Unemployment Insurance and the Southern Roots of Modern Conservatism

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally recieved donuts and coffee, while the GOP deemed them parasitic moochers.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally received donuts and coffee. The GOP, of course, deemed them parasitic moochers.

If there’s one thing that characterizes the pit of drooling, addle-brained wampas known as the 133th United States Congress, it would be inactivity. Dominated as it is by the Republican Party faction of obnoxious brats known as the Tea Party, the so-called “Do-Nothing Congress” and its only mildly less insane Senate counterpart is once again engaged in the now traditional ritual that involves deciding whether or not long-term unemployment benefits should be extended.

Republicans in the House and Senate are, as in the recent past, opposed to unemployment insurance, and the welfare state in general, on ideological grounds. For example, arch-conservative Wisconsin rep., and failed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claimed on the 2012 campaign trail that welfare policies of all kinds had “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.” Indeed, the idea that millions of Americans take advantage of welfare as an incentive to simply not work is standard dogma on the American Right.

Lest they be seen as stingy, stone-hearted Scrooges, however, Republicans have fallen back on their tried-and-true defence of slashing unemployment benefits by claiming that they only care about saving money. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargant reports, “Republicans want to reframe this as a battle over how to pay for extending benefits…as a fight over fiscal responsibility, not over whether to preserve the safety net amid mass unemployment.”

Of course, conservatives’ claims to fiscal hawkitude are belied by the long history of atomically exploding deficits under their watch. Salon’s Brian Beutler rightly observes that Republicans are instead invoking fiscal restraint to conceal their “opposition to or reluctance to support the benefits themselves without obtaining some kind of conservative policy concession in return.” Thus, Republicans’ current whining about the cost of extending unemployment insurance is more smoke and mirrors designed to conceal their beliefs that welfare is detrimental to the very fabric of society.

As with most of their antics in the age of Obama, however, modern Republicans’ opposition to unemployment insurance is in keeping with a tradition of conservative thought that, in an American context, has deep roots in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. In his book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, Eugene Genovese, the sometimes brilliant, and often controversial, late historian of the antebellum South identified the crucial elements of order and hierarchy that were central to an American conservatism forged in a 19th century slave society. According to Genovese, true southern conservatism was not defined by any slavish devotion to rampant individualism and the unfettered capitalist free market, but by “a belief in a transcendent order or natural law in society as well as nature, so that political problems are revealed as essentially religious and moral.*

This is not to say that conservatives don’t actually like capitalism. Indeed, Genovese makes no such claim. But he does suggest that conservatives support capitalism only insofar as it successfully perpetuates the hierarchies and unequal power relations that they belief are essential to maintaining true order in society. Hierarchies, whether in the home or in the marketplace, are defined by power relations; by those who dominate and those who are dominated. Conservatives, unsurprisingly, have defended ordered hierarchies because they are usually the ones dominating. The American right wing views this set of social and economic hierarchies as “tradition” that must be preserved at all costs. Hierarchies are preserved by order, and maintaining order is essential to conservatives’ preservation of power.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, strove to preserve "traditional" hierachies.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, strove to preserve “traditional” hierarchies.

As Genovese explained, “‘Tradition’ is…understood as an embodiment of ‘givens’ that must constantly be fought for, recovered in each generation, and adjusted to new conditions.”* These “givens” that conservatives view as constituting tradition are almost always characterized by the maintenance of power by a ruling few over more numerous subordinate groups. When the subordinate groups threaten the ruling few’s power by demanding agency over their own conditions, conservatives, the beneficients of “traditional” power structures, get angry and fight back like spoiled toddlers.

The slave society of the antebellum South, in which one (white) ruling group held unlimited power, sanctioned by the state in both private and public spheres over another (black) laboring class, was the perfect breeding ground for this type of “traditional” conservative power structure. And even after southern conservatives fought and lost the Civil War in the name of preserving the slave system, the core hierarchical tradition over which they battled continues to be the primary motivator of American conservatives in the 21st century.

Historian Leo Ribuffo notes this continuity by explaining how the New Deal energized a conservatism that had steadily been losing ground in almost all matters except race since the turn-of-the-century. The New Deal, Ribuffo writes, “undermined ‘traditional values’ by incorporating working-class Catholics, Jews, cosmopolitan intellectuals and occasionally African-Americans.” In response to the New Deal’s challenging of traditional social and economic orders that favored employers and white southern men, northern Republicans and southern Democrats formed an “anti-New Deal ‘conservative coalition'” that laid the groundwork for the conservatism of the modern GOP.*

This is why the GOP’s current opposition to extending unemployment benefits in the name deficit hawkishness rings utterly hollow. They could care less about deficits, but they do care deeply about preserving “traditional” hierarchies that grant full power to employers over their workers.

