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The heartless combination of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, the House Republicans flatly shunning the immigration bill and the Trayvon Martin outrage should be a wake up call about the grave dangers posed by the far right and may give rise to a renewed motion among African Americans that could give much needed new impetus and political focus to the progressive movement.
The negative policies and missteps of the Obama administration are often the target of progressive fire, and rightly so. But these take place in the context of (and are sometimes caused by) an extremely perilous development in U.S. politics: an alliance of energized rightwing populists with the most reactionary sector of Big Business has captured the Republican Party with “the unabashed ambition to reverse decades of economic and social policy by any means necessary.” (1)
The GOP is in all-out nullificationist mode, rejecting any federal laws with which they disagree. They are using their power in the judiciary and Congress to block passage or implementation of anything they find distasteful at the federal level. And under the radar the Republicans are rapidly implementing a far flung rightwing program in the 28 states they currently control. They have embarked on an unprecedented overhaul of government on behalf of the one percent and against all sectors of the poor and much of the working and middle classes, undermining the rights of all.
The main precedent in U.S. history for this kind of unbridled reactionary behavior was the states rights, pro-slavery position of the white South leading up to the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called out the attempts at nullification in his famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the movement of the sixties defeated it. As shown in the ultra-conservative playground that is the North Carolina legislature, the new laws and structures of today’s rightwing program are so extreme and in such stark contrast to the rest of the country that I believe both their strategy and their program should be called “Neo-Secession.”
This nullification and neo-secession must be met by a renewed motion for freedom and social justice. The great scholar-activist Manning Marable, the leader of the powerful fightback in North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber II, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry and others have called for a Third Reconstruction that builds on the post-Civil War first Reconstruction and the Civil Rights/Second Reconstruction. (2)
We are now at a pivotal point in this fight. The battlelines are drawn: Reactionary Nullification and Neo-Secession or Third Reconstruction?
Like the first secession, this second neo-secession is centered in the South even though it is a national movement with unusual strength in the upper Rocky Mountain and plains states in addition to the South. (3) Similarly racism, especially anti-Black racism, lies at its foundation even as the rightwing assaults all democratic, women’s, immigrant and labor rights, social and environmental programs. Progressives in the South are rising to the challenge. But, deplorably, most Democrats, unions, progressives and social justice forces barely have the South on their radar and rarely invest in it. This must change, and change rapidly.
A shift in progressive priorities and intensification of on-the-ground organizing are crucial to defeating the right’s neo-secessionist agenda as well as to forge a sufficiently powerful “Third Reconstructionist” political force to successfully pushback against the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party in the battles that must be waged against them along the way. We can righteously roast Obama all we want, but unless we can build a truly powerful force to his left that can simultaneously unite with moderates to break the political stranglehold of the far right, we will be spitting into the wind.
NEO-SECESSION AND THIRD RECONSTRUCTION
Both the rightwing strategy of Nullification and Neo-Secession and the peoples fight for a Third Reconstruction are deeply rooted in U.S. history.
Nullification was born in the nineteenth century as the slaveholders’ legal theory that states have the right to ignore any federal legislation, judicial decision or executive order that they disagree with. In practice it meant court decisions like Dred Scott, congressional filibusters and reactionary legislation, and the consolidation of the slaveholders’ power in the states. It was the prelude to Secession and Civil War.
Post Civil War, the victorious Union alliance with Blacks in the South then decreed Reconstruction, the most democratic, progressive and racially just program in U.S. history up to that point.
By the 1880s, however, the Southern racists and their allies overthrew Reconstruction and set up another white supremacist regime characterized by legalized racial discrimination in all facets of life, the virtual reenslavement of Black labor and a white monopoly on voting and political power. This regime even survived the New Deal and was not dismantled until the Civil Rights movement won passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. This Second Reconstruction not only finally ended the white dictatorship in the South but also ignited the anti-Vietnam War, Chicano, Asian American, Native American, women’s and gay rights movements. Together they gave rise to the War on Poverty and won unparalleled national rights and programs for workers, women, immigrants, the poor and others.
Today the rightwing is once again spewing out this racist legal theory of nullification and invoking a new civil war, hardly bloodless though not involving clashing armies, in an attempt to overthrow the Second Reconstruction. More important, they are putting it into practice at the federal, state and local levels.
Due to decades of control of the presidency, they occupy most of the federal judiciary where they are systematically stripping away progressive laws, regulations and rights—even public education, the historic bedrock of the middle class. They control Congress through political hardball, gerrymandering and abuse of the rules. With control of two of the three branches of the federal government and the malevolent abuse of the filibuster and mass refusal of executive political appointments, they are strangling the Obama presidency. (4)
Meanwhile the Republicans control 28 states and numerous local jurisdictions in which they are moving to nullify federal legislation with which they disagree, qualitatively cutback on and privatize government and public education, drastically rollback the rights of people of color, women, workers, children and gays and eliminate progressive income taxes in favor of regressive sales taxes. Lara M. Brown recently reminded us in that “the vast majority of the laws under which each of us abide are state laws, not federal laws.”
The recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the most powerful parts of the Voting Rights Act has opened the floodgates to voter suppression laws that heretofore have been ruled unconstitutional. Although there are still numerous Black legislators, David Bostis and Thomas Edsall assess that Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression and Black legislators’ loss of clout and committee chairpersonships means that “At the state level, Black voters and elected officials have less influence now than at any time since the civil rights era.” (5) Meanwhile the Great Recession has greatly increased already unacceptable levels of racial income and wealth inequality. The Trayvon Martin case traumatically revealed, once again, the grave dangers to Blacks living amidst white racism.
Outright secession would be political suicide since the rightwing led states clearly lack the power to win. But if they have their way the difference between Blue and Red states will soon be so stark as to be the modern analogue to the free and slave states or the legally segregated versus non-legally segregated states of the past. This time the rightwing wants it both ways: to benefit from staying in the Union yet at the same time to re-create numerous states in their own ideological image. This is why I think it is historically justifiable and politically useful to brand today’s rightwingers as nullificationist and neo-secessionist.
Nullification is one of the principal tactics of the rightwing; neo-secession is its strategy and its program.
Since the Nixon and especially the Reagan administrations, the rightwing has sought to rout both the New Deal and the Civil Rights reconstruction, and replace it with an updated version of racism and reaction. The right reached both a new level of power and new level of extremism in reaction to the election of Barack Obama. It is our fight to defeat them and bring forth a new, Third Reconstruction that will make further strides toward ending racism and bringing justice for all.
NOTHING COULD BE MORE NEO-SECSSIONIST: NORTH CAROLINA
North Carolina is a true purple state: Obama won the state in 2008 by less than one percent and lost it by two percent in 2012.
But through a combination of good luck and smart strategy, not to speak of state Democratic lethargy, Republican gerrymandering and the largesse of the rightwing retail mogul Art Pope, North Carolina has been the site of the Tea Party’s most dramatic political victories and its most draconian legislative and social agenda. Pope’s foundation finances ninety percent of the income of the state’s leading rightwing groups (6)
Yet, in 2012 the Republicans won the governorship and a majority in both houses of the legislature for the first time since the first Reconstruction. In fact they boast a supermajority in both houses. “Since then,” says the NY Times, “the state government has become a demolition derby, tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot.”
In just its first two weeks the new legislature: (1) became the only state to nullify all federally mandated and funded extensions to unemployment, affecting 170,000 people. It also slashed the maximum unemployment benefit for new claims from $522 to $360 per week and the maximum length to 20 weeks. North Carolina has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the nation; (2) refused the federally funded Medicare benefit that would have provided health care to an additional 500,000 North Carolinians; (3) moved to enshrine existing anti-union, “right to work” laws in the state constitution; (4) passed voter ID laws, cutback early voting by half and eliminated same day registration; (5) legalized and subsidized fracking; (6) passed a bill to purge state commissions and Superior Court judges they don’t like.
Reverend Doctor William Barber II, the North Carolina State President of the NAACP and the main leader of the growing fightback, gives further details about what he calls the “vicious war on the poor”:
“Piling further indignities on the poor, they also want to require people applying for temporary assistance or benefits to submit to criminal background checks, and force applicants to a job training program for low-income workers to take a drug test, for which they have to pay. Now the legislature wants to increase and expand taxes on groceries, haircuts and prescription drugs. They’re even taking aim at poor children with a bill to lower the income requirement for North Carolina’s prekindergarten program, making it off limits to nearly 30,000 children who would have previously qualified.” (7)
In addition, the legislature is moving to privatize Medicaid; slash public education funding to 2007 levels, end teacher tenure and place charter schools under separate governance; shut down most abortion clinics; and establish outlandish rules for ex-offenders to restore their voting rights.
This reactionary avalanche of neo-secession is being met by a burgeoning fightback. The North Carolina NAACP (http://www.naacpnc.org/) and the wide progressive coalition it has built called Historic Thousands on Jones Street (where the state capitol is located,http://hkonj.com/) is fighting for what Rev. Barber enunciates as a Third Reconstruction. This year they launched “Moral Monday”: every Monday a demonstration against the legislature is followed by civil disobedience in the state house. In eleven such events so far, more than 700 people have been arrested, usually supported by thousands at the rallies. HKonJ and its member groups have flanked Moral Monday with a statewide and sectoral organizing campaign. (8)
The neo-secessionist strategy poses a highly complex set of challenges, distinct from a straight up secession. The right must be defeated in public opinion, in the streets, in workplaces and at the polls. And it must be defeated in numerous discrete congressional and legislative districts, as well as county and city races, governorships, legislatures, the Congress and the presidency. This will be protracted guerrilla political struggle. We must prepare ourselves to take advantage of big opportunities to mobilize the public and reshape public opinion when they are presented but also drill down into the electoral fights district by district. Only a gigantic and determined coalition of everyone who opposes the right can do this, not just in presidential elections but all levels of government.
