Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

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

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America, Gay Marriage, and the Never-Ending 19th Century

Pro "Traditional Marriage" advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

“Traditional Marriage” advocates protest the legalization of same-sex marriage in Maryland. They had nothing better to do.

Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.

Yes-sir-ee-Bob, it might be the tail-end of 2014, but in many ways, Americans are still living in the long nineteenth century. Just look at some of the issues that have been causing a political brouhaha throughout the year: racial equality; gender equality; same-sex marriage; voting rights (?!); secession (the long-disregarded idea that states are independent political entities that can separate from the Federal Union whenever they see fit); nullification (the long-discredited idea that individual states have the power to overrule Federal law), and the evolving definition of what constitutes “family,” among others. If you know anything about U.S. history, then you know that each of these issues played a major role in shaping the culture of nineteenth-century America. Although the details varied with each issue, all of them involved a conflict over the definition of rights: who should have them and why.

In fact, the conflict over the expansion of rights is pretty much at the center of the American story, and Victorian-Era issues still exert a powerful influence on U.S. culture today. Among the contemporary issues that I’ve already listed, few have a more distinctly nineteenth-century flavor than marriage and the American family; or, more specifically, who has the right to define those terms. Which brings us to teh gayz. Yes, in contemporary America, nothing is scarier to some folks than the specter of two people of the same sex getting hitched. You see, marriage is a sacred institution that fuels sitcom jokes everywhere, and some people think that teh gayz should be denied the right to experience this holy sacrament/stand-up comedy staple.

One of the many ornery fellows out there who REALLY doesn’t like same-sex marriage is Douglas MacKinnon, a former aid to President Ronald Reagan. If anyone has a serious jonesing for the Victorian Era, it’s this guy. Recently, MacKinnon went on one of the nation’s infinitesimal number of right-wing radio shows to tout his new book, The Secessionist States of America: The Blueprint for Creating a Traditional Values Country … Now Ho boy. In this mind-expanding tome, MacKinnon argues that the conservative southern states should secede from the Union and form a new nation called “Reagan” (really) which would be a bastion for “traditional values” — and, possibly, Jelly Belly jelly beans. Now, MacKinnon spends a lot of time making a “legal” case for the fundamentally illegal act of secession — an idea that should have been settled after the Civil War but nonetheless keeps popping up in right-wing circles — but I’m not gonna’ focus on that part of his nineteenth-century worldview. Instead, I’m gonna’ focus on WHY he wants to form the nation of “Reagan:” to escape the gayness.

MacKinnon does not like anything that’s even remotely gay. “The world has been turned upside down if you do happen to believe in traditional values,” he whined. He went on to claim that:

If you happen to make a donation in favor of traditional marriage, you can lose your job. If you happen to refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple because it goes against your religious beliefs, you can be driven out of business. If you’re a football commentator and you happen to just say, innocently, that you know maybe I wouldn’t have drafted a gay football player because I wouldn’t want to deal with the distraction, many people on the left will try to drive you out of your job as well.

So MacKinnon REALLY doesn’t care for gay people, and he wants to inoculate himself from their nefarious gay influence by forming a new country that would take a stand for “traditional values,” and, more specifically, “traditional marriage” between one man and one woman. Indeed, keeping marriage limited to a man and a woman is the Alamo-call of many social conservatives, who like to claim that this type of marriage is “traditional,” because it’s “biblical” as well. For example, the Colorado-based advocacy group Focus on the Family asserts that “family is the fundamental building block of all human civilizations, and marriage is the foundation of the family.” They see marriage as being “under attack” by “the push for so-called same-sex ‘marriage’ and civil unions” that supposedly threaten the tradition of “male-female led families” that “have constituted the primary family units of human society.”

Other like-minded conservatives, such as celebrity pastor Rick Warren, claim that “traditional marriage” was “God’s intended, original design.” Never mind that the bible depicts all kinds of marital arrangements, including polygamy and women being sold into sexual slavery. For social conservatives, “God’s design” coincidentally coincides with their own, and they’ve amassed plenty of rhetorical and legislative ammunition to fight this battle in the larger culture war.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

The nineteenth century American family in all of its nuclear glory.

