As the government shutdown drags on, the debt-limit default looms, and it looks like years of the same ahead for us, so it makes good sense to step back from the daily blow-by-blow and ask ourselves what’s really going on here.
On the right, Tea Party Republicans rallied by Senator Ted Cruz insist that Obamacare will destroy America, and they’re just trying to save the country. Since the US is the only advanced industrial country without universal health care, few international observers – whose countries have been enormously helped, not destroyed by universal health care – can take the Tea Partiers seriously. So let’s look elsewhere for our explanations.
It’s helpful to begin with three different explanations. First, there’s conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who has a column explaining, “Why the Right Fights.” He gives a nod to “polarisation and redistricting”, along with “the conservative media landscape and anti-Obama sentiment”, as well as “the weakening of institutional party power“, but his real subject is conservative activists’ frustration with their repeated failure to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society. With Obamacare set to expand the scope of government, this long-term desperation has boiled over, it seems.
Beating the same bush over again
As Douthat puts it, there’s a “long term pattern” that “has played out repeatedly in our politics: Conservative politicians take power imagining that this time, this time, they will finally tame the New Deal-Great Society Leviathan … and then they make proposals and advance ideas for doing so, the weight of public opinion tilts against them, and they end up either backpedaling, getting defeated at the polls, or both.” Most folks would see that as a feature of democracy – unpopular ideas get rejected. But for conservatives, it’s a bug.
There’s no necessary relationship between conservatism and welfare state opposition – it doesn’t hold up internationally, and it does hold up internally, either.
On the other side of America’s political spectrum, Salon‘s Joan Walsh, in her piece “The real story of the shutdown: 50 years of GOP race-baiting“, argues, “It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else.” This is not Walsh’s idea. She quotes directly from Kevin Phillips, the architect of the infamous “Southern Strategy” – as well as the less-well-known “Northern Strategy” which targeted the likes of Walsh’s own working-class Catholic family:
“The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips wrote. “Democratic ‘Great Society’ programs aligned that party with many Negro demands, but the party was unable to defuse the racial tension sundering the nation.”
Influenced by Phillips, Republicans were only too happy to exploit that tension, over and over and over again. It’s not that all Republicans were racist, Walsh says. But whatever their personal attitudes, top Republican politicians were willing to use racial appeals, and those – like Mitt Romney’s father – who were not willing, were gradually just squeezed out. Walsh’s piece drew howls of protest, but the documented history is clear.
A third explanation comes from New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, whose piece, “The Shutdown Prophet” took up the argument of Spanish political scientist Juan Linz, who, Chait explained,
“argued that the presidential system, with its separate elections for legislature and chief executive, was inherently unstable. In a famous 1990 essay, Linz observed, “All such systems are based on dual democratic legitimacy: No democratic principle exists to resolve disputes between the executive and the legislature about which of the two actually represents the will of the people.” Presidential systems veered ultimately toward collapse everywhere they were tried, as legislators and executives vied for supremacy. There was only one notable exception: the United States of America.
Linz attributed our puzzling, anomalous stability to “the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties.”
As the parties have become increasingly polarised and less diffuse, the US is no longer unique, and is headed in the same tragic direction as other presidential systems. This is, essentially, the wider, comparative historical framework supporting the thesis of the book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, which I mentioned in my previous column, “Destroying the Government“. As I said there, what’s driving the polarisation is the failure of American conservative thought. And that failure is what ties Chait, Walsh and Douthat’s explanations all together.
Let’s start with Douthat. His account of how movement conservatives see things is quite credible, but like them, there are two major factors Douthat doesn’t consider: First, that European conservatives actually created the first modern welfare states, starting with Germany. Second, that even self-identified American conservative voters have repeatedly said they want to spend more money, rather than less, on government spending programs. Thus, there’s no necessary relationship between conservatism and welfare state opposition – it doesn’t hold up internationally, and it does hold up internally, either. It is far more of an historical accident. The March on Washington – whose 50th anniversary was recently observed – dramatically shifted the nation’s views on civil rights, virtually overnight.
