Tag Archives: Richard Nixon

When Richard Nixon Met Karl Polanyi

30 Oct

In 1969, while he was working on Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, which would have guaranteed an income of $1600 plus $800 in food stamps to every family of four, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was deputized by Nixon to investigate the historical accuracy of one of Karl Polanyi’s claims in The Great Transformation.

Polanyi had argued that Britain’s Speenhamland system—like Nixon’s plan, it would have guaranteed an annual income to poor families, regardless of whether they worked or not—had the perverse effect of making the poor poorer. Reiterating claims made by Marx and Engels, Polanyi wrote that Speenhamland allowed, even encouraged, employers to hire workers at below-subsistence wages (the poor were guaranteed an income regardless of whether they worked). Because workers would start losing their income  supports once they earned more than a subsistence wage, and because employers were more than happy to have local parishes supplement or subsidize wages, Speenhamland effectively put a cap on wages. Productivity went down, and with it, poor rates and income supports.  The long-term result, said Polanyi, was increased immiseration among the poor.

Few people have attended to Polanyi’s caveat that had the working poor not been prohibited by the Anti-Combination Laws of 1799-1800 from organizing themselves they might have been able to reverse these effects. (Admittedly, that point only gets a passing mention in Polanyi’s chapters on Speenhamland.) Instead, his argument has been taken as Exhibit A of Albert Hirschman’s perversity thesis: policies designed to achieve positive ends, particularly when those ends relate to the poor, often produce the opposite of their aims. (Hirschman himself made a nod to these linkages.)

When Nixon began mooting his version of Speenhamland in the early part of 1969, talk of perversity (in all senses) was very much in the air. In mid-April, the economist Martin Anderson—then a White House staffer, but previously a devotee of Ayn Rand; Anderson has also been credited with bringing Alan Greenspan, another Randian, into government—prepared a report on the history of poor assistance, which was essentially little more than a series of extracts about Speenhamland from The Great Transformation.

So troubled was Nixon by this history that he had Moynihan personally undertake an assessment of Polanyi’s findings. Moynihan set his staff right to it, resulting in a team of bureaucrats surveying all the most up-to-date historical literature on Speenhamland.

As Fred Block and Margaret Somers—from whose wonderfully informative 2003 article in Politics & SocietyIn the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law” I have cribbed this story—concluded:

The Family Assistance Plan was ultimately defeated in the U.S. Senate but only after Richard Nixon had a conversation about the work of Karl Polanyi.

Update (12:30 pm)

There’s an ungated version of Block’s and Somers’ article here.

We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off!

30 Aug

This past Sunday, I appeared on Up With Chris Hayes, where I spoke briefly about the rise of austerity politics in the Democratic Party (begin video at 2:13). My comments were sparked by Bruce Bartlett’s terrific piece “‘Starve the Beast’: Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor” in the Summer 2007 issue of The Independent Review. Barlett is a longtime observer of the Republican Party, from without and within. He was a staffer for Ron Paul and Jack Kemp, as well as a policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official under George HW Bush.  Now he’s a critic of the GOP, writing sharp commentary at the New York Times and the Financial Times. He and I have argued about conservatism before. When it comes to fiscal policy, however, he’s one of the savviest analysts of the GOP out there. What follows is an extended summary/riff on Bartlett’s piece and what I said on Hayes’s show: to understand how austerity works in (and for) the Democratic Party, you have to understand how it once worked for the Republicans. Long story short: not so well.

• • • • •

Growing up in the 1970s, I had an almost primal association to the GOP as the party of the thrifty and the flinty. Republicans were the grownups at the table, forever cautioning the children against taking that extra piece of cake. Averse to spending money the country didn’t have, they were as leery of deficits as they were of rhetoric. Plainspoken, economizing men of austerity: that was the GOP.

There was some truth to this picture, extending back several decades. Herbert Hoover helped send the Republican Party into twenty years of exile via his ill-timed effort to balance the budget with a hefty tax increase in 1932. One of the first things Eisenhower did upon coming into office was to insist on balancing the budget. Thanks to the Korean War, tax rates were high, and many Republicans wanted Eisenhower to reduce them. He refused, saying “we cannot afford to reduce taxes, reduce income, until we have in sight a program of expenditures that shows that the factors of income and of outgo will be balanced. Now that is just to my mind sheer necessity.” Upon taking office, both Nixon and Ford pursued similar paths, and resisted similar tax-cutting calls from their party.

