Big Government and Race: An American Saga

Tea Party protectors are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which the prviledged complain about stuff.

Tea Party protesters are part of a grand tradition in U.S. history, in which privileged white people complain about stuff.

With the Republican Tea Party-backed congressional orcs continuing to lay siege to the Helm’s Deep of the federal government, there’s been a lot of discussion of late, especially by Salon’s Joan Walsh and Think Progress’ Zack Beauchamp, about how deeply entrenched issues of racial resentment are at the heart of the government shutdown. Both point to the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” that for several decades now has effectively convinced insecure white people that “Big Government,” steered by the Democrats, will redistribute state-supported goodies like tax benefits and welfare from the truly deserving ivory nobles to the allegedly mooching dusky rabble.

As I noted in a previous post, there’s a whole lot of truth to Walsh and Beauchamp’s points. Over at the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore cites recent focus group studies by Stanley Greenberg of Tea Party supporters to frame the current shutdown over Obamacare as the logical end-point of a conservative ideology driven in large part by fear of redistributive government policies. As Kilgore notes, Greenberg’s study concluded that:

[The argument against Obamacare that] is the most important and elicits the most passions among Evangelicals and Tea Party Republicans—that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes. The Democratic Party exists to create programs and dependency—the food stamp hammock, entitlements, the 47 percent.

Greenberg’s Republican Tea Partiers are terrified that black and brown minorities, whom they view as undeserving, will use “Big Government” to take from the deserving (read: whites). Don Swift of the Rag Blog echoed this argument during the 2012 presidential election, linking Tea Party nutbaggery to what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “the paranoid style in American politics,” in which self-described white “Real Americans” freak out over the thought of variously defined foreign elements taking what they perceive as rightfully theirs. The benefits up for grabs have ranged from tax breaks to suffrage, but the sentiment of “I earned it, you’re taking it” remains the same.

Swift sees the Tea Party, the current vice around the quivering gonads of the congressional Republican caucus, as part of a long streak of fringe, right-wing weirdo groups in U.S. history that also includes the John Birch Society and various Militia movements. These groups, Swift notes, “react against change,” and “they see the government as an agent of unwanted change and they set out to disrupt and replace it.”

The Tea Party is indeed radical, and nuttier than a Planter’s factory, but on thing they are not is fringe. Lest you need reminded of Tea Party conservatism’s political legitimacy, I point to Exhibit A: the Republican Party. There’s a bunch of historical factors that led up to the Tea Party movement, but the most significant of those factors is the resiliency of anti “Big Government” sentiment in American history.

Americans have always had a complicated relationship with government power. Often they have been, and continue to be, justifiably sceptical of it, but just as frequently, Americans of various stripes have embraced “Big Government” when it ensured that state power would be used to benefit white Americans at the expense of non-white minorities. This was especially true in the 19th century with regards to Native Americans and African-Americans. By contrast, when whites have perceived that state benefits would flow to non-whites, they have tended to rail against “Big Government” as the agent of tyranny. Thus, American fears of “Big Government” have been historically intertwined with racial prejudice, the Tea Party being only the most recent example.

Far from being a fringe idea, anti “Big-Government” paranoia is a deeply influential, deeply American cultural sentiment, with roots in the 19th century and wrapped in historical cloaks of hypocrisy and status anxiety. Its staying power attests to its long tradition.

A few glaring examples of this phenomenon should suffice. Take one of the most odious instances of racial injustice of the 19th century: the removal of Native Americans from the southeast in the 1830s. The policy of Indian Removal had its greatest champion in one the towering figures of limited government: President Andrew Jackson. For the most part, Jackson favored laissez-faire economics, states’ rights over federal power, opposed a national bank, and mouthed a general distrust of a government monopoly by “elites.” But, like nearly all Americans of his time, Jackson also believed in white cultural and racial superiority, and was willing to use federal power to enforce those beliefs.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

The Trail of Tears: Big government in the service of white Americans.

In the 1820s and 30s, the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creeks, Chickasaw, and Seminoles still lived on the lands of the Old Southwest (GA, AL, MS, LA, AK) that had been guaranteed by federal treaties which (ostensibly) recognized Indians as sovereign people. White Americans in these southern states, however, regarded “savage” Indians as barriers to white settlement and economic gain, and resented federal Indian policy as an affront to white democracy and states’ rights. Whites, especially in Georgia, complained that the federal government lacked the authority to recognize sovereign peoples within states and demanded that it kick the Indians out.