Libertarian historian Thomas Woods, Jr. makes this point abundantly clear when he invokes Irish political philosopher, and conservative Grand Poobah Edmund Burke to defend traditional social orders. “Traditionalist political and social thought focused primarily on preserving what Edmond Burke called the ‘little platoons’ of civilization, all those associations — e.g., family, church, town, civic group — that gave people social identities and prevented them from dissolving into an undifferentiated mass,” he writes.* By insisting that the ‘little platoons’ of civilization must be maintained, Woods Jr. is, by extension, demonstrating the conservative proclivity towards hierarchical orders that subordinate some members of society to rulers who, not coincidentally, are usually conservatives.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don't want to extend unemployment benefits because they're jerks.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don’t want to extend unemployment benefits because they’re jerks.

Burke’s “little platoons” have historically been sites of unequal power structures. Especially in an American context, families have traditionally subordinated women to men, while churchs, towns, and civic groups have been ruled by white men who dominated everyone from women, to blacks, to the poorer classes. After all, the most vociferous advocates for slavery in the Old South were preachers, local politicians and businessmen — all of whom were white — and all of whom ruled over lower groups. What Woods Jr. and other conservatives advocate via “little platoons” are multiple public and private hierarchies dominated by – you guessed it – conservatives. Tradition indeed.

Since the Civil War, capitalism has done a good job of preserving hierarchical traditions that favor conservative rule. But when the lower orders attempt to challenge, or at least mitigate, the inequality-breeding tendencies of capitalism, as in the case with issuing unemployment insurance in the midst of the Great Recession, the Right Wing strikes back…hard. When conservatives wax nostalgic about “simpler” times and invoke “tradition,” they are really yearning for a past during which their ilk held greater power of society’s lower orders, which included workers, women, children, and non-white minorities.

Unemployment benefits threaten conservatives’ vision of “traditional” social order by providing relief and agency to workers who would be otherwise left to the brutal whims of a business-favoring economic system that demands the total subordination of employees to employers. Conservatives’ opposition to unemployment benefits stems from their paternalistic worldview, in which the rulers must maintain order over the less-deserving masses in society.

Hence, as the Washington Post recently noted, a Republican memo is making the rounds for the purpose of coaching House GOP members on how to be empathetic to the “personal crisis” experienced by unemployed Americans. Tellingly, the memo doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of unemployment insurance. Rather, it only states that Republicans should feign concern for the unemployed masses. This is paternalism at its most loathsome. That conservatives need to be coached on how to show empathy for workers speaks volumes about how they view society. By opposing unemployment benefits, and any form of welfare in general, Republicans are keeping alive a conservative tradition, nurtured in the Old South, that seeks to preserve social hierarchies – and conservative rule – in the name of social order.

* See Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 22, 4-5.

* See Leo P. Ribuffo, “The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism, Broadly Conceived,” OAH Magazine of History 17, Conservatism (Jan., 2003): 5.

* See Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “Defending the “Little Platoons:” Communitarianism in American Conservatism,” American Studies 40 (Fall, 1999): 128.

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  1. Yeah its really bizarre. When I started this blog I initially wavered over how explicitly political I would be. But then I decided to just got all in. After all, readers don’t have to agree. In fact, it sometimes more stimulating when they disagree. Politics are everywhere and effect everything, so why shy away.

  2. FORGET, PLEASE, “conservatism.” It has been a failure because it has been, operationally, de facto, Godless. In the political/civil government realm it has ignored Christ and what Scripture says about the role and purpose of civil government. Thus, it failed. Such secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:


”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn.


“American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    In any event, “politics,” for the most part today, is whoring after false gods. It will not save us. Our country is turning into Hell because the church in America has forgotten God (Psalm 9:17) and refuses to kiss His Son (Psalm 2.) See, please, 2 Chronicles 7:14ff for the way to get our land healed.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Dir., The God And Government Project
    Active Facebook Wall

  3. Excellent article. For years, I’ve tried to get my hands around and better understand and express personal experiences in the South. My experiences were a lot like the traditional hierarchy explained in your article. I thought of it as a reliance on unfair advantage.

    • Thanks for reading and for the compliment! One of the things I’ve tried to get across in this blog is the very deep connection between conservatism, the South, and the idea of hierarchy and domination. The Right long ago co-opted the term “freedom,” but the hierarchies they want to keep in place ensure anything but.

  4. I work at a state park in Virginia and we are creating a display area with signs and other activities dealing with the CCC. I would like to use this photo for one of our signs, do you know who has the rights to this photo, so I can contact them. Thanks for any help you can give.

    • Hello Tanya, very sorry for the late reply. To which image are you referring? I’m afraid I don’t know who might own them off hand, but I can investigate if you’d like.

      • Thank you for your reply. I am currently going a different route, but I will keep this photo in mind if the other idea falls through. Thank you for your time. t

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