Tag Archives: New Deal

Social Security: America’s Longest Legislative War

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President  Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

President Barack Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Behind him, Vice-President Joe Biden thinks about capturing Bigfoot, while Speaker of the House John Boehner imagines constructing a tanning salon in the House chamber.

The State of the Union Address is typically an annual demonstration of frictional political masturbation, in which the sitting Chief Executive uses up an entire bottle of presidential speech-writers’ lube in an attempt to assure the American public that the future is bright and that they aren’t getting royally screwed from every possible angle by a sweaty, panting, Viagra-popping combination of sociopathic plutocrats and re-election-obsessed government drones. As a result, the SOTU usually ends up as a crusty rhetorical sock in the national bedroom’s unattended hamper: forgotten, unacknowledged, a source of necessary shame.

But on January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama, a Commander-in-Chief now well into the twilight, lame-duck years of his two-terms in the Oval Office, decided to kick off his last years in power by using the State of the Union address to launch a bucket-full of rhetorical grenades into the squawking macaw gallery that is the Republican Party. Now free from the burden of re-election, and facing a conservative-controlled House and Senate that won’t touch his legislative proposals with a thirty-nine and a half-foot pole, Obama nonetheless gave a full-throated defense of American liberalism. He defended the use of government to mitigate the blunt force of market fundamentalism that, for decades now, has left American wages stagnant, has flooded the one-percent’s coffers with Scrooge McDuck levels of cash, and has turned the government into one giant, sticky-floored lobbyists’ whore-house. Continue reading

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Obamacare: The Ultimate American Wedge Issue

The pro and anti-Obamacare protesters at the the Supreme Court epitomize the ultimate divide in American politics.

Obamacare is dead; long live Obamacare. Or maybe not. Early in 2015, thanks to incessant conservative teeth gnashing, the Supreme Court will once again gird up its robe-covered loins to make a major ruling on Barack Obama’s signature law.

The plaintiffs in the upcoming King v. Burwell case claim that, according to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) statute, the IRS exceeded the limits of its regulatory powers by allowing for both state-run AND federal exchanges. It’s a classic right-wing “states’ rights” argument. 22 states have already balked on setting up exchanges, and conservatives are betting that weeding out the federal cash that’s picking up the slack in red states will undermine the entire structure of Obamacare. No matter that blocking federal subsidies could yank insurance coverage away from upwards of 11.8 million people: after all, are there no prisons, no poorhouses?! Continue reading

Unemployment Insurance and the Southern Roots of Modern Conservatism

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally recieved donuts and coffee, while the GOP deemed them parasitic moochers.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the unemployed occasionally received donuts and coffee. The GOP, of course, deemed them parasitic moochers.

If there’s one thing that characterizes the pit of drooling, addle-brained wampas known as the 133th United States Congress, it would be inactivity. Dominated as it is by the Republican Party faction of obnoxious brats known as the Tea Party, the so-called “Do-Nothing Congress” and its only mildly less insane Senate counterpart is once again engaged in the now traditional ritual that involves deciding whether or not long-term unemployment benefits should be extended.

Republicans in the House and Senate are, as in the recent past, opposed to unemployment insurance, and the welfare state in general, on ideological grounds. For example, arch-conservative Wisconsin rep., and failed vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan claimed on the 2012 campaign trail that welfare policies of all kinds had “created and perpetuated a debilitating culture of dependency, wrecking families and communities.” Indeed, the idea that millions of Americans take advantage of welfare as an incentive to simply not work is standard dogma on the American Right.

Lest they be seen as stingy, stone-hearted Scrooges, however, Republicans have fallen back on their tried-and-true defence of slashing unemployment benefits by claiming that they only care about saving money. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargant reports, “Republicans want to reframe this as a battle over how to pay for extending benefits…as a fight over fiscal responsibility, not over whether to preserve the safety net amid mass unemployment.”

Of course, conservatives’ claims to fiscal hawkitude are belied by the long history of atomically exploding deficits under their watch. Salon’s Brian Beutler rightly observes that Republicans are instead invoking fiscal restraint to conceal their “opposition to or reluctance to support the benefits themselves without obtaining some kind of conservative policy concession in return.” Thus, Republicans’ current whining about the cost of extending unemployment insurance is more smoke and mirrors designed to conceal their beliefs that welfare is detrimental to the very fabric of society.