Race as the underlying issue
As civil rights historian Taylor Branch noted, looking backward, hard-line segregationists like Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who appeared in an NBC documentary, formulated “a ‘smoke screen’ theory of phony news concocted to help King’s demonstrators and unscrupulous politicians. ‘The real goal of the conspiracy,’ Barnett told NBC viewers, ‘is the concentration of all effective power in the central government in Washington.'” The more famous Alabama Governor George Wallace went even farther:
By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favouritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns.
That’s the origin of the conservative obsession that Douthat writes about, as well as the history of racialised resentment, anti-New Deal politics that Walsh write about. And both of those, in turn, have driven the partisan polarisation which creates the presidential system breakdown that Chait writes about. Which is how all three of these explanations converge into a unified explanation.
Consistent with that explanation is author Michael Lind’s account, “Tea Party radicalism is misunderstood: Meet the ‘Newest Right‘”. Lind sees it as “simply the old Jeffersonian-Jacksonian right, adopting new strategies in response to changed circumstances …. [T]he dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables – the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce …. [T]hose who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires …. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”
Support for government spending remains strong, and has changed very little in almost 40 years. The racialised rhetoric that has contorted our politics has had surprisingly little impact when we ask people to consider policies in a sober, reflective manner.
For nearly a century following the Civil War, they once controlled a nation-within-a-nation “by means of segregation, disenfranchisement, and bloc voting and the filibuster at the federal level,” when the “Solid South” was solidly Democratic. Now that it’s Republican, the same tactics are being employed once again, as Lind reminds us, point-by-point. Then there’s the historical parallel between Barack Obama’s election and that of Abraham Lincoln:
“When the election of Lincoln seemed to foreshadow a future national political majority based outside of the South, the local notables of the South tried to create a smaller system they could dominate by seceding from the US ….
Today the white notables of the South increasingly live in states like Texas, which already have nonwhite majorities. They fear that Obama’s election, like Lincoln’s, foreshadows the emergence of a new national majority coalition that excludes them and will act against their interest.”
So far, they’ve only talked about secession – and never in the real corridors of power. But shutting down the government, and threatening to default on the debt are desperate life-threatening attacks in the spirit of succession, and they have been plotted by some of the most powerful politicians in the world.
Big old Southern white party
What Lind doesn’t focus on, but we have to add in order to bring all these accounts together, is that the New Deal was originally passed on terms largely dictated by these same Big Mules. It’s why domestic workers and agricultural workers – the vast majority of Southern African Americans – were excluded from Social Security and minimum wage laws, for example. It’s also why welfare programs were administered on the county level, so that they could be used to subsidise cotton plantations by barely keeping workers alive between the peak labour times of planting and harvesting, and then kicking them off when their labour was needed cheap.
Thus, what happened in the 60s, what Wallace howled against, was in part the unexpected loss of this control. It’s precisely because they helped create the welfare state, but then lost control of it, that the Big Mules feel a fury that only resonates abstractly for most other Americans.
It’s telling to note that Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Head Start, food stamps and more have all become deeply ingrained parts of American life, along with other forms of social spending outside the classic welfare state core, which also run afoul of conservative ideology. When asked about them outside the framework of contested politics, Americans remain strongly supportive, just as they were in the early 70s, when the gold standard of public opinion polling – the General Social Survey – was first begun, and started asking about them.
Looking at six domestic spending areas that GSS first polled in 1973 – welfare, national health, education, the environment, improving the conditions of African Americans and solving the problems of the big cities – gives us the longest time-period for comparison. A combined measure of support for these six programs finds that in 1973, 28.8 percent said we were spending “too little” on four to six of them, and 43.4 percent said we were spending “too little” on one to three of them. This compares to 28.8 percent and 42.1percent respectively in 2010, when support was down somewhat from the pre-recession high in 2008.
What these figures show is simple: support for government spending remains strong, and has changed very little in almost 40 years. The racialised rhetoric that has contorted our politics has had surprisingly little impact when we ask people to consider policies in a sober, reflective manner. Which, of course, is the last thing they can do when politics consists of nothing more than crisis after crisis after crisis.
So here we are again. Right back where we were on the verge of the Civil War. A Southern-based minority-within-a-minority is furiously opposed to letting the will of the majority be realised. And they’re fighting it with everything they’ve got. The sooner that Americans as a whole realise what is happening, the sooner we can put an end to it.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.