Today's "robber barons" use race as a distraction from real economic problems.
In a recent column in the NYTimes, Charles Blow sounds like he has taken a page from FDR’s famous “economic royalist” speech. Talking about what he calls “the right’s flimsy fiscal argument," Blow claims that:
It all loses traction as more Americans begin to see the far right for what it truly is: a gang of bandits willing to sacrifice the poor and working classes to further extend the American aristocracy -- shadowy figures who creep through the night, shaking every sock for every nickel and scraping their silver spoons across the bottom of every pot.
At another low point in American economic history, during the 1936 Democratic National Convention, FDR decried the domination of a small economic elite:
For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. Through new uses of corporations, banks and securities, new machinery of industry and agriculture, of labor and capital -- all undreamed of by the fathers -- the whole structure of modern life was impressed into this royal service…
It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property…
For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people's property, other people's money, other people's labor, other people's lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
There is one big political difference between the world that Roosevelt faced and the one we are witnessing: the South has switched from being constrained by a bigger, and more progressive, Democratic Party, as it was in FDR’s day, to our situation now, in which the Southern conservatives are the dominant force in a Republican Party purged of its more moderate elements. The new economic royalists use this conservative base to pursue their agenda.
The American political party system has always been affected by the conservative political culture of the South. As we acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, focus of a fascinating series in the NYTimes, it is useful to recall that what the South was attempting to establish when it seceded to form the confederacy was a state based on racism and the establishment of a permanent economic elite. The NYTimes series puts to rest any lingering doubt that the South was fighting for anything different. In a speech of March 12, 1861, the Vice President of the Confederacy, after describing Thomas Jefferson’s ideas concerning the evil of slavery, declared:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.
Unfortunately, after this “republic” had been eliminated, there was no general land reform -- as occurred in a very beneficial way for the development of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan after World War II -- and so the same political culture that had flourished before the Civil War remained, bruised but intact.
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Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which had been founded to stop the expansion of slavery outside of the South, had won the Civil War, and so the newly emerging industrial captains -- robber barons, as they were called, turning eventually into the economic royalists of FDR’s speech -- allied with the Republican Party, which eventually became the dominant political party of the economic elite. In a very peculiar turn of events, the party of the cities, the Democratic Party, also remained the party of the Southern “royalists." Thus the “middle party," the Republicans, were flanked to their right by the Southern wing of the Democratic Party and to their left by the Democrat’s Northern wing.
After World War II, the Republicans created their own far-right wing in the form of McCarthyism and anti-Communism. At the same time, the combination of the two contradictory wings in the Democratic Party became unsustainable, particularly since the Civil War was finally ended by the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights acts of the middle 1960s. Lyndon B. Johnson thought that this would lose the South for the Democrats -- and the Republicans complied by pursuing a “Southern Strategy” to capture it. But this may eventually lead to the Republican’s undoing if Charles Blow is correct that the “flimsy” arguments of the current incarnation of the Republican Party could be their self-destruction.
This progressive outcome may be the result of generational change, combined with overreaching against programs for seniors. The major theme of Blow’s piece was not simply the rapaciousness of our new economic royalty, but that race in America has been used to distract much of the white electorate from real issues of power and wealth. Exhibit A is the Trumped-up “debate” about Obama’s birth certificate (pun intended). It may be that younger Americans, less permeated with racist ideas, will reject these distractions. In addition, by alienating seniors, many of whom may have retained some old-time racist attitudes, the Republicans may have, thankfully, lost some of the advantages of their implicitly racist arguments.
According to my calculations, the 112th Congress has 94 Republicans in the House from the South out of 242 total Republicans in the House, and there are 16 Southern Senators out of 47 Republicans. This means that instead of being a large minority within a majority liberal party, the Southern conservatives are a large minority, indeed the backbone, of the conservative party -- and this pulls the entire Republican Party far to the right. It can no longer even hold on to its moderates.
Since, as Charles Blow points out, a rather large majority of the American public is center and center-left, and certainly not far right, then the far right is “losing traction," in Blow’s words. There are several implications:
First, the progressive potential of the Voting Rights Act, and of an undercurrent of progressive politics that has existed in the South since at least the Populist movement, must be encouraged, so that the conservative political culture of the South is challenged.
Second, probably the best way to expunge the last traces of the old extremist Southern political culture is to put forward a political agenda that can excite and unify progressive forces -- for example, by advocating a jobs-centered program.
Third, we need to understand that race has always been used to divide Americans, and that now is the time to unite them around the job of rebuilding the country.
Finally, by pursuing these goals, we can create a political culture and program that will cut the base of support for the economic royalists, both inside and outside of the South.
We should bear in mind Roosevelt’s words from 1936:
Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference. There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.