In rereading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution recently, I ran across an interesting description of the contrast in the society and economy between pre-Civil War North and South. Foner references the important insight of another historian, James L. Acorn, that slavery had sharply curtailed the scope of public authority in the pre-Civil War South because it produced a society of “patriarchal groupings” in which large numbers of people—all of African descent—remained under the authority of the private sector—their owners—and not subject to the government. “With planters enjoying a disproportionate share of political power, taxes and social welfare expenditures remained low,” as did spending on public education. Paved roads, water systems, public hospitals—all were nonexistent or much less developed than in the North before the Civil War.
Small government. Low taxes on the wealthy. Little public spending on education, infrastructure or health care. Little regulation of the economy, including none of the relationship between owners and workers. These aspects of the pre-Civil War South have come to define red state politics, which in recent years has been called Tea Party politics. In fact, the core of red state America lies in the 11 slave-holding states that tried to secede from the United States in 1861.
Many on the left have described the Tea Party and the rest of the right wing as inherently racist, pointing to the racial code words and phrases used by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachman, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum and practically every other politician with Republican and Tea Party ties. Progressives also note the disparate impact on minorities of low taxes on the wealthy, privatization and the current shredding of the social net.
The right denies a racist intent or tinge to the policies it supports, but let’s take a look at history. The ideas and words of the current right are very similar to what southerners said before and during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. The differences between red and blue state economic, political and social beliefs today largely mirror the differences between the South and North before the Civil War: Small versus large government. Low versus high taxes. Lots of social services versus very few. All these differences developed primarily because the South had large slave-owning plantations and the North relied on free, wage-earning labor.
In other words, while the right can make their weak protests that their views are not racially based, history demonstrates that the primary reason why these views developed in these particular parts of the United States was that the economy was based on slavery. And slavery in the United States was always intimately tied to racism. Slave-owners and their defenders believed those of African descent were inherently lesser beings than whites by virtue of their skin color and origin. Slave owners justified their cruelty towards slaves—the whippings, the suppression of education, the rapes, the splitting of families—by racist arguments that Africans were an inferior breed. Slave owners asserted that Africans liked their fate and would be lost in the real world without the guiding hand of their owners. All racist beliefs and all justifications for the southern economic and political system.
Apologists like George Will may reference Edmund Burke, Montesquieu and the so-called conservative nature of agrarian politics and rural values all they like. That won’t change the fact that the economy and society that developed today’s right-wing ideology was racist. Racism was the rational engine that fueled the pre-Civil War South, and it still fuels the ideology associated with its reincarnation into red states.
In many ways, we still have a civil war in the United States.