Tag Archives: Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan and the Historical Myth of the Undeserving Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological "truths."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological “truths.”

If you’re poor in America, Wisconsin’s favorite Social Security-collecting, Ayn Rand worshipping Congresscritter thinks it’s your own fault. Why does Paul Ryan blame people for their own poverty, you may ask? After all, as I discussed in a previous post, being poor is absolutely terrible: it leaves you wracked with financial insecurity; it flattens your self-confidence, and it’s bad for your health. But despite the general awfulness of poverty, guys like Paul Ryan and his army of ideologically like-minded right-wing goons still think that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. And in the U.S., what you look like (hint: what box you check when asked if you’re “black” or “white”) matters a whole lot when it comes to discussing being poor.

Paul Ryan and other conservatives know this all too well; in recent decades, they’ve made plenty of electoral hay out of playing up the long historical connection between race and poverty in America. Recently, Ryan was a guest on the Morning in America radio show of conservative moral crusader – and full-time gambler – Bill Bennett, where he discussed the long-running War on Poverty. When the discussion moved to the inner city (an American phrase that’s code for “black people”), Ryan cited the bogus theories of right-wing social scientist Charles Murray – who believes that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites – to claim that inner city poverty stems from a culture of laziness on the part of African-Americans.

You see, Ryan, Murray, and plenty of other Americans think that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work. They think that lazy people can’t get jobs, so instead they get on public welfare doles. And historically, blacks and other minorities have had the high rates of poverty in the U.S. Thus, in the minds of Ryan and his ilk, “the poor” is often used as a stand-in phrase for “black people,” or other minorities, who’re allegedly stuck in “poverty traps” because they don’t have enough initiative to work. End of story.

This is why conservatives are hostile to the idea of welfare and why they score political points among many white voters when they talk about shredding the safety net. As the mighty Paul Krugman notes in the New York Times: “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.” In American history, race is utterly inseparable from class. When you talk about one, you have to talk about the other. Conservatives know this. By invoking images of lazy black people to white voters for political gain, they’re tapping into a long-held national myth that casts America as the forever “Land of Opportunity,” where not making it economically is, to paraphrase popular philosopher Jimmy Buffett, your own damn fault.

Of course, things have never been that simple. As historian Gary Nash explains in the book Down and Out in Early America,”the great myth of early American history is that scarce labor in a land-rich environment eliminated poverty.” Nash writes that Americans don’t want to discuss poverty because the very concept “is offensive to the notion of a people of plenty, an insult to the bounteous natural resources of North America, a puzzlement to those who believe in the untrammeled equality of opportunity” and “an embarrassment to those who trumpet American classlessness and exceptionalism.”* But even in the eighteenth century – the century of revolution – there was poverty. Lots of it. The streets of early America were strewn not only with widows, orphans, the disabled, and the sick – groups traditionally prone to poverty – but also with thousands of able-bodied men and women. This trend only accelerated with the rise of the industrial era and continues into the twenty-first century.*

Quite simply: the poor have always been with us, and being poor in America has always been an awful state of being. The reasons for American poverty have varied over time, but two points stand out: 1.) non-white people have often been poorer than whites and 2.) living in a land of plenty doesn’t help when you’re denied access to political rights and economic resources by those who use force and privilege to play by their own rules and keep a bigger share of the American economic apple pie.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Let’s just consider a few general examples, shall we? Native-Americans continue to live in some of the most poverty-stricken conditions in America. African-Americans have tended to fare better in recent decades, but the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America continues to be vast – and it’s still widening. Now what types of experiences could blacks and Native people have possibly shared during the long formation of modern America?

Well, native tribes were, from the colonial era well into the twentieth century, forcefully removed from their ancestral lands (most notably under Andrew Jackson, champion of  democracy for all white men) and relocated onto reservations that – thanks to government indifference – became sites of generationally reoccurring poverty. And they were the lucky ones when you consider that hundreds-of-thousands of other native people were exterminated under U.S. government policies that were, by any measurement, genocidal. Those who survived endured, and still endure, prejudice and discrimination even after they gained franchise rights. In the twenty-first century, counties with American Indian reservations still contain some of the highest percentages of people living in poverty in the U.S. Considering the historical background, is that much of a surprise?

African-Americans endured similar violence and subjugation throughout much of U.S. history. First brought to the American colonies as slaves, blacks endured generations as human property that was bought, sold, and abused by whites who supposedly lived by the creed that “All Men are Created Equal.” Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks spent another generation fighting for political and social rights as free people. From the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid-twentieth century, white America denied blacks full access to political and economic equality, and anti-black prejudice was enforced by the swords of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he's lying down!

