When Congress Goes Mad

The GOP’s attack against an extraordinary range of once broadly accepted government principles and activities may represent the greatest rebellion against our political system since the Civil War.

If this seems exaggerated, consider a bit of history. Since World War II, for example, there have been only two instances when Congress went truly mad. One was the McCarthy red scare period and the other was the last ditch efforts of the South to prevent civil rights legislation. In each of these instances, however, only one issue ? albeit of great importance ? was under attack. Neither the red chasers nor the segregationists sought to completely change the nature of our government.

The two great periods of danger prior to World War II were the robber baron era of the 19th century and the time before the Great Depression. In both cases, there were striking similarities to what is happening now, including in the 1880s the first court decision granting corporate personhood – recently expanded by the Supreme Court.

But the major characteristic of these eras was that big business operated free of government restraint. For example, the late 19th century was a time when J.P. Morgan would come to own half the railroad mileage in the country — the same J. P. Morgan who got his start during the Civil War by buying defective rifles for $3.50 each from an army arsenal and then selling them to a general in the field for $22 apiece. The founding principles of what we now proudly call the “American free market system” flowered in an era of enormous bribes, massive legislative corruption, and the creation of great anti-competitive cartels. It was a time when the government gave two railroad companies 21 million acres of free land.

If the name JP Morgan would later ring more bells, the same was true in the 1930s when a firm named Goldman Sachs became part of the disaster tale. William Cohan, author of Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World, told NPR, “For many years, the firm was constantly in and out of trouble. In 1929-1930, they created the Goldman Sachs trading corporation that nearly bankrupted all the investors that invested in it; it was a bit of a ponzi scheme.”

Or as Goldman Sachs longtime managing partner Sidney Weinberg put it, GS was “Long-term greedy.”

But the difference between these periods and now is that America eventually adopted all sorts of laws ? from anti-trust to the SEC to regulation of mutual funds ? to prevent such things from happening again. The robber barons took advantage of an existing system; today the GOP wants to repeal decades of reform so they can do it fully once more.

Which gets us back to the Civil War which ? bad as it was ? only found the South seceding and not ? as with the Republicans today ? pushing the Union to the very brink of bankruptcy or dismantling some of its most cherished programs created over the past three quarters of a century ?one third of its whole existence.

Now, it’s absolutely true that the Democrats share the blame in this disaster, for they have been devoid of the courage needed to defend either the Constitution or the programs that once defined their very existence.

But their role has been that of the coward, the enabler and the pathetic, led by two administrations ? Clinton and Obama ? that willingly aided the destruction in order to win a few more votes.

The real driving force has been a psychotically revolutionary GOP.

Because we mostly view the Civil War from the perspective of morality, we tend to ignore some of the realities of the time, such as the fact that slaves were the country’s most valuable capital asset. In a nation with an annual federal budget of only $50 million, slaves had a market value of nearly $3 billion, or more than twice that of all the country’s railroads.

The Economic History Association reports that “In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion. In the 11 states that eventually formed the Confederacy, four out of ten people were slaves in 1860, and these people accounted for more than half the agricultural labor in those states. In the cotton regions the importance of slave labor was even greater. The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.”

History Central adds:

Most Southern white families did not own slaves: only about 384,000 out of 1.6 million did. Of those who did own slaves, most (88%) owned fewer than 20 slaves, and were considered farmers rather than planters. Slaves were concentrated on the large plantations of about 10,000 big planters, on which 50-100 or more slaves worked. About 3,000 of these planters owned more than 100 slaves, and 14 of them owned over 1,000 slaves.

In other words, if you just consider economics, less than one percent of Southern families were truly enjoying the benefits of slavery just as today less than one percent are truly enjoying the benefits of contemporary corrupt capitalism.

As we could ask of today’s Tea Party and middle class support of the GOP uncivil war, why did the rest of the whites go along? One of the rarest phenomena in the South ? such as some of the populists such as Earl Long – was a serious political effort to help poorer whites see what they had in common with blacks and how they were being ripped off by the white elite ? just as today even liberals prefer to see the GOP base as devils equal to its leadership rather than as misguided victims waiting to be saved.