But by the time I was in middle school, that picture of the Republican Party had become a faded sepia print. During the 1970s, a new breed of conservative had emerged, calling into question the wisdom of balanced budgets. Men like Jude Wanniski, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan took the lead in challenging the frugal dispensation on the right, claiming that Republicans had become what Newt Gingrich would later call “tax collectors for the welfare state.”

Interestingly, the most salient arguments of these new conservatives were less economic than political, focusing on the enabling dynamic of shitfaced Democrats being shepherded to safety by their designated drivers in the Republican Party, only to resume their drunken revels the following evening.

Here’s Friedman writing in Policy Review in 1978:

By concentrating on the wrong thing, the deficit, instead of the right thing, total government spending, fiscal conservatives have been the unwitting handmaidens of the big spenders. The typical historical process is that the spenders put through laws which increase government spending. A deficit emerges. The fiscal conservatives scratch their heads and say, “My God, that’s terrible; we have got to do something about that deficit.” So they cooperate with the big spenders in getting taxes imposed. As soon as the new taxes are imposed and passed, the big spenders are off again, and there is another burst in government spending and another deficit.

What was the takeaway for Friedman? In Newsweek, he wrote: “I have concluded that the only effective way to restrain government spending is by limiting government’s explicit tax revenue—just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual’s or family’s spending.”

Greenspan made a similar claim before the Senate Finance Committee in 1978: “Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”

But it was probably Wanniski, more than anyone, who best understood the political ramifications of a shift away from deficits and balanced budgets. With an almost Schmittian attention to what he called “the political tension in the marketplace of ideas,” Wanniski insisted that conservatives frame the Glaubenskrieg of the two parties as a struggle “between tax reduction and spending increases.” Without that stark choice, he wrote, the Republicans would forever play the part of the disappointed, disapproving, and ultimately powerless parent: “As long as Republicans have insisted upon balanced budgets, their influence as a party has shriveled, and budgets have been unbalanced.”

Bartlett shows how this argument—the so-called “starve the beast” theory—got support from a surprisingly diverse array of voices on the right: James Buchanan’s public choice theory, the Proposition 13 movement, and the Kemp-Roth tax proposals.

Politically, it came to a head under Ronald Reagan. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Reagan did not resist the calls for tax cuts first, balanced budgets later. Having internalized the new thinking of the 1970s, he declared in a February 1981 television address:

Over the past decades we’ve talked of curtailing government spending so that we can then lower the tax burden. Sometimes we’ve even taken a run at doing this. But there were always those who told us that taxes couldn’t be cut until spending was reduced. Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance.

In his 1982 State of the Union Address, Reagan doubled down on that claim:

Higher taxes would not mean lower deficits….Raising taxes won’t balance the budget. It will encourage more Government spending and less private investment…So I will not ask you to try to balance the budget on the backs of the American taxpayers.

Defenders of the Reagan-the-pragmatist thesis (with its corollary complaint that post-Gipper, the GOP has become a nest of anti-tax ideologues, fanatics, and zealots) like to point out that despite his philosophical opposition to taxes, Reagan repeatedly raised taxes throughout his administration—11 times no less.

But what’s often forgotten in these laments is that Reagan came to regret his tax increases, declaring them a colossal mistake. After he left office, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Despite the “assurances,” “promises,” “pledges” and “commitments” you are given, the spending cuts have a way of being forgotten or quietly lobbied out of future budgets. But the tax increases are as certain to come as, well, death and taxes.

In 1982, Congress wanted to raise taxes. It promised it would cut federal spending by $3 for every $1 in new taxes. Being a new kid in town, I agreed to this. Unfortunately, although the new taxes went into effect, Congress never cut spending by even a penny.

James Baker came to a similar conclusion as Reagan. And taking to the Senate floor in 1993, Republican Bob Packwood—another moderate GOP declinists like to hold up against the anti-tax fundamentalists of today—spoke out against Bill Clinton’s proposed tax hikes on the same grounds.

The history of the U.S. Government is that when we increased taxes, we spent them; we did not apply it to the deficit. It does not matter that the President has stated, “Let us have a deficit reduction trust fund.” We have never followed that; we instead spent it. I predict that if we raise these new taxes, we will spend them, also. We will not cut spending. We will spend it on new programs or expansion of existing programs.

