The Marriage of Libertarians and Racists
By Robert Parry
In the U.S. news media, there is often a distinction made between the racist Right, which emerged from the struggle to maintain slavery and segregation, and the “small-government” Right, which supposedly represents a respectable conservatism focused on the libertarian ideals of personal freedom and free-market principles.
But the reality is that both of these major branches of the American Right grew from the same political trunk, i.e., the South’s fear that a strong federal government would intrude on the practices of slavery and, later, segregation. And, throughout U.S. history, those two branches of the Right have been mutually supportive.
Thus, prominent leaders of the “libertarian” Right – the likes of William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Ron and Rand Paul – have opposed major legislative efforts to combat Southern segregation, typically citing the “liberty” of a white restaurant owner to bar black patrons as trumping the right of the patrons to be treated fairly.
Similarly, on Tuesday, the right-wing majority of the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the freedom of states and communities with a history of racial discrimination in voting to change their voting rules without having to get clearance from federal authorities as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and renewed in 2006) had required.
The right of these districts to set their own standards topped the power of Congress to require that the principle of one person, one vote be respected for black and brown people, according to the Court’s five right-wing justices. Thus, the libertarianism behind “small government” principles again supported the goal of white supremacy.
The reality of these two wings of the Right flapping together in coordination has existed since the Founding of the Republic when Southern opponents of the Constitution’s proposed concentration of national power in the federal government argued that the shift away from state sovereignty – as contained in the Articles of Confederation – would inevitably doom slavery.
In the Virginia ratification convention of 1788, opponents of the Constitution – Patrick Henry and George Mason – pressed the case that Virginia’s lucrative investment in slavery would be put at risk by a powerful central government that they claimed would eventually come under Northern dominance. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Source of Anti-Government Extremism.”]
Though the Anti-Federalists lost the fight over the Constitution’s ratification, they continued to oppose President George Washington’s vision of a vibrant federal government building the young nation and protecting its fragile independence.
After Thomas Jefferson returned from France in 1789, the Anti-Federalists found their charismatic political leader. Along with his intellectual prowess, Jefferson was not above engaging in secretive personal attacks on Washington’s key lieutenants, particularly Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Jefferson ultimately organized his faction into the Democratic-Republican Party.
Despite his elegant words about freedom and equality, Jefferson was at his core a racist hypocrite who believed in white supremacy and rejected ever incorporating emancipated blacks into American society. Like Henry and Mason, Jefferson recognized the threat that a strong central government posed to his beloved Virginia and its lucrative institution of slavery.
So, Jefferson fiercely opposed the Federalist program that sought to promote the country’s development through everything from a national bank to a professional military to a system of roads and canals.
The primary distinction between Washington and Jefferson was that – although both were Virginian slaveholders – Washington was arguably the First American while Jefferson was a Virginian first, rooted deeply in its soil and traditions.
Washington understood the new country as it was born through the Revolution’s motto of “Join, or Die.” He led the Continental Army in battles from Massachusetts to New York through New Jersey and Pennsylvania to Virginia. He knew the perspectives of the various regions and grasped the potential (and the problems) of the young nation.
As Commander-in-Chief, Washington also experienced the gross ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, which governed the country from 1777 to 1787 and which made the 13 states “sovereign” and “independent.” He had seen his troops go hungry because states reneged on pledges of support.
After Washington’s army defeated the British in 1781, he watched in dismay as the squabbling among the states continued. Not only did Washington perceive how the Articles were holding back the nation’s economic development but how they were endangering its fragile independence, as European powers played one region against another.
When Shays’ Rebellion broke out in western Massachusetts in 1786, Washington was particularly concerned that the disorder might serve the interests of the British, who had only recently accepted the existence of the United States. Washington kept in touch with his Revolutionary War associates in Massachusetts, such as Gen. Henry Knox and Gen. Benjamin Lincoln.
On Oct. 22, 1786, in a letter seeking more information from a friend in Connecticut, Washington wrote: “I am mortified beyond expression that in the moment of our acknowledged independence we should by our conduct verify the predictions of our transatlantic foe, and render ourselves ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of all Europe.”
Shays’ Rebellion was finally put down by a militia force led by General Lincoln, but it helped convince Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with the goal of throwing out the Articles of Confederation (along with the notions of state “sovereignty” and “independence”) and drafting a new governing structure that centralized power.
