Tag Archives: Democratic Party

Rise of the paranoid South: How defending against “outsiders” brought the region together

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he's  an exceptional southerner.

Ted Cruz (R-TX) certainly knows that he’s an exceptional southerner.

My latest post is an article for Salon that explains why the American South continues to be exceptional in its own unique way.

The Civil War ended in 1865. Before the war, it was common parlance in America to speak of two regions: the “North” and the “South,” which were divided, above all else, over the issue of slavery. After the war, however, the idea of the “North” gradually disappeared from American culture, but “The South” as a regional, cultural and ideological construction has lived on.

Read the whole thing over at Salon.

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The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

Angry white people protest school integration in Little |rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Some pissed-off white people protest school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”

I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.

But thankfully, some heroic white people are standing up, walking tall, and vowing not to relinquish their white privilege without a (white) fight. One of these alabaster Argonauts is even a member of Congress. That’s right, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Obviousville Alabama) recently went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to respond to an accusation by political-pundit/stable boy, Ron Fournier, who claimed that the Republican Party “cannot be the party of the future beyond November” because they’re “seen as the party of white people.” Well just you wait and see what that proud Republican congressman stated in return! “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else,” the noble congresscritter told Ingraham. Brooks then went on to cite a bunch of issues, especially illegal (read: brown person) immigration, that he claims Democrats use as a cudgel to attack patriotic white folks everywhere.

Brooks’ comments, while amusing, are nothing new. The phenomenon of right-wingers (who are usually members of society’s most privileged social class) adopting the mantel of victimhood is one of the major pillars of conservatism. In his fantastic book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin notes that victimhood has long been one of the Right’s core talking-points. “The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim,” he writes, “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.”* And the sense of conservative victimhood runs deep in today’s Republican Party: a sociopolitical faction so lily-white that it has to slather itself in SPF 300 sunscreen just to pass anti-Obamacare resolutions.

Mo Brooks’ “war-on-whites” remarks may have been off-color, but he spoke to a very real feeling shared by many conservative white Americans: a feeling that their identity as the natural, default color of American-ness is evaporating before their eyes. Consider, for example, the dire warnings of former presidential candidate, and lovable Übermensch, Pat Buchanan. “The Census Bureau has now fixed at 2041 the year when whites become a minority in a country where the Founding Fathers had restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ of ‘good moral character,'” Buchanan moaned in 2011. Uncle Pat then concluded that Western civilization can’t possibly survive with a slightly diminished level of white privilege. Bummer.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he's very white.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he’s very white.

But however hyperbolic their rantings are, conservative whites’ fears of their diminishing cultural status in America exist because, for the majority of U.S. history, “whiteness,” — especially white maleness — has been synonymous with privilege in the domestic, political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres of American life. Indeed, up until very recently, to be an American WAS to be exclusively white. Of course, whiteness is also inextricably connected to the cultural, religious, imperial, and racial subjugation of non-white peoples — a subjugation that fostered white privilege for centuries. This has been true throughout the whole of the modern era — the time from Columbus’ fourteenth-century arrival on New World shores to the present day.  

Now, of course, the white people who founded America gave the world some great things, such as (modern) republicanism, capitalism (to an extent, anyway), and a religious pluralism, among other boons. But the problem is that, historically, whites haven’t been too keen on sharing their privileges with non-whites. In the U.S., the most explicit white/non-white divide has been between whites and blacks. There was that whole slavery thing. That whole Reconstruction thing. That whole Jim Crow thing. That whole Civil Rights thing. That whole “Silent Majority” thing. Throw the brown Messicans’ into the mix, stir vigorously, add a dash of equal rights, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious reactionary white porridge! As Robin writes, “because his losses are recent…the conservative can credibly claim…that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it — indeed, probably had it for some time — suggest that he is capable of possessing it again.”*

It’s this spirit, the promise that white privilege can be possessed once again by those who took it for granted for so long, that animates conservative white reactionaries like Alabama representative Mo Brooks. Heck, it’s no coincidence that a pasty, conservative politician from the Deep South is worried about a non-existent “war on white people.” Back in 1928, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips observed that race was “The Central Theme of Southern History,” and a major component of that theme was (and is) the fear of losing the benefits of being white. The very “essence” of southern identity, Phillips wrote, was the commitment to keeping the South “a white man’s country.” The fear of losing southern white privilege arose “as soon as the negroes became numerous enough to create a problem of race control in the interest of orderly government  and the maintenance of Caucasian civilization.”*