As with most of their antics in the age of Obama, however, modern Republicans’ opposition to unemployment insurance is in keeping with a tradition of conservative thought that, in an American context, has deep roots in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South. In his book The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism, Eugene Genovese, the sometimes brilliant, and often controversial, late historian of the antebellum South identified the crucial elements of order and hierarchy that were central to an American conservatism forged in a 19th century slave society. According to Genovese, true southern conservatism was not defined by any slavish devotion to rampant individualism and the unfettered capitalist free market, but by “a belief in a transcendent order or natural law in society as well as nature, so that political problems are revealed as essentially religious and moral.*

This is not to say that conservatives don’t actually like capitalism. Indeed, Genovese makes no such claim. But he does suggest that conservatives support capitalism only insofar as it successfully perpetuates the hierarchies and unequal power relations that they belief are essential to maintaining true order in society. Hierarchies, whether in the home or in the marketplace, are defined by power relations; by those who dominate and those who are dominated. Conservatives, unsurprisingly, have defended ordered hierarchies because they are usually the ones dominating. The American right wing views this set of social and economic hierarchies as “tradition” that must be preserved at all costs. Hierarchies are preserved by order, and maintaining order is essential to conservatives’ preservation of power.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, strove to preserve "traditional" hierachies.

Simon Legree, the sadistic southern slaveholder in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, strove to preserve “traditional” hierarchies.

As Genovese explained, “‘Tradition’ is…understood as an embodiment of ‘givens’ that must constantly be fought for, recovered in each generation, and adjusted to new conditions.”* These “givens” that conservatives view as constituting tradition are almost always characterized by the maintenance of power by a ruling few over more numerous subordinate groups. When the subordinate groups threaten the ruling few’s power by demanding agency over their own conditions, conservatives, the beneficients of “traditional” power structures, get angry and fight back like spoiled toddlers.

The slave society of the antebellum South, in which one (white) ruling group held unlimited power, sanctioned by the state in both private and public spheres over another (black) laboring class, was the perfect breeding ground for this type of “traditional” conservative power structure. And even after southern conservatives fought and lost the Civil War in the name of preserving the slave system, the core hierarchical tradition over which they battled continues to be the primary motivator of American conservatives in the 21st century.

Historian Leo Ribuffo notes this continuity by explaining how the New Deal energized a conservatism that had steadily been losing ground in almost all matters except race since the turn-of-the-century. The New Deal, Ribuffo writes, “undermined ‘traditional values’ by incorporating working-class Catholics, Jews, cosmopolitan intellectuals and occasionally African-Americans.” In response to the New Deal’s challenging of traditional social and economic orders that favored employers and white southern men, northern Republicans and southern Democrats formed an “anti-New Deal ‘conservative coalition'” that laid the groundwork for the conservatism of the modern GOP.*

This is why the GOP’s current opposition to extending unemployment benefits in the name deficit hawkishness rings utterly hollow. They could care less about deficits, but they do care deeply about preserving “traditional” hierarchies that grant full power to employers over their workers.

Libertarian historian Thomas Woods, Jr. makes this point abundantly clear when he invokes Irish political philosopher, and conservative Grand Poobah Edmund Burke to defend traditional social orders. “Traditionalist political and social thought focused primarily on preserving what Edmond Burke called the ‘little platoons’ of civilization, all those associations – e.g., family, church, town, civic group – that gave people social identities and prevented them from dissolving into an undifferentiated mass,” he writes.* By insisting that the ‘little platoons’ of civilization must be maintained, Woods Jr. is, by extension, demonstrating the conservative proclivity towards hierarchical orders that subordinate some members of society to rulers who, not coincidentally, are usually conservatives.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don't want to extend unemployment benefits because they're jerks.

The Congressional GOP, along with their Senate allies, don’t want to extend unemployment benefits because they’re jerks.

Burke’s “little platoons” have historically been sites of unequal power structures. Especially in an American context, families have traditionally subordinated women to men, while churchs, towns, and civic groups have been ruled by white men who dominated everyone from women, to blacks, to the poorer classes. After all, the most vociferous advocates for slavery in the Old South were preachers, local politicians and businessmen – all of whom where white – and all of whom ruled over lower groups. What Woods Jr. and other conservatives advocate via “little platoons” are multiple public and private hierarchies dominated by – you guessed it – conservatives. Tradition indeed.