Two of Washington’s chief lieutenants in this endeavor were his Revolutionary War aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who had studied various governing models and pushed for a system relying on checks and balances.
As a protégé of Washington, Madison favored even a stronger federal government than emerged from the compromising in Philadelphia. For instance, Madison wanted to give Congress the power to veto state laws, but had to settle for making federal law supreme and giving federal courts the power to strike down unconstitutional state statutes.
However, after Jefferson’s return from France where he had served as U.S. representative, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence began organizing political and public opposition to President Washington’s activist vision. Jefferson, as Secretary of State, became a particularly fierce rival of Treasury Secretary Hamilton.
Among other tactics, Jefferson secretly financed newspapers to attack his rivals, including Washington’s successor, President John Adams. The nastiness of Jefferson’s approach alienated Adams and prompted retaliation in kind from the Federalists. Washington’s great fear of factionalism was being realized. While the nasty political exchanges were extremely personal, they also reflected the agrarian interests of Jefferson’s Virginia (i.e. slavery) versus the commercial and industrial interests of New York and New England, represented by Hamilton and Adams.
Historically, Jefferson’s political operation has been dressed up in the fineries of ideology and his desire for “Republicanism.” But the core of his insistence on a weak central government and his emphasis on states’ rights was his recognition that the Federalists would otherwise become a threat to slavery. His defense of simple “farmers” was a euphemism for his advocacy on behalf of his real “base,” plantation owners.
The brilliant Jefferson also pulled his Virginia neighbor Madison out of Washington’s orbit and into his own. In modern times when the Right claims Madison as one of their heroes, it is this later incarnation of Madison who joined with Jefferson. It is not the Madison who drafted the Constitution and worked with Washington in centralizing power in the federal government.
The Virginia Dynasty
After building his political party, which became known as the Democratic-Republicans, Jefferson wrestled control of the presidency from John Adams and established the Virginia Dynasty, a 24-year string of Virginians as president from Jefferson in 1801 through Madison in 1809 and James Monroe in 1817. (Monroe, another fierce advocate for slavery, had sided with Henry and Mason in opposing the Constitution in 1788.)
Unlike George Washington who freed his slaves in his will, neither Jefferson nor Madison granted a blanket grant of freedom in their wills. Jefferson only freed a few slaves who were related to his alleged mistress, Sally Hemings, and Madison freed none.
As historians Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote in Madison and Jefferson, these two important Founders must be understood as, first and foremost, politicians representing the interests of Virginia where the two men lived nearby each other on plantations worked by African-American slaves, Jefferson at Monticello and Madison at Montpelier.
“It is hard for most to think of Madison and Jefferson and admit that they were Virginians first, Americans second,” Burstein and Isenberg note. “But this fact seems beyond dispute. Virginians felt they had to act to protect the interests of the Old Dominion, or else, before long, they would become marginalized by a northern-dominated economy.
“Virginians who thought in terms of the profit to be reaped in land were often reluctant to invest in manufacturing enterprises. The real tragedy is that they chose to speculate in slaves rather than in textile factories and iron works. … And so as Virginians tied their fortunes to the land, they failed to extricate themselves from a way of life that was limited in outlook and produced only resistance to economic development.”
Not only was Virginia’s agriculture tied to the institution of slavery but after the Constitution banned the importation of slaves in 1808, Virginia developed a new industry, the breeding of slaves for sale to new states forming in the west. [For details on this history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
Weaving of Right-Wing Threads
So, Jefferson and the Virginia Dynasty combined the two core elements of what would become America’s right-wing ideology, racial bigotry and hostility to government, a pairing that grew even more constricting on the nation’s future in the decades before the Civil War when Southerners even opposed federal disaster relief out of fear that it could serve as a precedent for abolition.
When 11 Southern states formed the Confederacy after the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, the merger of “states’ rights” and racism reached its zenith. Meanwhile, President Lincoln represented the opposite approach, favoring a strong and activist central government. Before his assassination in April 1865, Lincoln had not only defeated the Confederacy, reunified the nation and pushed through the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery, but he began construction of the transcontinental railroad.
After Lincoln’s death, the Congress of the Reconstruction era passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, guaranteeing equal rights for blacks and their right to vote. Lincoln had bequeathed the country a federal government demanding justice for blacks and eager to strengthen the nation through economic development.