Thus, the locus of southern exceptionalism can be found in its historical commitment to white supremacy even when other issues splintered the region into multiple factions. Historian Ira Katznelson reiterates this point in his brilliant study, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. While he notes that white supremacy has always been national in scope, Katznelson makes clear that, “the tension that marked the relationship between racial inequality and the country’s rights-based political system based on free citizenship — an association that had vexed the American republic from its first days — was more insistent and most acute” in the South.*

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

Politicians like Brooks, and the people who’re swayed by his rhetoric, are following in a grand conservative tradition in which fear is cultivated to prevent the loss of long-enjoyed white privilege. Although the fires of southern race-baiting have dimmed significantly over time, their embers still create heat in the form of reactionary stances against the loss of an American identity that is white-by-default. While most persistent in the South, this fear expanded across the nation as conservatism grew in popularity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. And make no mistake: fear and whiteness are close bedfellows.

A few years back, Scientific American reported that, “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” American conservatives are mostly white, a majority of them are in the South, and fear helps them address their anxieties by motivating them to continually impose their moral order over those who they believe threaten the “natural” stability of things. And in modern America, those who threaten this “stability” are the growing non-white populations. For the right-wing, the “war on white people” is very real, and the history of white privilege guarantees that this “war” will wage on for many more years — or at least as long as Pat Buchanan can type.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58-9.

* See Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review 34 (Oct., 1928): 31.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 134.

Cliven Bundy, The Negro, and Poor White Trash

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy is the epitome of the VERY angry white guy.

Anyone who pays any attention whatsoever to the 24-hour American news circle-jerk is by now familiar with the ongoing saga of Cliven Bundy, the good ‘ole boy Nevada cattle rancher who’s playing chicken with the federal government over the $1 million in fees that he’s refused to pay for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy’s become a right-wing folk hero thanks to his aversion to all things “big ‘gubmint,” and he’s attracted plenty of support from armed, anti-federal government militia whack-a-loons who’ve gathered to defend Bundy against Bureau of Land Management (BLM) goon-squads.

Look, given the revelations in recent years detailing the sweeping domestic-spying power of the National Security Agency (NSA), among other issues, criticism of excessive federal power is certainly warranted. But Cliven Bundy’s political views are weirdly a-historical: he denies the existence and authority of the United States Federal Government. In this respect, Bundy de facto rejects the federal constitution as implemented by the Founders back in 1787 and instead lives his twenty-first century life inside a constructed fantasy-world in which the old Articles of Confederation still constitute the law of the land. But while I could (and probably will) write more about Bundy’s political views, I’m instead going to focus on his unique take on race in America.

Thus, we come to a little statement Bundy made, caught on video, in which he detailed his thoughts on black culture. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” Bundy said when describing a public-housing project in Las Vegas, “in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.” And why were these black people so shiftless, according to Bundy?

“[T]hey were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Predictably and justifiably, Bundy’s comments received widespread criticism and even caused political supporters like libertarian homunculus Rand Paul (R-KY) to back off from their previous ballz-out support for the rancher. Bundy’s comments repeat the “blacks as poor urban criminals and welfare cheats” meme that has infected American culture for well over a century. This meme influences every major American domestic policy decision, and it’s one of the secret/not-so-secret reasons why many-a-voter (like Bundy) votes Republican (even some who are registered Democrats). Just think about dealing with your racist relatives at Thanksgiving and you’ll know what I mean.

The most damaging aspect of this critique of the alleged deviancy of “black culture” (a topic about which I’ve written here) is that it denies African-Americans their right to live as individuals. Instead, by lumping all black people into the category of “the negro,” even individual black Americans must exist as representatives of a broader “black culture.” Thus, if you’re, say, a successful professor who happens to be black, American culture holds you responsible for the actions of other black people who commit crimes — because they’re black too. Makes sense, right? We do the same thing for whites, don’t we?

Don't worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don't reprensent "white culture." Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

Don’t worry, other white people, these poor white trash folk don’t represent “white culture.” Image by Shelby Lee Adams.

No we don’t. And let me provide an example from the nineteenth century to show that we don’t. As you may know, there exists a sub-group of white people in America, generally confined to rural areas and small towns, who’re pejoratively labeled as “rednecks,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,”  “yokels,” “trailer trash,” and other similar titles. In the nineteenth century, middle and upper-class white southerners often called these people “‘poor white trash,” and they often critiqued what they saw as the negative habits on display by this group.

