Why is this Martin Luther King Day unlike other Martin Luther King Days?
Because today marks the 50th time that we’re recognizing his birthday without him. A half-century of coming to terms with what we lost, of trying to live by his example.
This is also the first MLK Day under the 45th President. It only seems like he’s been President for 50 years. If Dr. King was still with us at the tender age of 88, what would he say about this President?
Scratch that. Let’s consider one of the lesser-heralded phenomena of this current Presidency: a healthy surge of interest in alternate timelines. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve read, in comment sections or on social media, “We’re stuck in an alternate timeline.” My favorite: “Biff Tannen has the Sports Almanac and we’re all f’d.”
Tenured historians have already speculated about what would have happened if this or that leader had survived his famous assassination. Consensus: Franz Ferdinand’s death didn’t really cause World War I – the continent was heading for war in any event – but Yitzhak Rabin’s death really did seem to end the two-state-solution-based Middle East peace process. Historians have also guessed about what would have happened if King had lived. We’re talking about a lot of what-ifs that can’t be proven. But we live in such an intolerable timeline, indulge me for a moment. This will be like a man on a desert island spinning an elaborate fantasy that his island has become, uh, a dessert island.
Okay, so, James Earl Ray misses his shot on April 4, 1968. And somehow, no one else kills King from that day to this one. Now, with that major change, we better try to limit changing anything else, despite whatever Butterfly Effect would have spilled over into other events.
So, Bobby Kennedy still gets killed in June 1968. The Chicago Democratic Convention is still crazy. Nixon gets elected. The Nixon presidency happens, with all the Vietnam, China, and Watergate that that implies.
Martin Luther King had no intention of running for President in 1968; it’s not like he had entered a primary. He might have run in 1972 or 1976, but I doubt, in those years, that he would have run as either a Democrat or a Republican. The parties were still in a significant amount of flux; most elected Democrats serving in Congress had been defenders of segregation; most elected Republicans serving in Congress had been opponents of segregation.
From the day that Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the party realignment took about 15 years to shake out. By the time of the 1980 election, when Nixon’s “Southern strategy” had come to light, when Jimmy “human rights” Carter squared off against Ronald “no more welfare queens” Reagan, it was clear which party was on the side of African-Americans, and which wasn’t.
How might this have changed if MLK had been alive during the 1970s? It’s hard to say. Clearly, MLK would have been working to enfranchise the disadvantaged. But I believe that throughout the 1970s, MLK would have been more of an organizer and moral leader than a candidate, somewhat like Bishop Desmond Tutu. Throughout the 1970s, King also would have had to deal with Time and Newsweek-level media questioning “Is America ready?” for a black President.
I believe the first Reagan administration would have been the game-changer, as it was in our real-life timeline for Jesse Jackson, who in 1984 launched the first serious bid by an African-American for a major-party nomination. By then, King would have amassed enough trustworthy lieutenants to handle the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work without him. He was no fool. Dr. King would have seen what Reagan was doing to ghettos, to prisons, to mental institutions, to affirmative action, and said Enough is Enough. At the age of 55, he would have run for President.
I know, I know what you’re saying: Reagan won a landslide in 1984! But that’s because he was facing off against Carter’s Vice-President, who reminded voters of stagflation and Iranian hostages and other parts of the 70s best left in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t facing the combination of celebrity and righteousness that King would have represented.
If Dr. King had run as a Democrat in 1984, it would have been clear that he was basically renting the Party. After all, King had the battle scars from his time with LBJ, and no doubt by 1984 he would have acquired new scars in dealing with Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. No one could have tarred King as a “classic tax and spend liberal.” Many, many, many persons of faith would have jumped at the chance to elect the first minister to the Presidency. All the predictable major-media sniping about “separation of church and state” would have redounded to King’s advantage, much as it once did to John Kennedy’s. The liberal coasts secured (based on hero worship, partly), I believe Dr. King would likely have carried at least Georgia (his home state), and probably Mississippi and Alabama, where he had developed strong roots. Sure, Reagan’s economic recovery (often over-lionized in retrospect) would have been enough for, let’s say, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and a few other major enchiladas. But without a Rush Limbaugh on the air, Reagan’s campaign wouldn’t have been enough for a savvier, more politically calculating King than we ever got to see.