Of course, Packwood was proven wrong. By the end of the Clinton presidency, there was a surplus, and Gore ran on a platform in 2000 of using that surplus to—among other things—help pay down the debt.

Despite the record of austerity the Democrats had accumulated during the 1990s, George W. Bush refused to hold onto the surplus. Having come to maturity—to the extent one can say Bush ever matured—in the party of Reagan, Friedman, and Wanniski, he thought it imperative that any money the government had be returned to the tax payers. Neither debt nor deficits mattered. Tussling with Alan Greenspan over whether the surplus should be saved or spent, Bush insisted that “Mr. Greenspan believes that money around Washington, D.C., will be spent on a single item—debt reduction. I think it will be spent on greater government. He has got greater faith in the appropriators than I do.”

So we got tax cuts. Big time. If Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was an extension of the New Deal, George W. Bush’s tax cut was the fulfillment of Reaganism.

• • • • •

Almost all of the above—the quotations, chronology, and narrative—comes from Bartlett.  But here are my three takeaways.

First, as I already suggested, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that the anti-tax fundamentalists of today’s GOP are somehow new arrivals, alien imports from the land of Grover Norquist. The anti-tax position in the GOP has been gestating on the right for decades. Whatever temporary concessions Reagan might have made, the forward thrust of the party has been in the opposite direction for nearly a half-century. The assault on George HW Bush for renouncing his no tax pledge was not a dramatic turning point; it was the consummation of a tendency decades in the making.

Second, the “starve the beast” argument sits uneasily with the basic claim of supply-side economics: that tax reductions will spur growth and generate revenues, which will pay not only for the tax cuts but also for other expenditures, ultimately leading to a balanced budget. The two arguments don’t contradict each other—indeed, both are designed to lend support for tax cuts—but they press in different directions: towards a balanced budget in the case of supply side, toward shrinking government in the case of starve the beast. The Republicans, of course, haven’t been terribly good at the former, but they haven’t been terribly bad at the latter. Today, the ratio of public-sector employees to the overall population is the lowest it’s been since 1968. That, of course, isn’t the only measure of the size of government, but it’s a pretty damn good one.

Third, though Bartlett’s piece is about the GOP, it’s hard not to see how the Democrats have come to play the same role in the contemporary political order that Republicans once played under the New Deal.

Starting with Walter Mondale’s famous pledge in 1984 to raise taxes in order to bring down the deficit—one of Barlett’s footnotes reveals this delicious and disturbing anecdote: just after announcing his tax pledge at the DNC convention to wild applause, Mondale turned to Dan Rostenkowski and said, “Look at ‘em. We’re going to tax their ass off.”—Democrats have become the party of austerity. (Doug Henwood, Josh Freeman, and David Harvey have shown that that process actually began in 1975, during the New York City Fiscal Crisis, when Wall Street Democrats successfully pushed for drastic cuts in government spending. But it was the Mondale campaign that crystallized the shift at the national level.)

[Mondale's pledge is at 1:25, and check out a very youthful Rich Trumka at 1:38.]

Like Republicans of yore, the Democrats have repeatedly sought to reduce the debt and deficits, only to find themselves held hostage to the other side’s designs of depriving the welfare state of much needed cash.

Consider the two major presidential cycles of the last three decades: Reagan/Bush-Clinton and Bush-Obama.

During the 1980s, the Republicans cut taxes and ran up huge deficits. Then Bill Clinton came into office and announced his intention to reduce deficits. Anxious to appease Robert Rubin and the bond market, he abandoned whatever pretense of a progressive economic agenda he had set out during the campaign. He and the Democrats raised taxes and allowed government spending to decline dramatically as a percentage of GDP. By the end of his second term, Clinton had managed to generate a surplus—with the explicit purpose of not only reducing the debt but also shoring up Social Security—only to have the Bush White House squander that surplus through massive tax cuts and increased military spending.

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2008, he faced a similar conundrum as Clinton. The Bush Republicans had run up massive deficits and debt. Though the financial crisis (and his overwhelming victory) seemed to give Obama the warrant to spend—remember when we were all Keynesians again?—he was constrained by congressional Republicans and conservative elements in his own party, including the Wall Streeters who had been among his earliest supporters and happened to have a disproportionate influence in the White House. All of these forces seemed to worry more about the deficit than they did about the recession. The result, of course, was a much smaller stimulus package than many progressives had hoped for.