Since the Civil War, capitalism has done a good job of preserving hierarchical traditions that favor conservative rule. But when the lower orders attempt to challenge, or at least mitigate, the inequality-breeding tendencies of capitalism, as in the case with issuing unemployment insurance in the midst of the Great Recession, the Right Wing strikes back…hard. When conservatives wax nostalgic about “simpler” times and invoke “tradition,” they are really yearning for a past during which their ilk held greater power of society’s lower orders, which included workers, women, children, and non-white minorities.

Unemployment benefits threaten conservatives’ vision of “traditional” social order by providing relief and agency to workers who would be otherwise left to the brutal whims of a business-favoring economic system that demands the total subordination of employees to employers. Conservatives’ opposition to unemployment benefits stems from their paternalistic worldview, in which the rulers must maintain order over the less-deserving masses in society.

Hence, as the Washington Post recently noted, a Republican memo is making the rounds for the purpose of coaching House GOP members on how to be empathetic to the “personal crisis” experienced by unemployed Americans. Tellingly, the memo doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of unemployment insurance. Rather, it only states that Republicans should feign concern for the unemployed masses. This is paternalism at its most loathsome. That conservatives need to be coached on how to show empathy for workers speaks volumes about how they view society. By opposing unemployment benefits, and any form of welfare in general, Republicans are keeping alive a conservative tradition, nurtured in the Old South, that seeks to preserve social hierarchies – and conservative rule – in the name of social order.

* See Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 22, 4-5.

* See Leo P. Ribuffo, “The Discovery and Rediscovery of American Conservatism, Broadly Conceived,” OAH Magazine of History 17, Conservatism (Jan., 2003): 5.

* See Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “Defending the “Little Platoons:” Communitarianism in American Conservatism,” American Studies 40 (Fall, 1999): 128.

Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.

A Race Against Time: The South and the Fight Against Social Welfare

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accpeted this program on condition that African Americans be excluded from its benefits.

1930s poster advertising the benefits of Social Security. The South accepted this program on condition that African-Americans be excluded from its benefits.

This October, some of the major benefits of President Obama’s signature health care reform bill will start being implemented across the U.S. Of course, ever since the bill’s passage back in 2010, the Republican Party has stood in strident opposition to a supposedly Stanliesque health reform law that was inspired by… the Heritage Foundation: a Republican think tank that over a decade ago proposed the idea of mandated individual health insurance. Among the GOP’s most vociferous opponents of Obamacare has been Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas who is aiming for the title of senate Wingnut Royale. Cruz has made headlines of late by defiantly claiming that he’ll find a way to destroy Obamacare even in the face of procedural impossibilities in the Senate.

Cruz’s Quixotic quest to defund the health care law is, in large part, a rhetorical attempt to regurgitate just enough political innards into the gaping maws of his nested Tea Party backers in exchange for their continued support. But Cruz’s anti-Obamacare stance is also standard politics for a conservative politician from the South: Cruz, as did many southerners in the past, opposes social welfare programs. Historically, however, conservative southerners’ opposition to welfare has been far from total; rather, as scholars like Lisa Disch and many others have observed, it has been selective along lines of class and, especially, race.

Earlier this summer Salon published an excerpt from Sasha Abramsky’s new book, The American Way of Life: How the Other Half Still Lives, that details the South’s historical opposition to the safety net. Abramsky notes that the U.S. as a whole, but particularly the South, stood against social welfare in the nineteenth century, even as European nations worked to implement early safety nets:

In the United States…support for such reforms remained more tenuous. True, an array of progressive political groups supported workers’ compensation laws by the early twentieth century. And by 1917, with the Supreme Court having upheld the constitutionality of these laws, thirty-seven states had systems in place, most of them compulsory. In fact, as a region, only the Deep South had completely neglected to implement compensation schemes for at least some categories of injured workers.

Some minor state-level tinkering aside, Abramsky observes that it took the Great Depression to loosen the U.S.’s opposition to the safety net and embrace FDR’s New Deal, especially in the South. Opponents of mandated social programs:

[A]rgued that the imposition of mandates on working Americans, forcing them to pay into a system to support the elderly and to provide medical coverage for the sick, was foreign to the country’s founding principles. What was happening in Europe was, they argued, too paternalistic, too coercive. Moreover, in a land of great social mobility and endless opportunity such systems were unnecessary. Keep them for the ossified Old World—keep them for places where one’s station in life was determined by one’s parentage.