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he’s lying down!

Even as southern blacks left the countryside for the cities during the Great Migration, whites used, and continue to use, tactics like redlining, white flight, discriminatory tax incentives, and mortgage discrimination to drain wealth out of the cities and limit economic opportunities for blacks trapped therein. Should it be any surprise, then, that poverty has historically been high in black communities? No, it shouldn’t.

It’s easy to say that history is in the past, and that the past shouldn’t be used as an excuse for conditions in the present. But those who spout variations of that sentiment are often, not coincidently, white males who have never been on the historical receiving end of apartheid, genocide, forced labor, cultural decimation, disenfranchisement, and mass discrimination. This isn’t to say that individual Native-Americans and African-Americans haven’t reached levels of success in American society. They have. Nor am I saying that white Americans haven’t endured – and continue to endure – grinding poverty. They have.

But those like Paul Ryan, who continue to insist that poverty is the pure result of some sort of cultural (or racial) defect, and not the result of a multiplicity of structural issues – not least of which is the concentration of American wealth and political power into fewer and fewer hands – are polluting public discourse with claims that stem not from reality, but from ideology. Conservatives shy away from the structural reasons for poverty because these reasons expose critical flaws in their conceptions of free-market capitalism as the organic, natural, and just way to organize a society.

Capitalism has many virtues and, when properly regulated by the state or other appropriate forces, it can improve the standard of living for millions of people. But as a system designed and implemented by flawed humans, capitalism is not immune to the worst of all human instincts: greed and the will to dominate others. For Paul Ryan to recognize these realities would entail a re-examination of his cherished faith in unfettered market forces and a recognition that, as a white guy, he and others like him have had it made for quite some time.

* See Gary B. Nash, “Poverty and Politics in Early American History,” in Billy G. Smith, ed., Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1-14.


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

Horatio Alger’s Long Shadow: Blaming the Poor in American History

Upon viewing this sign,  Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to

Upon viewing this sign, Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” was reported to have metaphorically spun in his empty grave.

Have you ever been poor? Have you ever lived in a state of poverty where the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, and income security barely existed? If not, then count yourself lucky. Really lucky. Because being poor is awful. It’s not just damaging to every aspect of your physical health and well-being; it’s also psychologically damaging in that being poor tends to reinforce a sense of despair that leads to viewing poverty as an inescapable trap. In a column for Pacific Standard, Paul Hiebert recently reported on a new Harvard study that explains how poverty reinforces itself:

Being broke is tough. Not only does a lack of money restrict what you can do, but now your survival also involves an endless amount of compromise over the most basic of goods and services…it’s like browsing the Internet while your computer downloads a file, ad infinitum. It’s impossible to stop dwelling on unpaid utility bills when you have absolutely no idea how you’re going to pay them.

Yet, for all of the physical and mental misery that poverty causes, a huge chunk of Americans continue to blame the poor for being poor, with some particularly repugnant Sarlaccs even going so far as to claim that poor people enjoy being poor. This type of thinking is not only morally vacuous, it’s also contrary to significant evidence that a host of structural problems, including income inequality and the devaluing of wages, are to blame for the existence of poverty in the United States.

Yet blaming the poor for their condition remains a central tool in the arsenal of American conservatives like pestilent boil and spewer of septic radio sludge Rush Limbaugh, who routinely claims that the poor simply “don’t want to work.” A variant of this theme echoes at the top levels of government. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example, justifies his plans to shred the American safety net by claiming that “it lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency” and  “drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Ryan, a guy who got a big boost early on from Social Security and has amassed a fair share of government subsidies, never provides evidence for this assertion.

On the one hand, its easy to characterize the “blame the poor” trend as yet another example of conservatives’ perpetual aversion to nuance in favor of black-and-white thinking. But the idea that the poor are poor due to their own moral failings has a long history and is deeply entrenched in American culture. The reason for the “blame the poor” response is rooted in the persistence of “rags to riches,” or “bootstrap” mythology, which postulates that America is the land of political and economic freedom in which even the poorest and humblest individual can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieve economic success. In this vision of American society, those who fail to succeed have only themselves to blame, since America afforded them every opportunity for success in exchange provided they work hard.

No American made more hay out of the “bootstrap” myth than the nineteenth-century author Horatio Alger, Jr. During the Gilded Age, Alger wrote hundreds of cheap, juvenile novels that espoused the “rags to riches” theme. Alger’s works, especially his most famous book, Ragged Dick (1868), were fictional accounts of young boys born into poverty who nonetheless achieved economic success in American society through a potent combination of hard work, determination, self-reliance, and an embracing of capitalist virtues. Alger’s novels were simplified depictions of individuals who achieved the American dream: the idea that because the U.S. eschewed the inherited wealth of Old Europe, hard work and self-reliance would ensure that even Americans from the humblest beginnings could achieve social and economic success — maybe even become president. Thus, Alger helped promulgate the myth of the “self-made man.”