Among the most studious observers of poor southern whites was Alabama lawyer D.R. Hundley. In his 1860 book, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Hundley divided southern whites into seven camps that ranged from the “southern gentleman” (planters) at the top to “poor white trash” at the bottom. While he distinguished these group of southern whites by financial affluence, he also argued that blood lines influenced different groups’ manners and habits — the worst of which were displayed by the poor white trash.

According to Hundley, “laziness” was the chief characteristic of poor whites. “They are about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth,” he wrote, “even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl.” Hundley added that “all they seem to care for, is, to live from hand to mouth; to get drunk, provided they can do so without having to trudge too far after their liquor.” Poor whites also liked to eat, sleep, and lie around all day, and Hundley wrote that, “we do not believe the worthless ragamuffins would put themselves to much extra locomotion to get out of a shower of rain; and we know they would shiver all day with cold, with wood all around them, before they would trouble themselves to pick it up and build a fire.”*

Hundley’s descriptions of lazy poor whites should remind you of Cliven Bundy’s description of shiftless, porch-squatting Las Vegas blacks who “didn’t have nothing to do.” Indeed, well-off white people have often lumped poor whites and blacks into the “lazy and shiftless” camp. But Hundley’s poor whites get a level of grace that still isn’t granted to blacks, because poor whites don’t represent all whites. Heck, poor white trash were just one category of whites, and they even shared their upper and middle-class peers’ belief in white supremacy. “The Poor Whites of the South seldom come in contact with the slaves at all, and thousands of them never saw a negro,” Hundley wrote, “still, almost to a man, they are pro-slavery in sentiment…from downright envy and hatred of the black man.”*

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren't lazy, as depicted in this picture.

Cliven Bundy yearns for a time when black people had decent jobs and weren’t lazy, as depicted in this picture.

That’s right, despite all of their crude laziness, which Hundley attributed to a combination of genetic lineage and ingrained habits, poor whites could still claim solidarity with planters and yeomen via their shared hatred of blacks. That’s because “blacks” represented a vast, amorphous, enslaved demographic group defined by broad, negative cultural traits, but poor whites were just that: a sub-group of whites that never symbolized “whiteness” in general and never represented “whites” as a whole. Contrast that with the way modern Cliven Bundy-types still characterize “blacks” as a broad group of people suffering from a shared cultural dysfunction that leaves them prone to crime, deviancy, promiscuity, and other bad habits. To Bundy and his ilk, the blacks on Las Vegas porches aren’t even “poor blacks:” they’re just “blacks” in general, and they need to fix “their” deviant culture.

So remember Cliven Bundy’s comments the next time you read a story about meth-head white trash in Appalachia or prescription drug abuse in the nation’s Heartland, and ask yourself: what’s wrong with white culture that would make these people act like that? If you feel weird saying it that way, that’s because, in America, there isn’t any “white culture” in need of uplift. Whites get to be individuals, but blacks still have to be “blacks.” And that’s a problem.

* See D.R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York: Henry B. Price, 1860), 262-3, 273.

Jonathan Chait and the Shadow of Race in the Obama Era

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as "race" that, at least scientifically, doesn't even exist.

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as “race.”

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: in America, everything is about race, even when race has nothing to do with it. Ever since the colonial era, Americans of all stripes have dealt with the race issue because it’s been a crucial element in determining what it means to be an American from day one. Race was, of course, the major factor that drove America’s original sin of slavery (it’s rumored that early drafts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal, except for those dusky fellers picking my tobacco.) But long after slavery’s demise, race still lingers in American political discourse and, if you believe Jonathan Chait, race has been the defining theme of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In a simultaneously contentious, frustrating, and illuminating piece for the New Yorker, Chait performs some impressive mental gymnastics in order to argue that race — particularly the politics of white racial resentment towards African-Americans — is the core theme that has shaped modern conservatism while also arguing that liberals are wrong to call conservatives racists for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. You got that? Chait admits that “at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical,” but warns of “an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination” that is both politically wrongheaded and factually untrue.

Plenty of otherwise like-minded commentators have taken Chait to the proverbial woodshed for his Charlie Brown-style wishy washiness on the race issue. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, chides Chait for pointing out recent Republican efforts to restrict minority voting rights and refusing to expand Medicaid — measures that disproportionately target black Americans — and then having the gall to chastise liberals for “mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie characterizes Chait’s piece as “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color.”