Then came the health care bill, which also has to be understood in the context of—indeed cannot be separated from—the politics of deficits and debt reduction. Throughout the health care negotiations, Obama took great pains to stress that his bill would not increase the deficit (CBO scores became as important to the national conversation as health care itself). Incredibly, this was an entirely Democratic, and self-imposed, constraint, which made the passage of health care reform more difficult than it might have been. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in 2010:

“Paygo” was a reform imposed by the 1990 budget agreement that required Congress to offset the cost of any new entitlement program or tax cuts with entitlement cuts or tax hikes. It was a significant factor in the decline of the deficit through the 1990s. Republicans hated it because it required them to offset the cost of tax cuts with either spending cuts or increases in other taxes, thereby making the trade-offs of tax cuts explicit. When they took control of Congress in 2001, Republicans ended the Paygo rule, which allowed them to pass a series of tax cuts along with a Medicare prescription drug benefit without any offsetting measures. The structural deficit exploded.

When Democrats recaptured Congress, they re-imposed pay-go rules, leaving an exception for extension of the Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000. That’s one reason why the Affordable Care Act had to be offset with hundreds of billions of dollars in politically-painful Medicare cuts, rather than financed solely through borrowing like the Medicare prescription drug law. Naturally, this made the Affordable Care Act much harder to pass through Congress as well as less popular — bills that hide their cost pass more quickly and with less complaint than bills that make make explicit who is going to pay for their costs.

Just as the White House and Congress were wrapping up their negotiations on the health care bill in the early months of 2010, Obama announced that the great challenge of the age was debt reduction. Though it’s often argued that Obama was pushed into that position by the Republican takeover of the House in November 2010, the fact is that he created the Bowles-Simpson Commission in February 2010, with the declared purpose of balancing the budget by 2015 and reducing the debt. The committee’s membership, chosen by Obama, included on the Democratic side deficit hawks like Max Baucus and on the Republican side…Paul Ryan.

At every step, then, of the two major initiatives of his administration—the stimulus and health care bills—Obama shouldered the load of debt and deficits. Whether that was by default or design remains the subject of much debate. But what’s not in dispute is that the debt has become the Democrats’ burden and/or vocation, which the Republicans are free to flout at will.

This became especially clear during the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 and since. Once the Republicans began to threaten a default in the spring of 2011, Obama made one concession after another in a desperate attempt to make a deal. He offered to cut Social Security benefits, raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67, increase premiums, and more. Thankfully, GOP intransigence saved those proposals from becoming part of the deal.

The final deal, announced at the end of July 2011, included $1 trillion in cuts, divided evenly between defense and non-defense spending. There would be no tax increase. Instead, the White House tellingly emphasized that the cuts would “reduce non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was President.” The deal also created a bipartisan congressional super committee tasked with coming up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings. If the committee failed, an automatic process of savings measures would be triggered, which would include tax increases and spending cuts, with Social Security, Medicaid, and a few other programs exempted from the cuts.

Since the announcement of that deal, we’ve seen two developments. First, the congressional super committee tried—and failed—to come to an agreement. At each phase in the negotiations, which ended in November, the Democrats played the responsible adult, the Republicans the wild child. The Democrats came in with a proposal to raise taxes by $1.3 trillion and cut spending by $1.7 trillion (including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid). The Republican response: $2.2 trillion in cuts (not much more than the Democrats) and no tax increases. By the end of the negotiations, the Democrats had reduced their tax increase proposal to $400 billion and were offering nearly a $1 trillion in spending cuts; the Republicans tendered $640 billion in spending cuts and $3 billion in tax increases. In other words, not only were the Democrats promising to cut far more than were the Republicans, but they also promised to reduce the debt overwhelmingly through spending cuts rather than tax increases.

Second, now that that the super committee has failed, the GOP has predictably begun to balk at the defense cuts mandated by the deal. (I say predictably because just after the deal was announced, I got into a heated argument with a political scientist over that very issue. Where he was elated by the defense cuts, I warned that the Republicans would almost certainly renege on them.) Throughout this past summer, the GOP promised to make the so-called sequester a major issue in the election, and the 2012 Republican Party platform (see page 40) enshrines their opposition to it:

Sequestration—which is severe, automatic, across-the-board cuts in defense spending over the next decade—of the nation’s military budget would be a disaster for national security, imperiling the safety of our servicemen and women, accelerating the decline of our nation’s defense industrial base, and resulting in the layoff of more than 1 million skilled workers. Opposition to sequester is bipartisan; even the current Secretary of Defense has said the cuts will be “devastating” to America’s military. Yet the current President supported sequestration, signed it into law, and has threatened to veto Republican efforts to prevent it. If he allows an additional half trillion dollars to be cut from the defense budget, America will be left with the smallest ground force since 1940,the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history—at a time when our Nation faces a growing range of threats to our national security and a struggling economy that can ill afford to lose 1.5 million defense-related jobs.