Alger’s writings are painfully lacking in nuance, but they struck a chord with Gilded Age readers — and continue to indirectly influence contemporary Americans — because the cultural view of the United States as the “land of opportunity” is based, to a point, on historical truths. Especially in the nineteenth century, the U.S. did indeed provide much opportunity to both American-born citizens and immigrants from all over the world who took advantage of its dynamic capitalist system to achieve success.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

On the other hand, Alger’s depiction of the American dream was also stunningly simplistic to the point where he largely ignored the other realities of Gilded Age American life. These included the monopolistic practices of trust-forming big businesses that stifled competition, the rampant urban and rural poverty experienced by millions, and a thoroughly corrupted political system in which big business aligned itself with the state to crush labor rights and enact protectionist policies that mocked the concept of “free markets.” In an era when the rise of massive, vertically integrated and politically connected corporations threatened market competition and seemed on the verge of perpetuating a permanently impoverished laboring class, Horatio Alger’s “bootstrap” myth was more than just harmless fantasy, it also gave those with the most economic power an excuse to blame the poor for their condition.

The influence of the Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into the hands of tycoons who bought into Social Darwinist ideas about human society. Adopting a pseudo-scientific idea that, when taken to its logically illogical conclusion, nearly wiped out much of the human race, Social Darwinists wrongheadedly applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human social organization. Thus, “intellectual” nitwits like Herbert Spencer (the mutton-chopped ogre who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and about whom I wrote in an earlier post) claimed that capitalism was the perfect, organic system for separating the human wheat from the human chaff. The Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into Social Darwinists’ hands by providing a cultural template that explained in simple fashion why those who worked hard could succeed in America, and why those that failed to succeed simply didn’t work hard enough.

The steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose free-market hypocrisy I described in a an earlier blogpost, was among the most vociferous proponents of Social Darwinism via laissez-faire capitalism. But he often wrapped his paternalistic ideas in rhetoric that stressed the moral duties of businessmen to give back to their communities in the form of philanthropy. Carnegie’s support for philanthropy allowed him to maintain power over workers while simultaneously claiming that he was looking after their best interests. Implicit in his ideology was the idea of the capitalist marketplace as moral playing field: because he had lived the Alger dream, having risen from rags to riches as a Scottish immigrant to America, others who failed to do the same should not be rewarded with welfare that allegedly fueled idleness.

In his essay the Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie claimed that the charge of the wealthy paternalist was to guide and look after his workers. The “duty of the man of wealth,” he wrote, was to act as the “mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” The paternalistic undertones of this quote are laid bare when you consider Carnegie’s hard-line anti-union stance and his obsessive desire to get the most out his workers for the least possible amount of pay. 

Carnegie believed that workers should have as little control over their own destinies as possible. Unions and higher wages threatened his power as a “superior” employer, which is why he preferred them to be beholden to “better” men like himself who had proved their worth via the marketplace. Implicit in Carnegie’s words is the idea of workers as men who failed Alger’s “bootstrap” test. Carnegie’s ideology was not lost on workers. In 1894, an anonymous “workman” published a brutally satirical response to Carnegie in a Pittsburgh labor paper:

Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie…Oh, lord and master, we love thee because you and other great masters of slaves favor combines and trusts to enslave and make paupers of us all. We love thee though our children are clothed in rags. We love thee though our wives . . .

Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves. . . Oh, master, we need no protection, we need no liberty so long as we are under thy care. So we command ourselves to thy mercy and forevermore sing thy praise.

Carnegie’s union-busting and support for wage-slavery was “blame the poor” ideology in action. He had no trouble establishing libraries and donating musical instruments to the poor, but giving them agency over their own labor was another thing entirely. As Carnegie noted in the Gospel of Wealth, recognizing workers’ rights or giving out too much welfare risked enabling “lesser” members of the human race to promulgate their laziness. “Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving,” he noted, “those worthy of assistance…seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change.” With those lines, Carnegie, ever the true Social Darwinist, claimed that “valuable” people didn’t need handouts and that the poor got what they deserved, a type of rhetoric that still thrives in contemporary American conservative circles.

Carnegie’s and other Gilded Age tycoons’ inflated sense of their own superiority as achievers in business often overshadowed the simplicity of Alger’s “bootstrap” ideal. As the satirical “workman’s” letter recognized, Carnegie and his ilk employed trusts and cartels for the purpose of establishing monopolistic capitalism that thwarted market competition via consolidation and price-fixing and exploited workers to the point where advancement on the job was often a pipe dream.

