Exclusive: Conservative columnist David Brooks can’t understand why right-wing Republicans are so determined to kill immigration reform, especially since the Senate-approved bill would boost the economy and cut the deficit. But Brooks ignores what might be called the white elephant in the room, Robert Parry reports.
By Robert Parry
Mainstream commentators endlessly dance around the obvious explanation for the Right’s intense anger against “guv-mint” – and indeed against any significant legislation that addresses the suffering of minorities and the poor, whether it’s immigration reform, health care or food stamps. That unspoken word is racism.
Racism is the subtext for many of the actions of the modern Right and the modern Republican Party. The mainstream media may desire to dress up the motivations as some principled commitment to small government, but both historically and currently, the insistence on a tightly constrained federal government has been about maintaining white supremacy.
That was true when slaveholders such as Patrick Henry and George Mason fought ratification of the Constitution because they perceived that the document’s concentration of power in the federal government – stripping the states of their “independence” and “sovereignty” as specified in the Articles of Confederation – would eventually doom slavery. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Dubious Claim to Madison.”]
Slavery, after all, was not just some peculiar institution, part of the South’s unique cultural heritage. It was the South’s dominant industry. It was where the Southern aristocrats had invested their money.
So, after the Anti-Federalists lost their fight against ratification of the Constitution, they went to Plan B; they quickly reorganized behind the charismatic figure of Thomas Jefferson, another slaveholder, to essentially redefine the Constitution away from its clear intent and to insert new theories about states’ rights, including the unconstitutional concept of state “nullification” of federal law. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Right’s Made-Up ‘Constitution.’”]
Their political success in this constitutional revisionism – with Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party putting Virginian defenders of slavery in the White House for 24 consecutive years from 1801 to 1825 – allowed the “small government” Jeffersonian philosophy to overwhelm the old Federalists who were the original advocates of the Constitution’s powers. The Federalists maintained some strongholds in the North but eventually faded from the political scene.
Throughout this pre-Civil War period, the maintenance of slavery was always twinned with an insistence on a constrained federal government, even to the point of the South opposing federal disaster relief for fear that the precedent could be used to free the slaves. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Source of Anti-Government Extremism.”]
Going to Extremes
Then, with the election of an anti-slavery president in Abraham Lincoln, the intensity of the South’s commitment to those twin attitudes – defense of slavery and hostility toward the federal government – led 11 Southern states to take the extreme step of seceding from the Union, inviting a devastating war.
And, the South’s bloody defeat did not extinguish those passions. If anything, the humiliation of losing the Civil War made the commitment even stronger.
When the federal government sought to restructure Southern society to give freed blacks education, an economic stake in the society and civil rights, the anger of Southern whites intensified. It was expressed in violent resistance to Reconstruction and in a cruel determination to reassert white dominance after Union troops withdrew in 1877.
After all, it takes real hatred to terrorize people because of the color of their skin, to lynch black men for almost any perceived offense, to rape black women to demonstrate their powerlessness, but that’s what was done across the South.
White racism had a particularly ugly side because the fury was not justified as some reaction to genuine oppression; it was rather an act of oppressing. Historically, whites had economic advantages over blacks and other minorities. If the circumstances were reversed, you might understand the ferocity of the behavior. But here was the oppressor acting out some vengeful victimhood.
To some white Southerners, their behavior was justified by the intrusion of the federal government on their “way of life.” You see, the federal government made them the “victims.” After Reconstruction, the fierceness of this white racism/victimhood – especially resistance to the idea that black people deserved full citizenship rights – continued for generations. It became a dominant feature of Southern life and spread to some areas of the North as well.
Even in my schoolbooks in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, you would find a sympathetic portrayal of slavery as mostly paternalistic and of the South’s “gallantry” in the Civil War – along with a contemptuous of view of Reconstruction, i.e. Northern “carpetbaggers” and freed blacks running roughshod over the genteel whites of the South.
Resisting Civil Rights
America’s institutionalized racism was finally challenged by the civil rights movement, but that provoked another spasm of fury from Southern whites. Their anger against renewed federal intervention led them to spit on black school children, bomb churches and murder civil rights activists.
Again, the whites conjured up resentment over their victimhood, persecuted by the intrusive federal government once more. Eventually, this white backlash might have petered out except for the recognition among opportunistic Republicans that they could use Democratic support for civil rights as the wedge to pry loose the Southern states from their traditional orientation toward the pro-slavery Democratic Party, the old party of Thomas Jefferson.
So, Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” used racial code words to signal Republican sympathy for Southern whites, a technique that was even more ably applied by Ronald Reagan who launched his national presidential campaign in 1980 with a speech on states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of a notorious lynching of three civil rights workers. In his aw shucks style, Reagan also joked about “welfare queens” buying vodka with food stamps.
But mostly the Republicans sealed the deal with Southern whites by presenting the GOP as the party of “limited government,” i.e. the ones who would keep federal authorities out of the South’s “business,” particularly its race relations. In that way, “small government conservatism” and “libertarianism” became the new code words for the maintenance of white supremacy.
Of course, the Republicans also reached out to some other interest groups, such as cultural conservatives by supporting new government restrictions on women’s reproductive rights. But the intensity of the Right’s activism – especially as it is aimed at the first African-American president – can be best understood as a renewed expression of white grievances, the desire to “take our country back.”
Both the Civil War and the battle against integration also were rationalized by their apologists of the day as principled stands against the overreach of the federal government, not as expressions of racism. To this day, many Southerners insist that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about “states’ rights.” They make that claim although slavery’s perpetuation was explicitly included in the constitution of the Confederate States and the Confederate insistence on continuing slavery was a final sticking point in surrender negotiations in 1865.
