Tag Archives: history

Context And Clarity

One of the great virtues of Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” is her ability as a historian to “connect the dots” and provide context to the news of the day. That context often strips away the non-essentials that can confuse us, and provides the clarity so often missing from the reporting that follows our daily headlines.

A recent letter was triggered by Rick Scott’s angry op-ed excoriating the reaction of what he sneeringly called “woke” corporations to the Georgia election bill. Here’s where the history operates to clarify the moment in which we find ourselves:

The ideological faction that is currently in control of the Republican Party grew out of opposition to the active government both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. But since Americans actually liked business regulation, a social safety net, and infrastructure projects, those Movement Conservatives who wanted to take the government back to the 1920s got little traction until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision enabled them to harness racism to their cause. With federal government efforts to end segregation in the public schools, businessmen who hated government regulation warned voters that their tax dollars were being used to give Black Americans extra benefits. It was socialism, they said, and it would encourage Black people to step out of their place.

This formula worked. Businessmen determined to cut the government bankrolled Movement Conservative candidates, and people determined not to let their tax dollars go to Black or Brown people voted for them. In 1986, Grover Norquist, a former economist for the Chamber of Commerce, brought together business people, evangelicals, and social conservatives. “Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.”

Richardson points out that the racist and sexist language was initially understated. That allowed supporters–including corporations concerned about their images– to wink at it.  But that was before Trump and his attack on “political correctness”–i.e., civility–brought the racism and sexism out into the open.

In the wake of Georgia’s effort to suppress minority votes and the corporate response, several observers have suggested that we are on the cusp of a realignment that would sever the longstanding relationship between  the GOP and the corporations that have previously supported and funded it. After all, they reason, Republicans may deny the reality of demographic change, but businesses cannot and will not. Corporate America has increasing numbers of minority employees–even in management–and vastly increasing numbers of minority customers. Unlike the GOP, they don’t live in an alternate reality.

It would be very satisfying if Corporate America deserted the Republican Party, but as both Paul Ogden and Richardson point out, small donors are increasingly able to replace any monies that corporations might withhold from GOP candidates.

There is a truism in politics to the effect that voters are more motivated by what they are against than by what they are for. Stirring up anger and bias are, unfortunately, timeless tactics for getting out the vote. With the niceties of “political correctness” stripped away, the departure of most moderates from the party, and the dwindling need to placate corporate and business supporters, today’s GOP is putting all of its electoral eggs in the racism basket.

And as we saw in 2020, there’s a depressingly substantial portion of the electorate responsive to that appeal.

 

 

 

There Once Was A Party…

One of the newsletters I receive is that of Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a history professor, and her obviously deep knowledge of U.S. history permits her to contextualize the news of the day in ways that most of us cannot.

A recent letter is a great example. It’s also profoundly sad–at least, to those of us who once belonged to a very different Republican Party.

Richardson begins by reminding us that the GOP’s roots “lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854.” That was when it became clear that southern slaveholders effectively controlled the federal government– and were using that control to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.

Most of us think of Lincoln as the President who fought the civil war and emancipated the slaves. Richardson focuses on what is considerably less well-known, his policy preferences–especially his belief that government should provide a national infrastructure.

Back then, both Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in an activist government.

Richardson points out that the early Republican Party introduced the first national taxes, including the  first income tax. They used government to give “ordinary men” access to resources. In 1862, the GOP passed the Homestead Act, a measure that gave away western lands to those willing to settle on it. The party established Land-Grant Colleges, established the Department of Agriculture, and provided for construction of a railroad across the continent. They joined with Democrats to build more than 600 dams in 20 western states.

FDR is usually–and appropriately–credited with enlarging the scope of government in order to deal with the Great Depression, but as Richardson reminds us, Republicans who followed accepted the premise that government should provide for the common good–and that it has a special obligation to fund and maintain the national infrastructure.

Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.

So what happened? Why are today’s Republicans not just disinterested in governing, they are positively allergic to the notion that government should provide for the common good by building and maintaining the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.”

Republicans under Lincoln provided the first justifications for investing in the nation, and for taxing citizens to fund those investments.

The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”

I probably wouldn’t go as far as Morrill, but it’s hard to rationalize what passes for philosophy in today’s Republican Party with the party’s history–not just the devolution into White Supremacy, but the 180 degree shift from policies supportive of the common good to policies favoring the wealthy.

Remember that old TV ad that told us “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile”? This isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) GOP, either.

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.

 

 

In Case The Racism Wasn’t Clear Enough…

There’s something to be said for clarity.

As the United States barrels toward an election that will determine whether we remain wedded to a set of unrealized but morally-appropriate ideals about equality, the focus of that election has steadily narrowed. November will be about one thing: White Nationalism and the continued privileging and social dominance of white male “Christians.”