When the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, upheld Indians’ rights to occupy southern lands and denied the states’ rights to kick them out, President Andrew Jackson defied the court’s orders, supposedly sneering, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” Jackson thus emerged as the champion of white grievances. After signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830 into law, he ordered the “savage” tribes to remove to Oklahoma, threatening to use Federal power in the form of the U.S. army if they refused to voluntarily relocate. The tragic “Trail of Tears” is Jackson’s legacy.

In one of those great and shameless historical ironies, Jackson, the small government proponent, used big government to enforce the racial and economic whims of states’ rights favoring white southern Americans, who were all too happy rely on federal power to open up lands for white settlement.

White southern Americans, erstwhile supporters of “Big Government” when it was used to their advantage against “savage,” non-white Indian “others,” nonetheless threw the biggest political fit in U.S. history when, in 1860, it appeared that Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party would gain control of the federal government and use it to force the emancipation of slaves and subsequent “negro equality” on the helpless white South. To prevent this impending doom, white southern secessionists decided that “Big Government” was now the enemy, and leaned on states’ rights as the last buffer against Lincoln’s coming tyranny.

The Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama were the first to secede from the Union in 1860-61. In an effort to convince other slaveholding southern states like Virginia, Kentucky, and Georgia to follow their lead, the already seceded states sent secession commissioners out to convince the rest of the Slave South to join the southern Confederacy. Historian Charles Dew documents the secession commissioners’ work in his stellar book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

South Carolina's Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed "Big Government" as the diabolical agent of "negro equality."

James Orr, South Carolina’s Secession Commissioner to the State of Georgia, helped framed “Big Government” as the diabolical agent of “negro equality.”

The secession commissioners gave mind-blowingly racist speeches to convince white southern good ole’ boys that the Republican Party would use the government to enforce black whims as whites’ expense. Take the following lines from a December 17, 1860 speech delivered in Georgia by Mississippi commissioner William Harris. “Our fathers made this government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race,” Harris stated. “This new [Lincoln] administration comes into power, under the solemn pledge to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union…and to substitute in its stead their new theory of the universal equality of the black and white races.”*

A December 27, 1860 letter written by Alabama commissioner Stephen Hale to Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin framed a Republican domination of government in equally apocalyptic racial terms. “If the policy of the Republicans is carried out,” Hale warned, “the slave-holder  and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate; all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes…stripped…of that title to superiority over the black race.*

Its nary much of stretch to compare the rhetoric of the 19th century secession commissioners, who warned that the Republican Party would use its control over the federal government to force “negro equality” on the beleaguered white South, to that of contemporary Tea Party Republicans, who warn that the Democratic Party will take money from hard-working (read: white) Americans and give it to undeserving, shiftless black and Latino minorities. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party draws most of its strength from the old Southern Confederacy; like the southern secessionists, they fear that state benefits will be transferred from “us” to “them.”

The circumstances have changed, but the broader sentiments remain: “Big Government” is fine when it gives land to white settlers, enforces white racial superiority, and gives “earned” benefits like Medicare and Social Security to whites. But its tyrannical when it threatens to recognize Indians’ rights, mess with slavery, or extend state benefits like Obamacare to lazy racial “others.”

This is why, as CBS news’ Timothy Noah reported last year, Tea Partiers supported arch Ayn Rand drone Paul Ryan (R-WI), despite his plans to destroy Medicare and Social Security: because 70-75% of them are AARP eligible. The Tea Party geriatrics, Noah writes, “are against government benefits for other people,” but rely on anti-government rhetoric  to “convince themselves that Medicare and Social Security benefits are different because they’ve already paid for them through payroll taxes (when in fact beneficiaries take out far more than they put in; that’s why both programs need periodic adjustments).”

By supporting “Big Government” for themselves while denying it to “others,” Tea Party Republicans are continuing a long, mainstream American tradition in which views about state power have been highly contingent on who draws the benefits of state power. As the ruling demographic majority during the United States’ entire existence, white people have been able to walk a hypocritical line, embracing state power in the name of caucasian rights while rejecting the federal government as tyrannical and antithetical to states’ rights when it threatens to serve Indians, Blacks, and Latinos.  But don’t accuse conservative white America of hypocrisy in this matter because…FREEDOM!

* Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 98-99.

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