicans pushed for the creation of districts (gerrymandering) that were either majority-minority or white — which in turn made political polarization even more intense.

And there you have it. There are a lot of other factors interacting with each other: rising economic inequality, changes in the media (including the appearance of social media), etc. But 1965 is the moment when the post-war white-people consensus started to fall apart; you can see it in evolving electoral maps. Does that mean we shouldn’t have passed the Voting Rights Act? Hell, no. What it means (to me) is that we can’t ever forget how race shapes this country, and how hard we’ve had to fight to build a multiracial society. I think that’s worth remembering on September 11, don’t you? All the things we have — all the rights and the gains — are very fragile. People won them; people can destroy them. Way back in 1965, white folks had to ask themselves which side they were on. Would they side with a bunch of violent, bullying racists who looked like them or with a courageous people who were asking for us to be our best, bravest selves?

I think we face a very similar question today. We all have to decide: Do I want a multiracial society or don’t I? If that’s what you want, you need to step up to make it happen. Voting, marching, kneeling, donating money, speaking out on social media, every tactic on every front, wherever you happen to be. Because if we don’t do that, it’s not going to happen. The forces against such a society are just too strong in the United States.

Like what you read? Give Jeremy Adam Smith a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.