However we also need a massive and well organized progressive force to the left of Obama Democrats with a social justice left that can root this force among people of color, unions and other poor folk that can provide the backbone that the elite Democrats consistently show they lack. This is crucial not only to win all of these battles, but to make sure the rightwing program is eventually buried at every level and forever, and replaced by a Third Reconstruction.
This is not an ideological projection but a historically based reality of today’s politics. I have detailed it, most recently; in “Can We Defeat the Racist Southern Strategy in 2012?” (9) Strikingly, African American voters are dynamically growing and the most progressive voting bloc in the country and the even faster-growing Latino and Asian American populations are increasingly moving in the same direction. In 2012 Black voter participation exceeded that of all other groups. And no other demographic group votes in such a unified liberal-progressive way.
Yet, it often appears that the leadership and often membership of social justice non-profits and progressive organizations, editorial boards and actions are more racially segregated than the Fortune 500.
People of color are the anchor of what is now being called “the new majority” or the “rising American electorate” together with unmarried women, labor and youth. Increased class gaps among seniors, married women and the middle class also provide important organizing opportunities.
Of course the battle for a Third Reconstruction takes place in a vastly different global and national context than Reconstruction I and II. In this era of imperial decline, social austerity and looming environmental catastrophe today’s radical reconstruction would encompass not only the fight for racial justice but also intersect with labor battles and anti-cutback efforts, fights for immigrant, women’s and LGBT rights, peace and climate justice in new ways. Getting there will be complex but the potential exists for a social change movement in the U.S. that is both broader and more radical on a host of issues than previous progressive upsurges.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SOUTH
In this war for the heart and soul of the U.S., the battle for the South stands front and center.
Written off as redneck, ignorant Bible Belt country by too many liberals, the South is actually a heated center of battle against the right. Historically the defining feature of the South was the plantation economy and the racially coerced labor that it was founded upon. However, plantations are now a thing of the past. Worldwide capitalist competition, technology, migration and immigration, gentrification/white flight and exurbs are transforming the Southern landscape, at different rates and in different ways. (10) Indeed Maryland and Virginia now rank in the top ten in median household income while Southern states also occupy nine of the bottom twelve.
The South (remember that both Texas and Florida were part of the Confederacy) has more population, more Black people, more poverty, more military installations, more congressional seats and more Electoral votes than any other region of the country, and it is growing. Despite right-to-work laws, it is also the only area besides California where union membership is growing.
The poison that lingers, however, is that Southern whites are far more conservative, Republican and prone to white political solidarity than elsewhere. Nationally, anywhere between 55 percent and 60 percent of whites vote Republican in presidential elections. But Southern whites do so at a 70 percent plus clip, rising to ninety percent in much of the Deep South in opposition to Obama.
On the flip side there is a far greater percentage of African American voters in the Southern states than elsewhere, topping at 35 percent in Mississippi. And like Blacks throughout the country, they consistently vote ninety percent Democratic. Black remigration to the South means that there is a higher percentage of African Americans in that region than in many decades.
In fact the South has been wrongly stereotyped as a Republican monolith since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Actually it was not until 1994 that the Republicans won a majority of the Southern congresspersons. There are way more African American officeholders in the region than in any other part of the country. Democrats are generally stronger at the state and local levels than they are in presidential elections. New Deal and populist politics still exist among some working class whites and small farmers, and Latino and Asian immigration is growing.
NO MORE SOLID SOUTH
Even in Mississippi the Republicans hold only a three-seat majority in the state’s House. A proposed state constitutional amendment defining “personhood” as beginning at conception and prohibiting abortion “from the moment of fertilization” was defeated by 55 percent of voters in Nov. 2011. And the longtime Black and human rights activist Chokwe Lumumba was just elected mayor of Jackson, the state’s capital and largest city. (11)
Maryland long ago turned Blue, Virginia and North Carolina are now true battleground states. After North Carolina, Georgia was the most competitive state won by Romney. And Texas and Mississippi are within shouting distance—and a lot of smart, hard work—of becoming battleground states. Progressive political forces and mass rumblings can be heard in every Southern state. This is where a broad coalition centered around African Americans must be unleashed and the rightwing routed in its own backyard.