So here we are, entering a campaign with Obama begging the media to recognize him and the Democrats as the party of austerity—for being willing to make difficult and deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security—and Republicans happily calling for a constitutional amendment requiring congressional super majorities for tax increases (see page 4).

• • • • •

Ironically, it was during the heyday of the New Deal that we first got a glimpse of the way we live now—from none other than John Kenneth Galbraith. As Bartlett shows, when Galbraith learned of Kennedy’s plans for a large tax cut in 1962, he shrewdly observed in his diary that “lower tax revenues will become a ceiling on spending.” Though the economics of the tax cut were impeccably Keynesian, Galbraith was far more concerned about the politics, which he thought were dangerous. As he explained in his testimony to Congress in 1965:

I was never as enthusiastic as many of my fellow economists over the tax reductions of last year. The case for it as an isolated action was undoubtedly good. But there was danger that conservatives, once introduced to the delights of tax reduction, would like it too much. Tax reduction would then become a substitute for increased outlays on urgent social needs. We would have a new and reactionary form of Keynesianism with which to contend.

What Galbraith could not have foreseen—ensconced in the New Deal consensus as he was—was that that the real ceiling on social spending would be set not merely by the Republicans but also, and perhaps more fatally, by the Democrats.

Once upon a time Republicans were tax collectors for the welfare state. Now Democrats are the austerians of reactionary Keynesianism.

• • • • •

This post has been cross-posted at Crooked Timber of Humanity, where I am now also blogging.

Update (3 pm)

Digby has a great follow-up to this post, which includes this lengthy quote from an interview Obama just gave to Time‘s Michael Scherer.

My message to Democrats is the same message I’ve got to Republicans and independents, and that is, I want a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines additional revenue, particularly from folks like me who can afford it, with prudent cuts on both the discretionary side and the mandatory side but that still allows us to make investments in the things we need to grow.

And that means I’m prepared to look at reforms in Medicaid. I’m prepared to look at smart reforms on Medicare. But there are things I won’t do, and this is part of the debate we’re having in this election. I do not think it is a good idea to set up Medicare as a voucher system in which seniors are spending up to $6,000 more out of pocket. That was the original proposal Congressman Ryan put forward. And there is still a strong impulse I think among some Republicans for that kind of approach.

I’m not going to slash Medicaid to the point where disabled kids or seniors who are in nursing homes are basically uncared for. We’re not going to violate the basic bargain that Social Security represents.

Now, the good news is, if you’re willing to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, then you can make modest reforms on entitlements, reduce some additional discretionary spending, achieve deficit reduction and still preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in ways that people can count on. The only reason that you would have to go further than that is if there’s no revenue whatsoever. And that’s a major argument that we’re having with the Republicans.

As Digby observes:

Well hell. I’m sure glad he isn’t willing to cut Medicaid to where the disabled aren’t “basically” cared for. And, you know, it’s good that he’s not going to violate the “basic bargain” that social security “represents.” Big relief.

Vote Obama/Biden 2012 — We won’t cut your benefits quite as much as the other guys.

Update (August 31, 12 pm)

Two follow-up posts you should check out.

Alex Gourevitch offers a fascinating take on the incoherence of the Democrats’ austerian position:

Now, the Democratic Party is a mere pastiche without purpose….With no welfarist project, maintained by a contingent set of historical forces, what is left? The project of responsible government, of taxing mainly for the purpose of balancing budgets….Even the Buffet Rule is not so much an invocation of a principle of social justice as it is an acknowledgement of indecency in the tax code. Only the party of Romney-Ryan can make that elemental act Mugwumpery look like more than what it is – an empty, election year gesture.

David Dayen drives home the political costs of the austerian position:

The fact that you can draw a line in inverse proportion between what party embraces austerity and what party has the dominant position in the politics of the age should tell you what you need to know about its importance. By and large, we saw a liberal era in the 1950s and 1960s (regardless of what party actually ruled) followed by a conservative era in the 1980s that stretches to this day. And the factor of austerity politics plays a big role in that.

