If there remained any doubt about the connection between American racism and “small-government conservatism,” the Tea Party-dominated House Republican majority helped remove it last week in its handling of the farm bill. The Republicans larded on extra money for agricultural subsidies benefiting mostly white-owned agribusiness and then lopped off the food-stamp program entirely. It, after all, benefits a disproportionate share of blacks and other racial minorities.
In this exercise of government favoritism for wealthy whites and cruelty toward the poor (many blacks and other minorities), the pretense of free-market economics was even stripped away. If “libertarianism” were not just a polite cover for racism, the House Republicans would have killed agricultural subsidies, too.
But the Republicans didn’t. They seemed fine with various forms of taxpayer giveaways to white-owned agribusinesses, but they were determined to inflict as much pain as possible on blacks and minorities who already have suffered the most from the Great Recession. There was even a cruel vindictiveness to the process.
In justifying the House action on food stamps, Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tennessee, referred to the New Testament but ignored the teachings of Jesus, who told his followers to feed the poor and care for the needy. Instead, Fincher extracted a line from Thessalonians, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
But it turned out that the starving mandate did not apply to Fincher, who has been a recipient of several million dollars in farm subsidies, including $70,000 in direct payments in 2012 alone for doing nothing. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on Monday, “I don’t think the word ‘hypocrisy’ does it justice.”
Obviously, the Republican mean-spirited behavior is not entirely aimed at minorities. As Krugman noted, “almost half of food stamp recipients are non-Hispanic whites” and the percentage is 63 percent in Fincher’s Tennessee district. But race remains a powerful driving force for the GOP’s behavior.
Indeed, whenever you run up against right-wing hypocrisy, it’s a safe bet that race is a factor. For instance, Tea Partiers love to go to Washington, dress up in Revolutionary War costumes and protest their taxation withrepresentation. But they are remarkably silent about a continuation of “taxation without representation” for the residents of the District, many of whom are black.
Yes, it’s true that D.C. whites are also denied congressional representation but you can bet that if D.C. were overwhelmingly white (and right-wing) rather than substantially black (and liberal), the Tea Partiers would be screaming about the injustice of it all.
It’s also true that the Republican insistence of voter IDs (to eliminate the virtually non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud) will disenfranchise some poor and elderly whites who may not have drivers’ licenses. But the right-wing politicians who are pushing these laws know that on balance it will keep more black- and brown-skinned Americans from the polls.
That’s the numbers game they’re playing. But to rig the elections, they must frame their maneuvers in “race-neutral” ways, which means that, sadly, some whites must be disenfranchised along with blacks and other minorities. Those whites shut out from elections amount to collateral damage in the war to “take our country back.”
“Free market,” “libertarian,” “contract rights” and “small government” are the current in-vogue euphemisms for maintaining white supremacy. Though you still hear, “states’ rights” from some right-wing politicians, the phrase does have a stigma from the battles to protect segregation a half century ago.
But these various concepts – all targeting the possibility that the federal government might reflect the democratic will of the American people and act against racial bigotry or other injustices – can be traced back to the original political battles of the young Republic over slavery.
The Federalists, who were the prime movers behind the Constitution, were what you might call “pragmatic nationalists.” They understood that the point of the document crafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and ratified in 1788 was to centralize power in the federal government and enable it to take the actions necessary to build the country.
Their “originalist” view of the Constitution could be described as the federal government doing whatever it must to protect the country and advance the nation’s “general welfare.” Many Framers were troubled by slavery but they were not purists. They even accepted repulsive compromises that counted black slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-up Constitution.”]
Nevertheless, Southern Anti-Federalists – the likes of Virginia’s George Mason and Patrick Henry – argued that the Constitution, by centralizing power in the federal government, would inevitably lead the United States to outlaw slavery and cost wealthy plantation owners their massive capital investment in human chattel.
Though these Anti-Federalists narrowly lost the fight over ratification, they didn’t fade away. They organized behind the charismatic Thomas Jefferson, who had been in France during the writing and ratifying of the Constitution. Jefferson served as Secretary of State under Federalist George Washington and as Vice President under Federalist John Adams, but he fought the ambitious nation-building plans of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and undermined Adams. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rethinking Thomas Jefferson.”]
As the new constitutional Republic took shape, worried plantation owners, including many Anti-Federalists, organized themselves as the core of an agrarian-based political movement that is commonly referred to as Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. The party presented itself as representing the interests of simple farmers, but – in reality – the base of Jefferson’s movement was in the slaveholding aristocracy.
Jefferson himself was a deeply racist individual who made a mockery of the words he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” He engaged in the pseudo-science of skull measurements to argue inNotes on the State of Virginia that African-Americans were inferior to whites. He also insisted that it would be impossible for whites to live in the same country with freed blacks.
But Jefferson proved to be a skilled – if unscrupulous – political leader. His party’s success, in first demonizing the Federalist Party and then dethroning its leaders, led to a 24-year run of Virginian presidents, starting with Jefferson in 1801 and followed by Jefferson’s neighbors and protégés, James Madison (a former Federalist ally of Washington) in 1809 and James Monroe (who had been one of the early Anti-Federalists allied with Mason and Henry) in 1817.
