Fifty years after its passage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as one of the greatest legislative achievements in Congressional history.
But could it pass today?
In the hyper-polarized environment of modern politics, the bipartisan coordination that made the passage of the 1964 bill possible seems unattainable. As the Senate archives recount, the legislation had faced steep opposition from factions in both parties – from southern Democrats as well as GOP conservatives who believed the bill “represented an unprecedented intrusion by the state into the daily lives of Americans.”
Ultimately, it was a bipartisan strategy developed by then-Democratic Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey and Republican Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel that defeated a filibuster organized by the bill’s opponents. And it was Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen who delivered to President Lyndon Johnson the Republican votes necessary to pass the bill. He did so, moreover, in the context of an election year:
[A]s one historian commented, Dirksen was asked “to deliver Republican votes in support of a Democratic president who could not bring along enough of his own party to seal the deal.” … The last thing the Senate’s Republican leader should be doing, many argued, was to provide the Democratic administration with a major legislative victory.
What’s extraordinary about the passage above is not that 1964 was so very different from 2014 but so similar.
The arguments made against Dirksen’s cooperation with President Johnson bear an uncanny echo to the arguments made today about why the parties shouldn’t cooperate on immigration reform, entitlement reform, tax reform or a host of other major issues. Stalemate is preferable to progress, if there’s the slightest chance that the other side can claim “credit.”
Of course, much has also changed. Evidence shows that both Congress and the public are much more polarized than in the past. Districts are much more gerrymandered, and outside money has outsized impact. But evidence also shows that the loudest, most polarizing voices are still the minority, and that the plurality of Americans still consider themselves part of the broad center.
In the three profiles that follow, we spoke to three leaders who’ve maintained their faith in bipartisanship and civil dialogue as a path to progress. Each is pursuing an approach unique to their spheres to bring about change:
- Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL-18), the co-founder of the United Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of freshman members of Congress;
- The Hon. Bud Cramer, a former Congressman who is now Chair of the Washington-based non-profit Center Forward; and
- Jeff Harris, Chief Executive Officer of Junior State of America, a non-profit dedicated to promoting civic education for young Americans.
These leaders show that, even in a political environment marred by division, real progress is possible.
We hope you’ll take a look.