However, in the years after Reconstruction ended in 1877, a new alliance emerged between racist Southern whites and “laissez-faire” Northern industrialists. The arrangement was that the white Southern aristocracy could reassert itself under Jim Crow laws and the white Northern “robber barons” could minimize federal regulation of their businesses and their stock speculation.
That political paradigm continued for the next half century despite the occasional emergence of reform-minded politicians like Theodore Roosevelt who pressed for a greater government role in restraining the worst abuses of capitalism. It took the Great Depression and the election of Franklin Roosevelt to change things.
Drawing on the traditions of Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, FDR asserted a strong role for the federal government on behalf of the common citizen as well as in regulating the excesses of powerful businessmen. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also began speaking up for oppressed African-Americans.
From FDR’s New Deal and the follow-on efforts of an activist federal government under Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, the Great American Middle Class was built. The Feds also intervened in support of the civil rights movement to break the back of Southern segregation.
However, the white backlash to this federal activism against segregation became the energy driving the modern Republican Party. The smartest right-wingers of the post-World War II era understood this reality.
Regarding the need to keep blacks under white domination, urbane conservative William F. Buckley declared in 1957 that “the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.”
Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, who wrote the influential manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, realized in 1961 that for Republicans to gain national power, they would have to pick off Southern segregationists who were growing disenchanted with the modern Democratic Party and its embrace of civil rights. Or as Goldwater put it, the Republican Party had to “go hunting where the ducks are.”
Then, there was Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy of using coded language to appeal to Southern whites and Ronald Reagan’s launching of his 1980 national presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the notorious site of the murders of three civil rights workers. The two strands of historic conservatism — white supremacy and “small government” ideology — were again wound together.
Whiting Out History
In a recent New York Magazine article, Frank Rich summed up this political history while noting how today’s right-wing revisionists have tried to reposition their heroes by saying they opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 simply out of high-minded “small-government principles.” But Rich wrote:
“The primacy of [Strom] Thurmond in the GOP’s racial realignment is the most incriminating truth the right keeps trying to cover up. That’s why the George W. Bush White House shoved the Mississippi senator Trent Lott out of his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 once news spread that Lott had told Thurmond’s 100th-birthday gathering that America ‘wouldn’t have had all these problems’ if the old Dixiecrat had been elected president in 1948.
“Lott, it soon became clear, had also lavished praise on Jefferson Davis and associated for decades with other far-right groups in thrall to the old Confederate cause. But the GOP elites didn’t seem to mind until he committed the truly unpardonable sin of reminding America, if only for a moment, of the exact history his party most wanted and needed to suppress. Then he had to be shut down at once.”
This unholy alliance between the racists and the libertarians continues to this day with Republicans understanding that the votes of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities must be suppressed if the twin goals of the two principal elements of the Right are to control the future. That was the significance of Tuesday’s ruling by the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority to gut the Voting Rights Act. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Supreme Court’s War on Democracy.”]
Only if the votes of whites can be proportionately enhanced and the votes of minorities minimized can the Republican Party overcome the country’s demographic changes and retain government power that will both advance the interests of the racists and the free-marketeers.
That’s why Republican-controlled statehouses engaged in aggressive gerrymandering of congressional districts in 2010 and tried to impose “ballot security” measures across the country in 2012. The crudity of those efforts was almost painful to watch.
As Frank Rich noted, “The boosters of the new voting regulations would have us believe instead that their efforts are in response to a (nonexistent) rise in the country’s minuscule instances of voter fraud. Everyone knows these laws are in response to the rise of Barack Obama. It is also no coincidence that many of them were conceived and promoted by the American Legal Exchange Council, an activist outfit funded by heavy-hitting right-wing donors like Charles and David Koch.
“In another coincidence that the GOP would like to flush down the memory hole, the Kochs’ father, Fred, a founder of the radical John Birch Society in the fifties, was an advocate for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren in the aftermath of Brown [v. Board of Education] Fred Koch wrote a screed of his own accusing communists of inspiring the civil-rights movement.”
Yet, this marriage of slavery/segregation and small-government philosophy has endured as long as there has been a United States of America. It is how the worst aspects of America’s Founding era – the enslavement of African-Americans and the Southern white fear that a strong federal government would eventually right that wrong – reach to the present day.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.
(Originally posted at Consortium News)