The two most important pieces of domestic legislation in my lifetime (I'm 60) were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Question: Members of which party voted for them in higher proportions, Republicans or Democrats? I suspect only a small slice of Americans knows it was Republicans, and by significant margins.
Eighty-two percent of Senate Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act, as opposed to 69 percent of Senate Democrats.
Eighty percent of House Republicans voted for it, as opposed to 63 percent of House Democrats.
As for the Voting Rights Act, 97 percent of Senate Republicans voted for it, compared with 73 percent of Democrats.
And 85 percent of House Republicans voted for it, compared with 80 percent of Democrats.
What conclusions or plausible guesses can be extrapolated from such barely recalled votes plus several other bypassed facts? For one, while fully acknowledging the watershed importance of Barack Obama's victory last week, I would argue the United States actually has been equipped and poised to elect an African-American as president for more than just the last few months.
In no way does claiming so downplay just how stunning a moment last week's election was in the history of our nation. And neither does it grant too little credit to President-elect Obama's remarkable political skills, as they would seem to be possibly matched over the last half-century only by those of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and maybe John F. Kennedy.
The point, rather, is that we have made more racial progress than has been routinely acknowledged, and this has been the case for years. How much progress had we made in terms of presidential politics before Obama's candidacy? I would contend, for instance, that Colin Powell was eminently electable in 2000. In saying so I concede he was too socially moderate to win the Republican nomination and likely too closely identified with Reagan to win the Democratic nomination. But those two nonracial reasons had measurably more to do with blocking his path to the White House than his race ever would have posed. I can't prove this, of course, but I'm confident.
One reason I'm trusting, beyond the fact Powell is an uncommonly compelling figure, is that the overwhelming majority of Americans have long been of bone-deep goodwill when it comes to respecting the religious beliefs of their fellows, and it's no leap to envision a similar sense of tolerance and maturity expanding, decade by decade, in akin spheres. The fact, for example, that vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman's (orthodox) Judaism had nothing to do with Al Gore's defeat in 2000 is evidence of this former spirit.
John McCain's concession speech was beautifully gracious. This was much appreciated by many people, starting with myself, but it somehow also seemed to surprise a fair number of them, as if Republicans and conservatives were less capable of grasping the historic and emotional meaning of the moment. Let me offer two quick, indirectly related points that suggest otherwise.
Remember when Trent Lott was too effusive in congratulating Strom Thurmond, his Republican Senate colleague, on Thurmond's 100th birthday in 2002? Did conservative columnists try to bail Lott out after he "misspoke"? The opposite was predominantly the case, and not just because he had undercut his party's political prospects. They also railed against him because they were morally offended by his comment that the nation would have been well-served if the then-segregationist (and non-Republican) Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.
Then there's what I've personally heard -- as well as what I haven't heard -- in decades of daily proximity to right-of-center men and women.
I have no patience for the kinds of absurd constraints imposed on language by politically correct censors and scolds. But that's not to say I'm not acutely alert to matters of decency and civility when it comes to words, especially when the subject is as sensitive as race. Yet if you were to ask me the number of times that I've heard conservative colleagues say anything racially unacceptable in all that time, the answer -- unbelievably, I'm sure to many -- would be maybe once every half-dozen years or so. I can't imagine liberals being any purer.
Am I surprised that a black person has been elected president of the United States? Not really -- though I must admit I had long assumed that when the inevitable and welcome day came, he or she would have been a Republican. Just like Lincoln.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.