Short of producing yard signs with swastikas, the Trump campaign has done everything it can to convey that message–and in Tuesday’s first “debate,” Trump’s refusal to disavow white nationalism made it explicit. (“Debate” is in quotes, because Trump’s rants and bullying prevented anything that could be considered a genuine debate.)

The GOP has disdained issuing a platform, making it clear that obedience to the party’s “Dear Leader” was the only plank that mattered. Then the campaign echoed Trump’s rant against the accurate teaching of American history–especially about slavery– and his insistence that teachers should engage in patriotic indoctrination rather than education.

More recently still, just in case there was a Neo-Nazi somewhere in rural America who missed the message (is there a backwoods area where Fox can’t penetrate?), he ordered an immediate cessation of diversity training in federal agencies, and followed that with a similar edict covering federal contractors. As Talking Points Memo reports:

President Donald Trump increased the scope of his assault against the government’s anti-racism workplace trainings on white privilege on Tuesday night with an executive order banning government contractors from holding the trainings.

In the order, Trump claimed that trainings that discuss the disproportionate amount of power afforded to white men “perpetuates racial stereotypes and division and can use subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint.”

“Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors,” the order said.

The contractors thus “will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees,” according to the order.

Trump touted the ban on Twitter on Tuesday.

These sessions–common in corporate and business environments–are intended to improve communication and understanding among employees who bring different cultures and life experiences to the workplace. (Well done, they improve both employee morale and productivity–outcomes of absolutely no interest to Trump, since they don’t line his pockets or advance his egocentric agenda.)

It is unlikely that this most recent “edict” is legally enforceable. Absent corruption (which in this administration cannot be taken for granted) government contracts are awarded to companies that respond to RFPs–Requests for Proposals. Those RFPs set out the qualifications required by the contracting agency, and it’s a fair bet that none of the RFPs to which current contractors responded contained a provision that the contractor could not offer diversity training to its employees.

But enforceability and legality are beside the point here.

In much the same way that Trump’s issuance of meaningless “Executive Orders” aren’t legally effective, the bans on diversity training are a type of “performance art.” The Executive Orders are intended to convince his largely civically ignorant base that he is keeping his various promises–to build a wall, protect pre-existing conditions, forbid Muslims from entering the country, etc. The ban on anti-racist training and the attack on teaching accurate history are intended to reassure his largely racist base that he is with them.

It’s a very dangerous game.

Law enforcement agencies–including the FBI– have warned that alt-right organizations are actively trying to foment a race war. 

A report by the Brookings Institution explains a right-wing effort called “accelerationism.”

Accelerationism is the idea that white supremacists should try to increase civil disorder — accelerate it — in order to foster polarization that will tear apart the current political order. The System (usually capitalized), they believe, has only a finite number of collaborators and lackeys to prop it up. Accelerationists hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists.

Obviously, not every Trump voter is a conscious part of that White Supremacy movement–but every Trump vote will support it.

 

 

Statues And Shades Of Gray

Americans are having yet another iteration of a longstanding argument about the various monuments erected to memorialize–or let’s be honest, valorize– Confederate heroes of the Civil War.

People defending these statues argue that they teach us about our history. Proponents of removal respond that placing them in museums is adequate to the teaching of history, and remind us that Germany still remembers the Nazis despite the fact that there are no statues of Hitler or Eichmann “gracing” the public way.

In my view, deciding that Confederate statues should come down is an easy call.

Here’s the test: why was this particular statue erected? To ask that question a bit differently, why is this person being honored? Public statues are uniformly considered “honors”–so the first question to ask is, logically, “why do we honor Senator or General or XYZ?” If the person portrayed has been selected for his participation in the Confederate secession, the monument should go. If the person is historically significant, move the statue to a museum or other teaching venue; if he is just a reminder of Confederate treason, smash him.

As numerous historians have reminded us, these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War; almost all of them were placed in prominent places during the civil rights movement as a testament of white resistance to African-American equality. They aren’t even legitimately “historic.”

The question of public monuments gets more complicated when it comes to people who were less one-dimensional. What do we do, for example, about people like Woodrow Wilson?

As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Douthat says that monuments and honorifics are intended to honor deeds,  “to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” I agree.

So–what do we do with monuments to inevitably flawed real humans–to Founders who glorified human liberty while “owning” other human beings, for example?

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

I find myself in agreement with Douthat. The relevant question remains the one I previously outlined: what, exactly, are we memorializing?

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

On the other hand, complicated and often profoundly flawed individuals often do very good things. If the statue we have erected was intended to honor those good things, it should stay. If it is only there to remind us that something happened–especially when that “something” was regrettable– it shouldn’t.

If we shouldn’t celebrate what a monument celebrates, it should go.