All three were slaveholders who defended the institution of slavery and opposed the manumission (or freeing) of slaves in the United States. As Virginia’s governor in 1800, Monroe called out the state militia to brutally put down an incipient slave revolt known as Gabriel’s Rebellion, with 26 alleged conspirators hanged. Jefferson and Madison pondered various schemes for deporting freed African-Americans.
Though slavery was always in the background, the chief political principle of Jefferson’s party was to roll back the Constitution’s empowerment of the federal government and to claim that the document’s seemingly expansive powers were really quite narrow. The effect was to shield the interests of slaveholders who feared that their investments in bondage might otherwise be lost.
By the end of the Virginia Dynasty in 1825, the roots of slavery had dug down even deeper in America’s soil with many Virginian plantation owners, who had exhausted their own land by overuse, starting a new industry: breeding slaves for sale to the new slave states to the west. The United States was on course for the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
The Demise of Slavery
Ironically, just as the Anti-Federalists had feared, the growing industrial power of the North and its swelling immigrant population tilted national power away from the South. But slavery was still defended by Jefferson’s Democratic Party, which competed against the Whigs and then the Republicans, based primarily in the North.
The election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln was the final straw for hard-line slavers who then orchestrated the secession of 11 Southern states. With secession, the Democratic Party lost much of its representation in Congress.
Despite the centrality of slavery to the War Between the States, Southerners insisted then – and some still do today – that the conflict was not about slavery, but about “limited government,” “constraints on federal power,” “states’ rights,” and “contract rights.” But the inconvenient truth was that the Confederacy quickly drafted a constitution perpetuating slavery and the South conditioned its later peace negotiations on slavery’s continuation.
In the final days of the war in 1865, while the Southern states were still in rebellion, Lincoln engineered passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. After the South’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, the Radical Republicans pushed through the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection under the law and the Fifteenth Amendment assuring the right to vote regardless of one’s color.
After the Southern states returned to the Union – and especially after Reconstruction ended in 1877 – the pro-slave Democratic Party became the party of Jim Crow and made possible the brutal oppression of freed blacks, who faced lynching and other acts of terror. The solid Democratic South only changed in the 1960s when the national Democratic Party took the lead in passing major civil rights laws.
The so-called Dixie-crats were then welcomed into the Republican Party by opportunistic politicians such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Given the stigma of outright racism, Nixon, Reagan and other Republicans employed code words – dog whistles – that were heard by the white racists but could be explained away to more enlightened Americans.
Rebranding as Patriots
Thus, we were back to euphemisms about “limited government,” “constraints on federal power,” “states’ rights,” and “contract rights.” One other cosmetic change in the new millennium was for the Right to “rebrand” itself from its overt love of the Old Confederacy to a supposed harkening back to the Framers’ “originalist” view of the Constitution.
Except that instead of citing the pragmatic nationalism of Washington, Hamilton, Adams and the earlier incarnation of Madison – who all favored a vibrant central government – the Right promoted the revisionist version of a weak central government as devised by Jefferson and the Southern slaveholders.
With the election of the first African-American president in 2008, and with it the recognition of the demographic changes that Barack Obama represented, the lightly repressed racism of the American Right bubbled to the surface with conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposed Kenyan birth and posters showing him in African tribal dress with a bone through his nose.
Of course, Republican and Tea Party leaders still insisted that their political movement was not about racism, butabout free markets and removing the heavy hand of government regulation. But their actions kept belying their words, both in the racially tinged legislation – like discriminatory voter ID laws, resistance to immigration reformand elimination of food stamps – and in the rulings of the right-wing Supreme Court, such as gutting the Voting Rights Act.
Then, there was the right-wing backlash on Fox News and talk radio against the public outrage over the murder of an unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Some right-wing commentators even celebrated the acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman on Saturday, much as an earlier generation of racists cheered “not guilty” verdicts for Klansmen accused of lynching uppity Negroes.
When confronting the apparent glee that some right-wingers expressed over Zimmerman’s acquittal – and facing comparable sentiments when the Supreme Court’s majority trashed the Voting Rights Act and House Republicans axed food stamps for the poor – one has to wonder where these white racists hope to take the United States.
In their ugly words and deeds, there is an echo of Jefferson and an earlier generation of American racists who wistfully hoped that they could ship non-whites out of the United States and make the young nation white and homogenous.
We heard that wistful voice again last year in Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanting to make life so miserable for Hispanic immigrants that they would “self-deport” and complaining that Obama was giving “stuff” to the unworthy “47 percent” whose color in the mind’s eyes of Romney’s white listeners was surely of a darker hue.
The current dysfunction of the Congress is another distant echo of the pre-Civil War days when Southern whites obstructed any proposal for federal government action, even disaster relief, as a possible precedent for ending slavery. In the modern case, the fear may be that the federal government will help non-whites gain genuine political power.
So, what is becoming painfully apparent is that the pleasant thought that the United States was finally reaching a post-racial future isn’t true. The only question is whether the reassertion of white supremacy – now in the guise of “small-government conservatism” – will succeed in creating a Second Jim Crow era.