So, the intensity of the Tea Party and other extremist groups can be understood as the latest eruption of the same race hatred that led to the Civil War, Jim Crow and the resistance to integration in the 1950s and 1960s.
Weeping for Insurance Industry
These predominantly white groups again insist that their fury is about the federal government – not about race or the color of Barack Obama’s skin. But there is really no other way to explain why so many white folks would get into such a snit over, say, defending the health insurance industry against federal regulation.
Except for a few people who are lucky enough to work for companies that offer “Cadillac” insurance plans, I don’t know anyone who thinks the current insurance system makes sense. It leaves families uncertain about what medical conditions are covered and to what extent they are covered – and it ties up doctors with endless paperwork, including hiring staff to be kept on hold by insurance companies as they figure out how they can deny coverage for some medical procedure.
Yet, in 2009, when President Obama embraced a Republican-devised scheme for reforming the health-insurance industry and providing coverage to millions of Americans without health insurance, the Tea Party and the Right erupted in fury. The anger was so hot that the Heritage Foundation, which had dreamt up the scheme, and Mitt Romney, who had pioneered its use in Massachusetts, had to hastily disown what was then decried as “a government takeover” of the health industry.
What made no sense about the intensity of this reaction was that a group of white middle-class Americans would be so committed to the interests of widely despised health insurance companies that they would jump up and down at congressional townhall meetings and rush to Washington for tumultuous protest rallies.
Even after the Affordable Care Act was cleared as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fury on behalf of the health-insurance industry has continued with the Republican-controlled House voting again and again to repeal “Obamacare” and GOP governors doing all they can to sabotage its effective implementation. We have seen something similar with the Tea Party’s hostility toward food stamps and immigration reform.
Even as some Republican leaders and a few conservative columnists embrace immigration reform that offers a pathway to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants, the Tea Party rank-and-file furiously rejects the notion, particularly the idea of letting those mostly dark-skinned immigrants eventually become citizens with the right to vote.
Killing Immigration Reform
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is among those who find the House Republican rejection of immigration reform deeply troubling. In a column on Friday, Brooks noted that the Senate-approved reform bill meets all of the major requirements that reasonable conservatives might want: increasing economic growth, reducing the federal deficit, improving border security.
Indeed, Brooks seems genuinely baffled as to why the Right is determined to kill the measure, writing: “conservatives are not supposed to take a static, protectionist view of economics. They’re not supposed to believe that growth can be created or even preserved if government protects favored groups from competition.
“Conservatives are supposed to believe in the logic of capitalism; that if you encourage the movement of goods, ideas and people, then you increase dynamism, you increase creative destruction and you end up creating more wealth that improves lives over all.
“The final conservative point of opposition is a political one. Republicans should not try to win back lower-middle-class voters with immigration reform; they should do it with a working-class agenda. This argument would be slightly plausible if Republicans had even a hint of such an agenda, but they don’t.”
Brooks then backs into the proverbial elephant in the room, noting the ethnic component of the Right’s opposition. He writes:
“Before Asians, Hispanics and all the other groups can be won with economic plans, they need to feel respected and understood by the G.O.P. They need to feel that Republicans respect their ethnic and cultural identity. If Republicans reject immigration reform, that will be a giant sign of disrespect, and nothing else Republicans say will even be heard.
“Whether this bill passes or not, this country is heading toward a multiethnic future. Republicans can either shape that future in a conservative direction or, as I’ve tried to argue, they can become the receding roar of a white America that is never coming back. That’s what’s at stake.”
But “the receding roar of a white America” is, in a sense, what we have been hearing for most of the nation’s history, as whites have engaged in genocide against Native Americans and kept African-Americans first in bondage and then in a de facto second-class citizenship. One could add to this ugly picture the discriminatory treatment toward Hispanics along the southern border and against Asian-Americans mostly in the West.
Jim Crow II
Yes, it may be true that today’s demographic numbers are making it harder for racist whites to continue to impose their will on the country, but it also could be argued that white supremacy has never been as endangered as it is today. Which would explain why today’s white anger is so white-hot.
Just because a reactionary political movement might fail doesn’t mean that it won’t be tried. The battle to preserve slavery cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the Civil War; the KKK and other white paramilitary groups inflicted horrors on blacks for generations; even today, the Right’s obdurate insistence on “austerity” in the face of the Great Recession has spread misery across the country, but especially in African-American and Hispanic communities.
So, one should not assume that the Republican Right will not try to create a Second Jim Crow Era by gerrymandering congressional districts, spending vast sums on propaganda, and suppressing minority votes through ID laws and other subterfuges. Nor should one blithely conclude that failure of this strategy is assured. Remember that the defeat of Reconstruction in the 1870s enabled the First Jim Crow Era to last nearly a century. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bringing Back Jim Crow."]
Even after the Jim Crow Era ended, the Right regained its political footing by wooing discontented whites to the Southern-strategy Republican Party. That political effort also has worked in parts of the North as Republicans and the Right have successfully mined white resentments toward affirmative action, “political correctness” and other initiatives seen as beneficial to blacks and minorities. Just listen to Fox News or AM radio with endless commentators, like Rush Limbaugh, stressing how white people are the real victims here.
The white racism may not always be overt but its roots are never far beneath the surface. And, like the roots of aspen trees running underground, the roots of racism connect to their more acceptable neighbors, the ideologies of “libertarianism” and “small government.”
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.