The worst of this bunch were the railroad barons who, in the 1870s, organized themselves into price-fixing cartels that divided up rail traffic amongst themselves and set freight rates. When this scheme collapsed in the 1880s, the railroad barons instead controlled competition by jointly constructing massive, but shoddy rail networks in order to drive smaller competitors out of business. This was, of course, the same group of industrialists who urged the poor to make it on their own by pulling up their bootstraps and competing in the American free market.

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

The disconnect between the reality of structural hindrances to social and economic advancement and Horatio Alger’s myth of “bootstrap” advancement retains a pernicious influence on contemporary American society. As Time reported last year, the myth of “bootstrapping” continues to overshadow the growing difficulties of social mobility in the United States. Citing a Pew Research Study, Time’s Noliwe Rooks reported that:

Social mobility between the lowest levels of American society and the middle class is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next.

If Americans ever want to get serious about alleviating poverty, they’re going to have to seriously drop the outdated Horatio Alger “bootstrap” myth and recognize that while capitalism does indeed create wealth and provide a better standing of living for many people, it’s also a system created by humans that can be subjected to the worst human ideas. We’ve all met lazy people, but they do not represent the reality of the poor in America. Most of the poor in America are the working poor, whose hopes for social advancement have been steadily diminished by structural attacks on unions and wages, lack of flexibility with regards to health insurance, and the race-to-the-bottom style of twenty-first century globalization.

Yet, despite all of the structural issues contributing to income inequality and poverty, and despite the effects of the Great Recession, Horatio Alger keeps peering out from the closed curtains of the past, insisting that those faced with daunting unemployment pick themselves up by their bootstraps and just get a job already. The “bootstrap” myth resurfaces in criticisms of supposed millennial generation sloth, in Republican dismissals of alleged “lazy blacks” who don’t want to work, and, of course, in conservative claims that the “working poor” don’t exist. The clowns who lob such simplistic statements with gleeful abandon still subscribe to the Alger “bootstrap” myth, and, like the Gilded Age tycoons before them, they’re too concerned with consolidating the power of the ruling plutocracy to look beyond such black-and-white views. The only way to end the “blame the poor” trend is to kill Horatio Alger once and for all, which, as history has shown, is easier said than done.

The GOP, the Debt Ceiling, and the History of Killing Political Legitimacy

Poster advertising a "Save the Union" meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

Poster advertising a “Save the Union” meeting, Frederick, Maryland, September, 1860.

The situation was unprecedented in scope. The conservative party in America, its hardcore base mostly relegated to the South, had just suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a lawyer and political progressive from Illinois won the U.S. presidency along mostly sectional lines, carrying primarily northern and west coast states. In response to the stinging rebuke of their policies by the majority of the American people, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the presidential election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. In so doing, the conservative party in America waged war against democracy itself.

Does this sound familiar? If you pay any attention to history, it should. But I’m not talking about the current showdown in Washington over the debt ceiling, in which the congressional Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, is demanding that President Barack Obama agree to defund his signature health care reform law or else they will shut down the government. Rather, in the above paragraph, I was referring to the fallout from the election of 1860, in which the conservative southern Democratic Party decided that rather than accept the election of Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln as president, the southern states would reject his election entirely and secede from the Union.

The two situations are not identical, but they share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by a conservative political party to deny the very political legitimacy of its opponent. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” That should be clear to anyone observing the current debt ceiling fiasco.

As the summer of 2013 winds down, the idea that a president who just won reelection would cave to the insane demands of a small, right-wing minority in the House, is, of course, ludicrous, but the Republican Party isn’t interested in shaping policy here. They’re doing something far more symbolic and destructive: like the southern Democratic Party secessionists of 1860-61, the conservative Republican radicals in the House are testing just how far they can get away with denying the current Democratic Party’s right to govern.

As Jonathan Chait observes in a recent piece for New York Magazine, the debt ceiling showdown is:

[A] Constitutional struggle, a kind of quasi-impeachment, that will test Obama’s mettle and, next to his reelection campaign, poses the most singular threat to his presidency.

The progression of events begins with a dynamic I described in a print piece at the beginning of 2012 – conservatives had come to regard the 2012 race as their last chance to win an election as authentic conservatives against a rising Democratic majority. Since their crushing defeat, they have ignored the task of refurbishing the party’s national appeal for its next national electoral bid, and instead have recommitted themselves to waging increasingly millenarian confrontations from their existing red state power base in Congress.