Ah, President King. With the Secret Service detail he truly deserved.
It’s true that an effective President King would have had to, let’s say, slightly alter some of his more left-wing advocacy. But most of the Reagan anti-minority policies could have been reversed by reducing most of Reagan’s tax cuts for the 1%. King, who was an expert at reading the room, could have rhetorically sold this sort of populism as deficit reduction to keep the independents on his side.
Presidents don’t have all that much influence on the economy one way or the other. They get blamed and credited, but the truth is quite different. They can’t control the Fed. Most economic policy is set by groups of mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans making minor tweaks to capital gains rates and marginal-tax rates and a few other things that only their donors care about. In my fantasy scenario, King plays ball with these people. Actually, he pretty much plays ball with everyone. That’s how power used to work on Capitol Hill.
The Iran-contra scandal wouldn’t have happened; or more accurately, few would have cared, since most of the principals were out of power. The Scalia-Bork mess wouldn’t have happened; judicial prestige, and not ideology, would have remained the North Star of Supreme Court nominations. And, consistent with what I already said about economics, the 1987 downturn would have happened. This was a genuine shock, but not a party-crushing one; Reagan’s Vice-President still managed to win in 1988 with a tepidly recovering economy. In my alternate timeline, same diff: King wins a second term in 1988.
Besides the reversal of Reagan’s anti-minority policies (on food stamps, on inner cities, on the war on drugs, et cetera), the major difference between a first King administration and a second Reagan administration would have been the 1986 Reykjavik summit with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. It is now universally understood that Gorbachev came to Iceland and told Reagan (I’m paraphrasing), “what if we just canceled this whole Cold War thing?” Reagan actually agreed that both sides could entirely eliminate their nuclear stockpiles, but he insisted on holding on to SDI (the Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. Star Wars, a.k.a. our atmosphere-set missile platform to knock out incoming nukes). Because of that, the two men walked away without a deal. In my alternate reality, King says yes to Gorbachev.
I believe Gorbachev wanted to end the Cold War in any event; he understood it as a costly drain on his country’s morale and resources. In our actual reality, having failed to do it by masterstroke accord with Reagan, he did it more incrementally, through glasnost and perestroika. This takes absolutely nothing away from the brave men and women of Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia who broke through the Iron Curtain, nor from the brave American servicemembers whose strength and fortitude was also dispositive.
This may surprise you: I actually think that in my fantasy, a Republican wins in 1992; as Nate Silver has said many times, for various structural reasons, it’s hard for any party to win three straight Presidential elections. But I also think a Republican party built to counter King would have been very different from the one Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich encouraged in the 1990s. First, they couldn’t claim that “trickle-down works” at every turn. Second, they would have had to counter morality with morality. Third, they would have been more based on “pure” Republican principles like fewer taxes and more freedom. And then we would have spent the last 25 years going back and forth on questions of too-much or too-little government, instead of (I like to think) the unvarnished “enmity” that became a thing around 1995. And all the while, people would have had King’s example/legacy to point to, a sort of hybrid of the way we use his actual legacy now (in our real timeline) and the way we’ll be using Obama’s scandal-free, moral legacy in 20 years. (Yes, I know Dr. King cheated on Coretta. He would have been smart enough to put that behind him well before 1984, before a time when social media could have dredged it up. Remember the “gentleman’s agreement” pertained to the media at least through 1992 in our real timeline, when no credible source published any whispers of George H.W. Bush’s infidelity.) King’s moral leadership, in retrospect, would be bolstered by his status as “the man who won the Cold War,” proving that peaceful rhetoric and peaceful disarming can walk hand in hand.
And…now it’s time to leave our dessert island and head back to our desert island of horror.