So is Chait wrong to worry about all characterizations of conservatism being reduced to mere anti-black (and anti-Latino) racial resentment? The short answer is “Yes;” the long answer is “No.” As has always been the case in American history, the issue of race is monumentally complicated, with multiple streams and rivers that flow into a much bigger — and much muddier — racial pool.

Chait is correct that being politically conservative in America doesn’t make you a racist in the most visceral, black-hating, pointed hood–donning sense, but he’s also wrong to claim that liberals start out with “a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity” but then extend this analysis into “paranoia.” This is why every issue in America comes down to race — even when it doesn’t.

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change...

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change…

Allow me to explain a bit further. What Chait, and so many others before him, always seem to stumble on is defining what they mean when they use the term “racism.” In his book Racism: A Short History, the eminent historian George Fredrickson defines racism in both broad and specific terms. Generally, racism is “the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.”* Specifically, however, racism differs from more standard human conflict via the crucial additions of difference and power. Together, these two components create “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable.” Fredrickson writes that, “racism expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates.”* In other words, racism doesn’t just create racist individuals; it also creates racist societies.

Chait is looking for examples of conservatives playing the racist role, as defined by Fredrickson, by explicitly enacting practices that mark blacks as different from, and less powerful than, whites. Thus, what he’s really trying to pin down is to what extent the U.S. is, or isn’t, a racist society — one in which whites still actively discriminate against blacks. Liberals say that it is; conservatives say that it isn’t. The answer, however, is “yes:” the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a racist society. But — and this is crucial — the U.S. isn’t as racist as it was thirty, fifty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago, and it’s getting less racist every year. The problem is that racism, being so entwined into the fabric of American society, won’t just disappear over night, and before it dies entirely, it devolves into a less-potent — but no less influential idea — which I call “racialism.”

I didn’t invent the term “racialism;” it’s been bandied about for years by various types of academics looking for a way to describe racially tinged ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the full-on “racist” category. For my purposes, racialism is the belief that racial differences exist, and it constitutes the various ways, both positive and negative, that Americans have tried to shape and influence social and political policies in accordance with that belief.

Here’s an example of how racialism differs from racism. Growing up in Northeast Ohio’s Rust Belt, I often heard a racially insensitive joke that went something like this: Q: “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a black man?” A: “The large pizza can feed a family of four.” Anyone whose ever paid attention to the American welfare debate knows why this joke is supposed to be “funny:” it invokes long-running stereotypes depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, and unwilling to work for themselves. Those stereotypes, in turn, go all the way back to the era of slavery, when whites deemed blacks as “inferior” and in need of the guiding light of white control. In modern political parlance, the “lazy black” idea fueled Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story and continues to drive conservative hostility to welfare programs that allegedly benefit blacks at whites’ expense.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Any white person I knew who either told or heard that joke would deny that they were racists, and in terms of the popular understanding of what racists do, they’d probably be right. They would never join the Ku Klux Klan, harass black people, or do any of the other nasty stuff that racists are supposed to do. But a good many of them think that, due to “cultural” reasons, blacks are lazy, prone to criminality, and abuse welfare programs paid for by hard-working (read: white) taxpayers. But they’d be the first to tell you that they aren’t racist, even though you’d never hear them talking about all the rural, white Americans on welfare.

The thing is, you don’t have to be outwardly (or even inwardly racist) to “get” that joke. It invokes historically entrenched cultural ideas of alleged differences between blacks and whites that are still ingrained in American society, even if most white people would rightfully (hopefully?!) be repulsed by what the “black man/large pizza” joke connotes. In other words, racism has so significantly shaped American culture that its shadows, in the form of racialism, can appear everywhere, even when the elusive original source of the shadow is unseen or outright rejected.

If, like me, you’ve never been black, then there’s no way for you to experience the unique feeling of being black in America as filtered through the lens of non-black others. We can’t feel racialism because, thanks to the birth lottery and the trajectory of modern American history, we’ve never been judged on our skin alone. We can’t know what’s it’s like to be assessed, ridiculed, reviled, feared, and defined solely based on something as mundane as pigmentation. But if you’re black in America, you know racialism exists even when hardcore racism is waning — and you know, as does Jonathan Chait, which political party has racialism as an unspoken part of its platform.