Over time, Republicans stopped trying to be the responsible “tax collectors for the welfare state,” and started becoming the starve-the-beast Republicans we know now. These theories are flawed – cutting taxes does not, actually, lead to cutting spending, at least not when Republicans are in office – but politically they force the other side into an extremely disadvantageous position.

Update (August 31, 8:30 pm)

Thomas Nephew alerts me to the fact that today’s Democrat and liberal actually embraces the identity of being an Eisenhower Republican. I did not know that.

Still Batshit Crazy After All These Years: A Reply to Ta-Nehisi Coates

3 Jan

Jumping off from Mark Lilla’s negative review of my book in the New York Review of Books—about which more later, though if you’re looking for a hard-hitting response, check out Alex Gourevitch’s demolition at Jacobin—Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a helpful corrective to Lilla’s claim that “political apocalypticism” is a recent development on the right.

It’s interesting that Lilla raises Buckley here. People often bring him up as foil to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as an example of a time when conservatism was sane. But that Buckley joke has always struck me (a college dropout) as batshit crazy. I constantly hear about the sober-minded Buckley, but it’s tough for me to square that with the man who posited that the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church might lay at the feet of  “a crazed Negro” and basically worked as a press agent for apartheid in South Africa. (But National Review is against the drug war, so it’s fine.) From a black perspective, modern conservatism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham.

One of the reasons I wrote The Reactionary Mind was to challenge this refrain, which you hear on the right and the left, that today’s conservatism is fundamentally crazier—not being a licensed professional, I prefer the term “more radical” or “more extreme”—than yesterday’s. As I  state on p. 43:

As the forty-year dominion of the right begins to fade, however fitfully, writers like Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan…claim that conservatism went into decline when Palin, or Bush, or Reagan, or Goldwater, or Buckley, or someone took it off the rails.  Originally, the argument goes, conservatism was a responsible discipline of the governing classes, but somewhere between Joseph de Maistre and Joe the Plumber, it got carried away with itself.  It became adventurous, fanatical, populist, ideological.  What this story of decline overlooks…is that all of these supposed vices of contemporary conservatism were present at the beginning, in the writings of Burke and Maistre, only they weren’t viewed as vices.  They were seen as virtues.  Conservatism has always been a wilder and more extravagant movement than many realize—and it is precisely this wildness and extravagance that has been one of the sources of its continuing appeal.

So, naturally, I agree with Coates’s claim that there’s no great disjuncture between the Buckley of the 1960s and contemporary conservatism.  (Readers interested in these continuities should check out Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All!.)  And in my book, I offer many more instances of the ways that modern conservatism and visions of a racial apocalypse are intertwined. (Though if you want a real sense of that fusion, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland is the place to start.)

Nixon, according to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks.” And of course there is this classic National Review editorial from 1957:

The central question that emerges [from the civil rights movement] is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.

That “for the time being” adds a nice touch of dread: the end may be nigh.

But I’d like to suggest that Coates’s dating of the beginning of “conservatism’s batshit phase” needs to be pushed back a bit. Like a hundred and seventy-three years bit.

As I’ve argued repeatedly, from its very inception in the reaction against the French Revolution, conservatism has contained within itself some of the most wild and extravagant visions of war and apocalypse.  It was none other than the supposedly level-headed Edmund Burke who, when confronted with the Jacobin challenge, declared, “The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.” Burke was fully prepared to see and stare down the coming apocalypse, by any means necessary: Jacobinism “must be destroyed,” he insisted, “or it will destroy all of Europe.” By Jacobinism he meant not simply a political movement but an “armed doctrine.”  Each and every expression of that doctrine would have to be exterminated: “If it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.”And far from arguing that the destruction of the Revolution would bring a return of the tried and familiar, he insisted that whatever came next would in fact be “in some measure a new thing.”

It’s arguments like these—and my book features many more of them throughout the 19th and 20th century—that led me to choose as the epigraph to my book this lovely passage from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to a suitor she kept at bay: “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Now Coates has an important qualifier to his claim about conservatism’s history: “From a black perspective, modern conservativism’s batshit phase began in Birmingham” (my emphasis).

But even from a black perspective, I would argue, the batshit—sorry, extremism—goes way back.  Some of this, of course, is not news to Coates, who’s been writing at length about the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country. John C. Calhoun’s constitutional vision, which is featured in virtually every anthology of the conservative canon, is absolutely rooted in the defense of slavery. (Manisha Sinha’s The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina is the definitive account; her discussion of Calhoun’s stance on the tariff and its relationship to slavery, which Coates also discusses here, is positively riveting.)