But here’s the problem: the ideal, “traditional” American nuclear family — a bread-winning husband, a stay-at-home wife, and their dependent children — that social conservatives view as a common thread that links America to biblical times is, in fact, a product of the bourgeoise notion of the family that emerged in the nineteenth century. During this period, distinct cultural separations between work and the home solidified, love and intimacy became (forgive me) wedded to the notion of marriage, and children came to be viewed not as smaller versions of adults, but as agents to be nurtured and protected from the outside world.

In her sweeping study Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian of the family Stephanie Coontz explains how, for much of history, marriage was primarily an “economic and political” transaction. From dowries to land deals; from property in assets to property in women; from forging political alliances to guaranteeing more workers for the family farm, marriage in different societies at different points in history had little to do with love and child-rearing. The notion that there was ever a single, “traditional” version of marriage geared towards consolidating romantic affection and maintaining nuclear family stability is a very modern concept.

As Coontz writes, “for centuries, marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Throughout much of history, marriage was deeply functional. “It organized the production and distribution of goods and people. It set up political, economic, and military alliances. It coordinated the division of labor by gender and age. It orchestrated people’s personal rights and obligations in everything from sexual relations to the inheritance of property,” Coontz notes.* Thus, in many ways, marriage was the foundation of civilizations, but not in the way social conservatives describe as a spiritual/moral bulwark against a corrupt outside world. That particular ideal of marriage and the family, which conservatives see as being threatened by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, is a product of nineteenth-century America — yet it’s an ideal of marriage and family relations that we still cling to today.

During the Victorian Era, the U.S. underwent a series of changes that fundamentally altered American life and paved the way for our contemporary society. Most significantly, the Market Revolution unleashed a trend towards an increasingly industrial, increasingly urban society that began undercutting the importance of family farms as self-sustaining economic units. This transition to a society based on industrial mass-production and mass-consumption spurred the growth of a middle class that placed a greater emphasis on leisure, romantic courtship, delegated gender roles, and the notion that children should be specially cared for in a domestic sphere that shielded them from the cold, public sphere of the marketplace. Basically, with increased leisure and affluence, and a decreased need for familial farm-hands, kids made the cultural transition from being miniature adults to “children” in need of nurturing.

Historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg detail the emergence of the modern family in their classic book, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. Released from earlier conceptions of the family as a ‘little commonwealth’ that acted as a “microcosm” of the larger society, the nineteenth century saw the family transform into a “‘haven in a heartless world,’ a bastion of morality and tender feeling” that was separate from the “aggressive and selfish world of commerce.” Mintz and Kellogg also note that during this period, marriage became more explicitly identified as the natural reflection of romantic relations between husbands and wives.* This is how American social conservatives — and much of the general population — continues to view marriage today. When they say that allowing gays and lesbians to marry threatens the “traditional,” “biblical” concept of marriage, what they’re really saying is that they’ve accepted a particular ideal of marriage and the family that emerged in a very specific time-period — and they don’t want to give it up.

Although additional visions of the family influenced American life throughout the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Victorian, bourgeoise notion of the nuclear family became especially appealing to Americans in the post-World War II era. During this period, the recent memory of the most violent conflict in world history, coupled with the threat of the emerging Cold War nurtured a preference for the “traditional family” as a shelter of love and protection from a hostile outside world.

The Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom "Leave it to Beaver." Seriously, was any family ever like this?!

The nuclear Cleaver family as depicted on the sitcom “Leave it to Beaver.” No gays allowed!