Conservatives have long scored political points by assuming, correctly, that a good many white Americans who would never join the KKK or lynch someone nonetheless know what’s implied by the “black man/large pizza” joke. In criticizing liberals who label those who practice, and respond to, dog-whistle politics as racists, Jonathan Chait is trying to grapple with how the legacy of racism could still be so influential in the era of the first black American president. In one sense, he’s correct that not all conservatives are racists, but by downplaying the importance race plays in shaping the politics of the modern American Right, he’s missing out on how the long shadow of racialism still casts over the American body politic.

* See George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1, 6, 9.

Darrell Issa and the Historical Shadow of the Gag Rule

Darrell Issa (R-CA) does NOT approve of you speaking like that!

You’re talking, my friend, and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) is soooo not cool with that!

Poor Darrell Issa. For years, the hard-charging GOP Congress-critter has been on a Quixotic quest to destroy what he believes to be the multi-tentacled scandal beast at the heart of the Obama administration. Since his party of curmudgeonly gremlins took control of Congress back in 2010, the California representative has planted himself as the lead inquisitor-chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and over the last three years or so, he’s investigated everything from the alleged liberal causes of the 2008 financial crisis, to the supposed job-killing effects of government regulation, to the existence of Bigfoot.

Okay, I made that last one up, but suffice to say that Issa has made it his goal to find everything rotten in government and place the blame for that rot squarely on the shoulders of the Obama Administration. Indeed, the guy is so delusional that it’d be none-too-surprising if he concluded that Bigfoot was working as a secret environmental agent for liberal activist groups.

Issa’s been especially busy in 2014. His main concerns have been non-scandals like Benghazi, the supposed IRS effort to target conservative dark-money organizations who applied for 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status (it turns out the agency also targeted left-wing groups too), and the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal. The latter involved a scheme in which ATF agents tried to snare border gun runners who’ve been funneling firearms to Mexican drug cartels. This ill-conceived program was implemented by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and while a host of problems plagued the effort, the Right’s favorite talking point – that Attorney General Eric Holder intentionally allowed guns to fall into cartel hands – has long been debunked.

But none of this matters to Darrell Issa, because he’s on a mission to bring the Obama Administration down for the crime of being (allegedly) liberal. And so this week Issa was still hammering away at the phony IRS scandal, trying to get IRS official Lois Lerner to answer questions about the agency’s supposed targeting of right-wing money groups. As TPM reports, when the hearing got heated, ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) tried to argue that even after a multi-year investigation, the committee found no evidence of a political conspiracy at the IRS, though some mismanagement was identified. Issa, apparently perturbed by a Democrat voicing an opinion in a Congressional investigation, abruptly cut Cummings’ mic, after which Cummings accused Issa of disrespecting a fellow congressman and directing “a one-sided investigation.”

Although Issa eventually apologized to Cummings, the reaction to Issa’s cutting a Democratic colleague’s mic was swift and justifiably critical. Salon’s Joan Walsh called Issa’s behavior “Thuggish,” and concluded that “He’s [Issa] trying to shame the White House, and Cummings makes a great stand-in.” The New York Times’ David Firestone rightly notes that when Congressional minority members are silenced, “it makes the majority look like a bunch of insecure authoritarians.” It’s that whole “authoritarian” angle that made Issa’s behavior especially galling, particularly given the U.S. Congress’s history of authoritarian-style silencing of dissenting views that have ultimately turned out to be right on target. Issa’s move echoes back to one particularly onerous Congressional policy: the Gag Rule.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP's own Don Quixote.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will not be gagged by the GOP’s own Don Quixote.

In the mid to late 1830s, the abolitionist movement in the United States finally began to muster some political power after years of being relegated to fringe sects like the Quakers. And the anti-slavery agitators were up against a very real threat: the Slave Power. Thanks to the efforts of southern political power-players like President Andrew Jackson and his northern collaborator/lacky, New York’s Martin Van Buren, the Democratic Party in the mid-nineteenth century solidified itself around a commitment to pro-slavery ideals. Of course, slaveholders benefitted politically from a Congressional boost in representation guaranteed by the Constitution via the ownership of human property.

The Democrats at the time were especially effective, at least until about 1860, at maintaining party discipline (imagine that: the Democrats were once a disciplined political party!) with regards to supporting slavery. The two-thirds rule at Democratic National Conventions ensured that southern support was a prerequisite for receiving the party’s presidential nomination, and southern support meant supporting slavery. As historian Daniel Walker Howe notes in What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, his mammoth, but essential account of the Jacksonian Era, “in shaping the Democratic Party the way they did, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forged the instrument that would transform the minority proslavery interest into a majority that would dominate American politics until 1861.”* A key component in maintaining a pro-slavery political majority was combating anti-slavery agitation, and that’s where the Gag Rule came in.