Key to each period was the myth that the elite was helping everyone preserve their “way of life.” The Southern mythology ? celebrated in everything from books to musicals to movies ? essentially described a culture that only a few could enjoy just as today the Republicans have not come up with a single program to significantly help their middle class or lower income constituents. The benefits of “free markets” accrue only to campaign contributors.

As History Central put it:

While the image of the large plantations and elegant Scarlet O’Hara-esque Southern belles sipping mint juleps was applicable to only a small minority of southern farms, the gentility and clearly-defined class system was something of a comfort, even for those Southerners who did not live in that world. In addition, some accepted the myth of the happy, subservient slave, who was not quite a human being and would benefit from the civilizing influence of Southern gentility. At the foundation of the “Southern way of life,” however, was its oppressive economic system. In addition to reducing millions of Americans to the status of chattel, it made it very difficult for non-landed, unskilled whites to succeed in the face of labor competition from slaves.”

The webite of the Americans studies program at the University of Virginia notes:

The economic reality following the Civil War provides further evidence that the poor whites were indeed closed out of economic opportunity. Theoretically, with the abolition of slavery, the invisible hand of capitalism should have returned everyone to an equal playing field, or at least a fair chance to come to bat. Democracy would ensure these poor whites a chance. This, like much in often misunderstood South, was a myth. The theoretical entrance into the economy and society did not exist. What did exist was a ruling class of planters that now had the opportunity to exploit both blacks and whites. The former plantation system protected the poor whites from direct exploitation. The tenant system, which emerged after the war, had no racial preference in its exploitation.

The poor whites, and blacks as well, had no real opportunity to acquire land in pursuit of the Jeffersonian vision of independent farm-owning citizens. The poor whites simply could not afford to purchase land. If, by some off chance that they were fortunate enough to acquire farmable land, inaccessibility to markets and the high cost of fertilizer and necessary equipment quickly shattered their Jeffersonian dream. Plantation owners continued expanding and claiming all the best lands. The “hills” in which many poor whites lived were slowly disappearing as plantations expanded and hunting lands diminished. Many poor whites were ostensibly forced into the share-cropper system–bringing an end to their independence, self-sufficiency, and freedom from direct exploitation. Despite the appearance of great transformation in the South, for the poor whites nothing had changed in the way of opportunity; they remained entrapped in their economic morass.

A century later, with the civil rights movement redefining the Democratic Party from its segregationist southern past, the GOP essentially took over planter politics and has been practicing it ever since.

Wikipedia gives a sense of how this happened:

With the aid of Harry Dent and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who had switched parties in 1964, Richard Nixon ran his 1968 campaign on states’ rights and “law and order.” Many liberals accused Nixon of pandering to Southern whites, especially with regard to his “states’ rights” and “law and order” stands.

The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy. With a much more explicit attack on integration and black civil rights, Wallace won all of Goldwater’s states (except South Carolina), as well as Arkansas and one of North Carolina’s electoral votes. Nixon picked up Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, while Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey carried only Texas of the southern states.

In the 1972 election, by contrast, Nixon won every state in the Union except Massachusetts, winning more than 70 percent of the popular vote in most of the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina) and 61% of the national vote. He won over 65 percent of the votes in the other states of the former Confederacy. Nixon won 36% of the black vote nationwide. Despite his appeal to Southern whites, Nixon parlayed a wide perception as a moderate into wins in other states. He took a solid majority in the electoral college. He was able to appear moderate to most Americans because the Southern strategy referred to integration obliquely through references to states’ rights and busing. This tactic was later described by liberals in the media as “dog-whistle politics.”

Today, the GOP has raised planter politics to new levels. There are no ideological gifts to the many, only money and power to the few. And one can draw a direct line from the Civil War of the 1860s to the uncivil wars of today.

The tragedy is that there is no powerful opposition to this assault today. The Democrats have barely one milligram of populist blood in their bodies; they have offered hardly any economic reforms and have given the white middle and lower classes not one significant alternative to the vicious mythology of the Republicans.

As with the southern Democrats of long ago, the GOP is waging class war against the very constituency it pretends to represent and there is hardly anyone around to tell this constituency how they are being ripped off.

Until that happens, until a true populist movement takes form, the Republicans will continue their uncivil war against American democracy, taking apart the very laws and policies that allowed their present constituency to get where they were before the current disaster began.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.


Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review.