Most of us expected, at some level, that the election would cool the right’s apocalyptic fervor. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Paul Ryan candidly explained the calculation: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This is a remarkable confession. Republicans need to compel Obama to accept their agenda, not in spite of the fact that the voters rejected it at the polls but precisely for that reason.

Paul Ryan’s confession that for conservatives, a legitimate national election in which voters rejected their policies should be no impediment to Republicans trying to enact those very policies at any cost is indeed remarkable. Yet, it makes perfect sense when you consider that, as political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is the very essence of conservatism. Recent political commentators’ revelations about the nature of the American right, Robin writes, are completely on target. Conservatism, he reminds us:

[L]ives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions… it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate…it’s activist rather than accommodating…it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

This preference for purity of ideology and rejection of compromise defines modern conservatism (and by “modern” in this context, I mean the conservatism that goes back to the reaction against the French Revolution) and helps explain the striking parallels between the debt ceiling showdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a reactionary conservative party, divided amongst itself  but nonetheless fearful that’s its grip on national power was slipping away, sought to use radical measures to prevent its political opponents from governing, despite their opponents having been victorious in democratic elections.

Take the issue of party division: contemporary political commentators have noted that the debt ceiling fight over Obamacare has spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives find themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Speaker of the House John Boener (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is threatening to shut down the Federal government.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) leads a Republican caucus that is the equivalent of political arsonists.

Similar party divisions over how best to preserve slavery against the northern based Republican Party split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 presidential election. As a result of this split, Abraham Lincoln faced three Democratic challengers: the pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John C. Breckinridge, whose support was strongest in the slave-heavy Deep South, the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell, a moderate whose platform of compromise to keep the Union intact made him popular in the Border South, and Stephen Douglas of “popular sovereignty” fame, who represented the last hope of the pro-Union Democratic Party in the North. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.

Southern support for the pro-slavery, states’ rights Breckinridge faction eventually spilled over into support for secession. By seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America, southern Democratic leaders flat-out rejected the results of a fair national election and denied the political legitimacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln to govern. Consider, for example, these lines from Georgia’s “Declaration of the Causes of Secession:”

The party of Lincoln, called the Republican party, under its present name and organization, is of recent origin. It is admitted to be an anti-slavery party. While it attracts to itself by its creed the scattered advocates of exploded political heresies, of condemned theories in political economy, the advocates of commercial restrictions, of protection, of special privileges, of waste and corruption in the administration of Government, anti-slavery is its mission and its purpose. By anti-slavery it is made a power in the state.

Such are the opinions and such are the practices of the Republican party, who have been called by their own votes to administer the Federal Government under the Constitution of the United States. We know their treachery; we know the shallow pretenses under which they daily disregard its plainest obligations. If we submit to them it will be our fault and not theirs.

To avoid these evils we resume the powers which our fathers delegated to the Government of the United States, and henceforth will seek new safeguards for our liberty, equality, security, and tranquillity.

Now, compare Georgia’s desire to “seek new safeguards for our liberty” with a statement from Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) during the 2012 presidential election following one of multiple House Republican votes to repeal Obamacare:

I’m encouraged today to see the House of Representatives fulfill its intended role as the body closest to, and most ‘representative’ of, the American people.

House Republicans are delivering on their promise to do everything possible to prevent Obamacare, including continuing to work to defund the fatally flawed law.

The American people have been unmistakably clear in rejecting the notion of a socialized health care system, but have been unceremoniously ignored by this Administration. But make no mistake: President Obama has had his say; the Supreme Court has had its say; and the American people will have their say this November.

Just as the Georgia secession declaration claimed that the Lincoln administration had used “treachery” to gain control over the federal government and implement its anti-slavery agenda, Franks claimed that the Obama administration “unceremoniously ignored” the wishes of the American people by implementing Obamacare, and that the people would have their say by voting President Obama out of office in 2012. The American people, of course, HAD their say: but instead, they reelected President Obama, giving him every right to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.

So, when the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP resorted to taking the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP are now threatening to shut the country down in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they are following the advice of conservative ideologues, like tax policy advocate Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

This is what happened the last time democracy was voided in the U.S.

Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, is has the right to damage and destroy the democratic process in an effort to get its agenda recognized. Just as conservative Democrats denied Republican Abraham Lincoln’s right to govern in 1860-61 by seceeding from the Union, conservative Republicans in 2013 are denying Democrat Barack Obama’s right to govern by holding the federal government hostage.

The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s greatest democracy, the democratic process cannot be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who still maintain that conservatism, as an allegedly reactionary movement, cannot be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives show no signs of bucking this trend as they circle the House of Representatives carrying torches and kerosene.