Stephanie Coontz notes that the resurgence of the nuclear family ideal in the post-war period was bolstered by vanilla 1950s sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which reinforced the ideal of the breadwinner father, the homemaker mother, and those adorably dependent kids. Of course, just as the Victorian Era saw the growth of a new leisure class, the post-war boom in employment and the attendant growth in consumer spending allowed Americans to once again populate their homes with store-bought goodies and plenty of family love that stood as a solid reef in the bigger, scarier, more tempestuous Cold War-era ocean. “Putting their mouths where their money was,” Coontz writes, “Americans consistently told pollsters that home and family were the wellsprings of their happiness and self-esteem.”*

Of course, as Coontz notes, the messy reality of family life in the fifties was far more complex, but the ideal of the perfect, financially secure, Wonderbread white, and decidedly not-gay American nuclear family lives on in contemporary society. The loss of this supposed family ideal is what conservatives lament when the rail against gay marriage. And however they frame this ideal, either as “traditional” or “biblical,” they’re yearning for an ideal of marriage and family life that only emerged in the nineteenth century and became more entrenched in the post-World War II era. Of course, conservatives tend to prefer a worldview based on clear-cut hierarchies and black-and-white moral divisions, so they’re likely to perish — Ahab-style — chasing the anti-gay marriage white whale in a sea of historical nuance. This is unfortunate, because those wishing to strengthen American family bonds would do well to permit all loving couples to marry, gay or straight. After all, the fate of civilization hangs in the balance, no?

* See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin, 2005), 9.

* See Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), xv.

* See Stephanie Coontz, The Way we Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 25.

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.

The Republican Party, Race-Baiting, and Reconstruction’s Legacy

A campaign button worn by so-called "Reagan Democrats:" blue collar white northerners worried that Democrats had caved to black interests.

A 1984 Reagan-Bush campaign button worn by so-called “Reagan Democrats:” blue-collar white northerners worried that Democrats had caved to black interests.

Its become a truism in modern American politics that the Republican Party traffics in coded racial resentment. Dog-whistle phrases like “taxes,” “welfare,” “food stamps,” “dependency,” “entitlement reform,” or, if you’re the non-too-subtle former Pennsylvania senator Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” have helped relay the message to status-anxiety ridden working and middle class whites that the GOP will protect them from the welfare scrounging black hordes.

With good reason, the GOP’s use of racial resentment to win votes is considered a twentieth-century century phenomenon, but it also has deep roots in the nineteenth century Reconstruction era, when the intersection of race and class planted the seeds of racial resentment that show a clear link between the party of Abraham Lincoln and the party of, well, the Tea Party.

In terms of twentieth-century century politics, conservative racial dog whistling is the legacy of the so-called “Southern Strategy:” the campaign by Republican operatives to court the political support of traditionally Democratic white southerners by appealing to their latent, and not-so-latent racism against African-Americans. In the 1960s the Democratic Party, aligned with some moderate northern Republicans, embraced the Civil Rights movement. But taking the high road on civil rights was a big political risk: President Lyndon Johnson famously stated that signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would cost the Democratic Party southern white support for a generation, and he was, in many ways, correct.

Republicans operatives like the notorious Lee Atwater turned Democrats’ embracing of civil rights into a vote-getting strategy that played on the racial resentment of southern and northern whites and turned them into solid Republicans. These efforts first bore conservative fruit in Richard Nixon’s 1968 landslide “law and order” election, but the “Southern Strategy” continued to reap electoral harvest in the 1980s by creating blocs of blue-collar, white, conservative “Reagan Democrats” who switched parties to propel the Gipper to back-to-back terms in the White House.

The culmination of the “Southern Strategy,” however, came after Reagan, in the form of the so-called “Republican Revolution” of 1994 that saw the now largely southernized GOP, led by a degenerate, rotten Georgia peach named Newt Gingrich take control of Congress for the first time in forty years. Since 1994, the southernization of the GOP has spread beyond Dixie, making the southern politics of resentment a country-wide phenomenon. In the era of Barack Obama, the Tea Party infused GOP is anchored by a radically conservative wing that draws its strongest support from rural areas inside, and outside of, the South.