This excerpt, however, neglects the important role race played in shaping Southern — and American — opposition to social welfare. After all, the U.S. did, in fact, implement welfare policies before the New Deal. As historian Elna Green writes, the Civil War produced the first great shift towards social welfare in the form of veterans’ pensions that covered soldiers and their immediate families and dependants. By 1893, 40 percent of the Federal budget was reserved for Union veterans’ pensions. Former Confederate soldiers were exempt from Federal soldiers’ pensions, but white conservative southern politicians who “redeemed” the South after Reconstruction implemented state pension programs similar to those at the Federal level.*

The Confederate pensions started small, but grew thanks to the influence of the Lost Cause movement, which Green defines as “an emotional defense of the [Confederate] war effort, slavery, the Confederacy, and the superiority of southern civilization.”* Rebel pensions set a precedent for defining social welfare as for whites only, laying the groundwork for the notion that the safety net was okay for some — but not all — that still influences modern southern conservatives.

Florida, for example, funded its 1909 Confederate Pension Law via property taxes that drew from white and black landowners, even though African-Americans did not serve as Rebel soldiers and were therefore ineligible for veterans’ benefits. By taxing blacks to pay for white pensions, Florida justified the existence of social welfare on grounds that it benefited whites at blacks’ expense. By enacting welfare in the form of Confederate veterans’ benefits, the state hedged against any potential black agitation for welfare benefits.* As Green notes, defining social welfare in racial terms “allowed Southern states to create extensive and expansive social welfare programs, without appearing to do so.”* Pensions for poor whites were earned through service, but welfare for blacks constituted racial entitlements.

Conservative southerners continued this line of thought in their approach to Social Security in the 1930s. Southern Democrats chaffed at the idea of redistributing money from whites to supposedly indolent blacks, and worried that extending federal Social Security benefits to blacks would discourage them from working as peons in the South’s fields, factories, and domiciles. In order to gain the support of powerful Southern Democrats for the program, Franklin D. Roosevelt ensured that Social Security excluded agricultural laborers and domestic servants, over 60 percent of whom were, not coincidently, black. Thus, conservative southerners embraced Social Security as long as it benefited whites only. As with Confederate pensions, the issue of race influenced conservatives’ support for social welfare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): arch-foe of Obamacare.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): (Deluded?) arch-foe of Obamacare.

Today’s southern conservative politicians, such as Ted Cruz, are not unabashed racists like their political forerunners. But modern Republicans’ opposition to the welfare state is still deeply influenced by the racial issues that have long been at the heart of conservative approaches to the safety net. Indeed, much of Cruz’s opposition to Obamacare stems from his hawkish stance on immigration. He’s claimed, for example, that a quirk in the law exempts non-citizens from coverage and therefore encourage businesses to hire newly amnestied illegals over U.S. citizens. This assertion has been disputed, but Cruz’s claim is symbolically significant because it echoes historical southern conservative warnings that social welfare benefits should be endorsed with caution, lest those benefits flow to undeserving, non-white “others.”

Now, I don’t think Cruz is a racist: he is, after all, the son of a (nutty) Cuban refugee. But with his stance against Obamacare, he’s playing to the larger conservative electorate’s conditional opposition to social welfare, which is based on the fear that welfare’s benefits might go to undeserving blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. Consider, for example, the return of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “Welfare Queen” story during the 2012 presidential election. This old myth served as a rallying point for conservatives fighting against Barack Obama’s liberal welfare state supposedly doling out benefits to non-white “takers.” The “Welfare Queen” meme still exists despite the fact that food stamp usage is REALLY high in Red States, especially among conservative whites, and that conservative Red States generally take in more in federal dollars than they pay into the system.

Cruz’s and the Republican Tea Party’s opposition to the safety net, whether in the form of Obamacare or Food Stamps, draws on a historical legacy of southern conservatism’s opposition to social welfare’s benefits going to the “wrong” people. The fight over the American welfare state has never been waged along simple lines of “for” and “opposed.” So the next time you hear shouts about “limited government,” remember to ask: “limited government for whom?”

* Elna C. Green, “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case-Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History 39 (Summer, 2006): 1079, 1085-6, 1082.