The South is also the site of some of the most exciting social justice organizing in the country. (12)
The defeat of the Personhood amendment and the election of Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson highlight the growing power of groups like Mississippi One Voice (http://uniteonevoice.org/ovms/), the Mississippi Black Leadership Summit (http://uniteonevoice.org/2013-ms-black-leadership-summit/) and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (http://mxgm.org/chokwe-lumumbas-mayoral-victory-speech-tuesday-june-4-2013/) in Mississippi.
Virginia New Majority has burst on the scene with the state’s most dynamic political field operation and as a key organizing force in the Virginia legislature. It may be the first social justice group to embark on an exciting new strategy of identifying, training and fielding progressive candidates in key areas of the state. http://www.virginianewmajority.org/ Florida New Majority (http://www.flnewmajority.org/) has built one of the largest social justice electoral formations in the country as well as a potentially powerful alliance with the Service Employees International Union and other unions in this crucial battleground state. It is now making important new initiatives to develop its capacity to communicate regularly with the hundreds of thousands of people they meet at the doors as well with the organization of Freedom Clubs as a grassroots organization.
The battle for the South together with other purple and Red states is once again likely to determine the future of this country. Next year’s 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Summer provides an opportunity for people around the country to contribute to the battle in Mississippi and throughout the South. (http://www.crmvet.org/anc/1406msfs.pdf)
The 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington will be marked by a landmark rally in Washington, DC on Aug. 28, 2013. Hopefully the anniversary will give breadth and depth to the emerging political motion ignited by the regressive Voting Rights Act decision and the Trayvon Martin travesty. The emergence of a renewed mass African American-led grassroots motion would be a major step for the progressive movement as a whole as we take on the task of fighting to defeat neo-secession and forge a Third Reconstruction for jobs, peace and freedom. http://50thanniversarymarchonwashington.com/
Bob Wing has been a social justice organizer and writer since 1968. He was the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times newspaper. Bob lives in Durham, NC and can be contacted through Facebook. Special thanks to my lifelong colleagues Max Elbaum and Linda Burnham and to Jon Liss, Lynn Koh, Carl Davidson, Ajamu Dillahunt, Raymond Eurquhart and Bill Fletcher, Jr. for their comments, critiques and suggestions.
(1) Even the Brookings Institute centrist Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute conservative Norman Ornstein are alarmed by what they call the Republican’s “new nullification” strategy. They have devoted an entire book to this subject: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism,” (2012).
(2) Manning Marable, “The Third Reconstruction: Black Nationalism and Race in a Revolutionary America,” Social Text, Autumn 1981. Reverend William Barber II:http://www.storyofamerica.org/reconstruction3. Melissa Harris-Perry:http://newsbusters.org/blogs/nathan-roush/2013/07/08/msnbc-harris-perry-claims-we-are-third-reconstruction-after-voting-rig.
(3) Bruce Bartlett does a great job of tracing the origins of today’s struggles to slavery days:http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/05/04/Americas-Return-to-Political-Polarization.aspx#page1
(4) In order to promote political stability, the framers of the U.S. Constitution created a unique fragmentation of the government into three branches (plus the Federal Reserve the military) and a distinctively powerful division of power between the federal, state, county and city jurisdictions. Combined with the decision to disperse and stagger elections, this system makes the governmental system of the U.S. uniquely stable. But, in an unintended consequence that Mann and Ornstein detail, it also makes it vulnerable to sabotage and nullification by a powerful political force like today’s Republican Party which rejects the culture of compromise that is absolutely crucial to make tour very divided national governmental system work.
(5) Bostis is quoted in Thomas Edsall, “The Decline of Black Power in the South,”http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/the-decline-of-black-power-in-the-south/?emc=eta1
(6) Much more on Pope at: http://www.southernstudies.org/person/art-pope
(8) A big question is how this increased street motion can not only be greatly increased but also translated into the electoral power necessary to strip away the Republican supermajorities and governorship in that state.
(9) Bob Wing, “Can We Defeat the Racist Southern Strategy in 2012?”http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/modules-menu/community-organizing/item/728-can-we-defeat-the-racist-southern-strategy-in-2012
(10) Bob Moser, now the executive editor of American Prospect magazine, advances an interesting and optimistic analysis of the political potential of the South in his 2008 book, “Blue Dixie” and in a recent special feature of American Prospect magazine entitled “The End of the Solid South” (http://prospect.org/article/end-solid-south).
(11) Bob Wing, “From Mississippi Goddam to Jackson Hell Yes’: Chokwe Lumumba is the New Mayor of Jackson”: http://www.southernstudies.org/2013/06/voices-from-mississippi-goddam-to-jackson-hell-yes.html
(12) There are many more important groups but the following are the social justice organizations with major civic engagement operations I am currently most knowledgeable about. Each of the groups I highlight is grounded in racial justice, new majority and/or rising American electoral politics and strategies.