So effective has been the “Southern Strategy” at creating an army of dedicated troglodytes fuelled in part by racial resentment that Salon’s Joan Walsh, in an intentionally provocative article, argues that the current government shutdown over Obamacare is rooted in the modern GOP’s penchant for race-baiting:

You’ll read lots of explanations for the [shutdown] dysfunction, but the simple truth is this: It’s the culmination of 50 years of evolving yet consistent Republican strategy to depict government as the enemy, an oppressor that works primarily as the protector of and provider for African-Americans, to the detriment of everyone else. The fact that everything came apart under our first African-American president wasn’t an accident, it was probably inevitable.

There’s no question that much of Walsh’s assertion rings true, but it suggest that the Republican Party’s transition from the Civil War era party of emancipation and black political rights into the party of white racial resentment was a deeply radical shift. But this transformation wasn’t as revolutionary as Wash and others think. In fact, racial resentment over issues of welfare and work go all the way back to the nineteenth century and Reconstruction, drawing a clear — if not always straight — line from Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass to Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party.

In her excellent book The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, historian Heather Cox Richardson explains that the potent interconnectedness of free labor, class conflict, and race laid the groundwork for the Republican Party’s abandonment of African-Americans by linking the unappealing idea of welfare to blackness. The Republican Party was founded on the notion of free labor; that an individual’s own hard work and dedication would enable them to rise to success in an equal-opportunity capitalist market system. Free labor ideology assumed a harmony between labor and capital based on the belief that each had a shared investment in increased production and national economic growth.

Other groups of Americans, however, such as northern factory workers and former slaves in the South, pointed out that the relationship between labor and capital was often one of class conflict, not harmony. Freed people in the South knew this all too well; they faced economic resistance against their demands for land and fairly compensated labor from planters, sharecroppers, and northern investors seeking a compliant southern agricultural workforce. But southern blacks also faced political obstacles to their economic success: racially discriminatory southern laws known as Black Codes limited freed people’s ability to vote, testify in court, hold a job, and own land, and the rise of terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan further curtailed black civil rights.

January 1879 cartoon from Harper's Weekly despicting "Mr. Solid South" writing out the straegy of racial resentment:  The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites."

January 1879 cartoon from Harper’s Weekly depicting “Mr. Solid South” writing out the strategy of racial resentment: “The Blak man orter be eddikated afore he kin vote with us Wites.”

In response to these abuses, African-Americans called on the Republican Party controlled federal government to redress these outrages. Blacks demanded that the Freedmen’s Bureau — a federal agency formed to assist African-Americans’ transition from slavery to freedom — grant them access to land, and they demanded that Republicans enforce black civil rights and provide access to social services like education when necessary. Many northern Republicans viewed such demands as evidence that southern blacks rejected the free labor ideal and its notions of self-reliance and hard work.*

As Cox Richardson writes, southern blacks’ demands for economic and political justice fuelled “Northern anxiety about an expanding government in the hands of those unwilling to work, who would enact welfare-type legislation to confiscate the property of the true workers in America.”* It was this idea, that blacks only wanted welfare at someone else’s (read: white people’s) expense, that provided much justification for the 1877 Republican retreat from Reconstruction, in which federal troops were removed from the South and racist southern Democrats regained “home rule” and passed laws relegating blacks to second class citizenship.

What Cox Richardson calls the “Northern abandonment of those African-Americans who seemed to reject the free labor system of political economy in favor of exploiting government for their own ends” is the same fear that led to the “Southern Strategy” catching fire with northern and southern working and middle class whites who flocked to the GOP in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.*

Indeed, concerns that black “young bucks” and “welfare queens” were taking advantage of government to mooch from hard-working (read: white) Americans have driven Republican voter turnouts from the successful Nixon campaign to the failed Romney campaign. Racial resentment is also a significant factor in the Tea Party movement that has sunken its grubby maws into Republican congressional hides and driven the party to shut down the federal government in a hostage-taking effort to destroy Obamacare.

Contrary to popular thinking, the combustible mix of racial resentment and class conflict has been a significant influence on the Republican Party since the Reconstruction era. The legacy of Reconstruction, in turn, helps explain the clear connection between the party of Lincoln the “Great Emancipator,” and the party of anti-Obamacare, Tea Party numbscullery that is plaguing the American political system today.

See Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), xii-xiv, xii.

Obama Calling Lincoln: History as the Great Legitimizer

President Barack Obama meets "President Abe Lincoln" during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

President Barack Obama meets a fellow prairie stater, “President Abe Lincoln,” during a 2012 campaign rally in Iowa.

Over the summer, President Barack Obama made a series of speeches designed to drum up public and private support for better infrastructure investment as part of his broader long-term economic recovery plan. This speeches were mostly political, insofar as no such plan has any chance of squeezing through the fatalistic lunatic factory that is the current Republican controlled Congress. The president knows this, of course, but his speeches gave him the chance to do what all politicians do during their time in office: invoke history to legitimize the present…and the future.

At a  late July speech in Jacksonville, Florida, Obama resorted to some campaign-style rhetoric to blast Republican obstructionism on infrastructure spending. In doing so, the former little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president invoked a previous little known lawyer and state politician from Illinois who became president:

The first Republican President is a guy from my home state.  He was a pretty good President, named Abraham Lincoln.  (Laughter.) He had a whole lot of things to worry about — had a Civil War, probably the biggest crisis that this country ever experienced.  And yet, in the middle of that, he was still thinking about how do we build that Transcontinental Railroad?  How are we going to widen our canals and our ports so that we can move products all around the country and eventually the world?  How do we invest in land-grant colleges so that our workers are now skilled and can get those new jobs?  We’re going to invest in the National Science Foundation to make sure that we stay ahead of everybody else when it comes to technology.

He made those investments, the first Republican President.  He didn’t say, well, that’s not the job of government to help do that.  He wouldn’t have understood that kind of philosophy, because he understood there are some things we can only do together.  And rebuilding our infrastructure is one of them.

Obama has frequently used this tactic of highlighting his opposition’s past positions, which they now conveniently oppose, to expose political hypocrisy. It makes for great speechifying, given that the contemporary Republican Party is populated by anarchist trolls who would burn Dwight Eisenhower at the stake for communist sorcery and accuse Abraham Lincoln of ghost-writing for Friedrich Engels. But if infrastructure investment has no chance of getting through the Republican Congress, and the president most certainly knows this, why bother with the speechifying? Because it gives him the chance to legitimize his proposals and legacy via historical precedent.

For those out there who don’t think that history matters, consider Obama’s invoking of Lincoln to show why you are just so wrong. And he doesn’t just call up Old Abe: Obama has also invoked the Gipper, past master of the ‘stash and monocle, Teddy Roosevelt, arch Simpsons mayor parody source, JFK, and interstate highway aficionado, Dwight Eisenhower. Nor is Obama unique in referencing the legacy of historical figures. Ronald Reagan famously invoked 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop, Bill Clinton recently honored the spirit of Martin Luther King, and George W. Bush liked to reference permanent president of the whole spiritual universe, Jesus Christ, a guy who, like Bush, also got power from his dad.

So why do politicians invoke historical figures? They do it because humans value historical provenance. When something is old, it becomes more valuable, and this applies as much to political and cultural legacies as it does to antiques and religions (with age, for example, religions like Catholicism and Mormonism went from being fringe cults to respected world powers). History really does matter. Think about Abraham Lincoln’s iconic historical role in American culture: of course Obama wants to associate himself with that legacy. The same is true for every other American politician who has referenced respected figures from the past to boost their current agenda. Whether we always admit it or not, history matters to us. To quote Dr. Emmett L. Brown, history helps us explain “where we’ve been, where we’re going. The pitfalls and the possibilities. The perils and the promise. Perhaps even an answer to that universal question: why?”* Without an observance of history, we can’t begin to know any of that important stuff.

When something is old; when something has a history that a large number of people respect and admire, it becomes inherently more valuable. Remember this the next time your smarmy friend tells you that history only constitutes talking about what a bunch of dead guys did on a battlefield. Though it’s also that too. And battlefields are interesting, dammit!

*  See Back to the Future, Part II (1989).