Initially, abolitionists tried to protest slavery by sending anti-slavery mailings directly to southern mailboxes via the postal system, but pro-slavery interests in Congress collaborated with the Postmaster General to ban the mass-mailing of all anti-slavery literature. Shut out of the post office, abolitionists turned to circulating mass anti-slavery petitions in Congress and urging for the open discussion of abolitionism within the House. In response, the Slave Power in Congress passed a series of so-called Gag Rules from 1836 to 1840 that blocked any and all congressional discussions of anti-slavery ideas in an effort to prevent abolitionists from influencing the public sentiment on slavery.

Among the most vociferous opponents of the Gag Rule was former president John Quincy Adams, who undermined the rule at every turn by defending abolitionists’ constitutional rights to petition Congress. Adams – who also coined the term “Gag” in reference to the banning of anti-slavery discussion – read petitions at the beginning of congressional sessions before the rules could be adopted, then forced a vote on the right to implement the Gag. Adams also made congressional committees do their jobs and thoroughly examine anti-slavery petitions in order to determine if the language therein qualified as Gag-worthy, thereby forcing discussion on a topic the Gag was supposed to silence entirely.

John Quincy Adams: propoent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress

John Quincy Adams: proponent of both epic chops and petitioning Congress.

The efforts of Adams – and thousands of anti-slavery petitioners – brought plenty of heat down on the congressional Slave Power, drawing boatloads of attention to the abolitionist cause. Much to southern Democrats’ dismay, the controversy over the Gag Rule brought extra attention to an issue that was supposed to be gagged, as more anti-slavery petitions bearing tens-of-thousands of signatures poured into Congress.* Indeed, the entire Gag Rule brouhaha reinforced a by-now old rule in American politics: when you try to suppress legitimate grievances in the name of political gain, you run the risk of empowering the very people you want to marginalize.

And thus we come back full-circle to Darrell Issa. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman not only tried to gag Elijah Cummings from speaking, he’s also tried to gag any and all information that might undermine his quest to tar the Obama Administration with scandal after scandal. Through his bone-headed actions, Issa is invoking an ugly authoritarian aspect of the Congressional past. By silencing Cummings, who is, of course, African-American, Issa provided the uncomfortable image of a white speaker silencing a black colleague in a manner that evoked a rule once used by white supremacists to silence discussion about ending black slavery in America. Having endured far-worse attempts to block black political participation, Cummings called out Issa’s shenanigans until the Republican chairman finally apologized.

The brief spat between Issa and Cummings speaks to larger issues of decorum and democracy in the chamber that’s supposed to most closely represent the interests of average Americans. The House of Representatives, like other institutions in the American system, has on occasion been captured by the thuggery of authoritarianism. Such incidents are ugly stains on the House and shouldn’t be repeated in any century. Darrell Issa is free to continue swinging his chairmanship at scandalous Democratic windmills, but he’d better not complain when someone like Cummings points out the loads of Republican malarkey that such bravado is trying to conceal.

* See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 512-515.

The GOP and the Historical Obsession with Work in America

Rep. John Bohener (R-Isengard), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Mordor), and Se. Mitch McConnel (R-TN) promote squeezing the most out of workers at the lowest possible cost to employers.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Isengard), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Mordor), and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-TN) advocate squeezing the most out of workers at the lowest possible cost to employers.

Americans love to work. Just ask any politician or corporate stooge, particularly of the conservative variety, and they’ll reaffirm this eternal truth. In American culture, work is everything: it’s how we spend the majority of the time we are so graciously granted on earth; it’s how we afford the necessities of life, like feeding and clothing ourselves, procuring shelter from the elements, and affording the cable through which we experience high art like “Duck Dynasty.”

Americans simply must love to work. Heck, they work longer hours than anyone else in the industrialized world, even though they’re getting less and less out of work as wages continue to stagnate, unions have been decimated, and vacation times wither away along with retirement-savings. Americans also love to toil even as study after study continues to highlight the health dangers associated with excessive work. If that’s not evidence that Americans are the ultimate large-scale ant farm, than what is?! After all, the French don’t work nearly as much as Americans and often report being happier, and Americans love to mock the French. Continue reading