And as I discuss in my book, virtually every major defense of slavery, from Thomas Jefferson’s to William Harper’s, ends on a note that should be familiar to any student of European fascism, the apex of right-wing apocalypticism.  If the slaves are set free, warn the slaveholders, there will have to be a final solution to the Negro Question: either deportation or elimination. (Though it’s not considered polite to say so, it’s important to remember that, as late as 1941, the Nazis were mulling over the same options.)

Beating the drums of race war, Jefferson warned that emancipation would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.” Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported along with their parents, Thomas Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.” With abolition, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.” (Drew Gilpin Faust’s The Ideology of Slavery and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery are excellent anthologies of pro-slavery primary documents.)

The relationship between conservatism, slavery, and white supremacy is a complicated one, and I by no means wish to suggest either that all conservatives were pro-slavery—some, including Burke, were not—or that liberalism does not have its own intimate relationship with slavery and racism, as the example of Jefferson reveals. (The latter topic has generated a vast literature, but two useful places to begin are Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract and, more recently, Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History.)

But mere opposition to slavery hardly made conservatives abolitionist: far from it. When confronted with the actual question of emancipation, the intransigent demand to politically transform societies of deeply rooted domination into societies of freedom—Ground Zero, as I argue in my book, of the reactionary mind—virtually all of them sang a different tune (see chapter 4 of Patrick Allitt’s generally sympathetic survey The Conservatives).  As I put it on pp. 27-28:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests.  But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question….his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is one of the few contemporary conservatives who acknowledge the history of conservative opposition to emancipation. Where other conservatives like to lay claim to the abolitionist or civil rights mantle, Gerson admits that “honesty requires the recognition that many conservatives, in other times, have been hostile to religiously motivated reform” [of the sort that produced the last two centuries' worth of black freedom movements] and that “the conservative habit of mind once opposed most of these changes.” Indeed, as Samuel Huntington suggested a half-century ago, saying no to such movements in real time may be what makes someone a conservative throughout time.

And, again, we can date this to 1789. One of the issues conservatives worried about in the French Revolution was that it might spur slave revolts and revolutions throughout the Americas. (John Adams, incidentally, voiced a similar concern about the impact of the American Revolution.) In a speech before Parliament in April 1791, Burke warned that any “constitution founded on what was called the rights of man” would open a “Pandora’s box.”

As soon as this system arrived among [the French]…every mortal evil, seemed to fly open, hell itself to yawn, and every demon of mischief to overspread the face of the earth.  Blacks rose against whites, whites against blacks, and each against one another in murderous hostility; subordination was destroyed….

Four months later, on the night of August 21, black slaves fired the first shots of the Haitian Revolution. As with so many things, Burke’s was a prophetic voice. Small wonder he called for not a little bit of madness and mayhem in response: “Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.”

Long after the slaves had thrown off their masters in Haiti, that revolution—and its predecessor revolution in France—would haunt the memories of the master class in the South. In response, they would not only tighten their coercive hold on the black population—as well as the national government—but they would also begin to promulgate the most elaborate notions of white supremacy, some based on religion, others, more far-reaching, based on science.

Not only did these notions justify the enslavement of blacks, but they also helped create the cozy inclusiveness of a white herrenvolk democracy. Racism and slavery made whites, no matter how different their holdings, equal. As Calhoun put it:

With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

Not only would such a notion help conscript all whites, whether masters or not, in the defense of slavery, but it would also provide, as Thomas Dew would note, an enormously potent toxin against the egalitarian notions and movements then roiling Europe and Jacksonian America.  Radicals, Dew wrote, “wish all mankind to be brought to one common level. We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery has eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks and society.”

More than a century later, pioneers of the Southern Strategy would find a similar utility—as they sought to beat back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the egalitarian movements of the Sixties—in the avenging armies and arguments of white supremacy.

From Bristol in 1789 to Birmingham in 1963: not such a long journey, after all.  Apocalypse then, apocalypse now.

Update (January 4, 11:45 am)

Lauren Kientz Anderson offers some fascinating follow-up material on white supremacy in the South here. (And if you don’t know or follow the U.S. Intellectual history blog, you should. It’s got great stuff and great writers.)

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