Saturday, December 29, 2012

Making (up) American history on the right

These two articles complement each other nicely describing ways in which the American right remake early American history in their own ideological image: Robert Perry, The Right's 'Limited Government' Scam Consortium News 12/18/2012 and Michael Hattem, The Founders, the Tea Party, and the Historical Wing of the "Conservative Entertainment Complex" The Junto 12/18/2012.

Perry gives a good brief look at the classic liberal conception of democratic government and what "limited" government generally meant to the American Founders:

The reason that the Articles of Confederation are an inconvenient truth for the Right is that the Articles represented what the Right pretends the Constitution stands for now, strong states' rights and a weak federal government. The Articles even made the 13 states "sovereign" and "independent" and left the central authority as only a "league of friendship" dependent on the states. ...

However, under that structure, the young nation was coming apart as states went off in their own directions, the economy struggled and European powers looked to exploit the divisions. Then, in 1786, when a populist uprising known as Shays' Rebellion rocked western Massachusetts, the federal government lacked the money and means to field a military force to restore order. The revolt was eventually put down by an army financed by wealthy Bostonians. ...

When it became clear that the Articles of Confederation could not be feasibly amended to address the country's problems, [George] Washington and [James] Madison led what amounted to a bloodless coup d'etat against the states' "sovereign" powers. This coup was known as the Constitutional Convention. It was conducted in secret in Philadelphia and resulted in the Constitution, which flipped the power relationships between the central government and the states, making federal law supreme and dramatically expanding the powers of the national government.
In other words, in terms of the time of the transition from the Articles to the Constitution, the Framers were "advocates of a strong central government and opponents of states' rights."

The current rightwing and Republican doctrines stressing opposition to the federal government - on some issues like segregation and especially when Democrats are in power - and "states rights" have strong roots in the anti-Reconstruction "Redeemer" movement that overthrow democratic state governments in the post-Civil War South by force and violence:

Indeed, this current right-wing attack on “federal overreach” has been around since the 1950s and the civil rights movement, which put an end to Jim Crow laws in the South. The Right's claim is essentially neo-Confederate and harkens back to the South’s efforts prior to the Civil War to insist that slave-states had the right to nullify federal laws and ultimately to secede from the Union.

Though the Union was maintained by the Civil War, a neo-Confederate movement pushed back against federal efforts to "reconstruct" the South as a more egalitarian society. The neo-Confederates gained political allies among the new industrial elite in the North, "robber barons" who for their own reasons of self-interest wanted to block federal intervention on behalf of impoverished working men and women.

This alliance against federal activism prevailed though much of the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century but suffered severe setbacks when "free-market capitalism" drove the country into the Great Depression. That led to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal which imposed tighter regulation on Wall Street financiers and created new protections for the average American, whether in union rights or Social Security. Out of those and other efforts of the federal government grew the Great American Middle Class.
Hattem looks in particular at the eager market Tea Party activists the last four years have provided by bogus portrayals of the Founders:

In recent years, men like David Barton, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck, among numerous others, have written a number of books on eighteenth-century figures and events. But though they claim to be getting their principles directly from “the founders,” what they are really doing is giving their principles to the founders and the eighteenth century, more generally. This revisionism, promoted by conservative think tanks, was lapped up by hardcore conservatives and perhaps no group of people has been a more receptive audience than those who identify themselves as supporters of the Tea Party. ...

Through this revisionism, the founders have not only become honorary NRA members, they have also by turns become monolithically anti-tax, anti-government, pro-free market, pro-individualism, and deeply religious fundamentalist Christians. (emphasis in original)
Hattem gives various examples of how tricky it can be to shoehorn the revolutionary Founders into an Ayn Rand model of dystopian hyper-capitalism:

After all, a successful republic required virtuous and independent citizens, which required a more even distribution of wealth (or, in eighteenth-century terms, land). This is why, in his first draft of the Virginia state constitution, Jefferson included a provision that would have entitled "every person of full age" to "an appropriation of 50 acres of land." Later in the early national period, Jefferson and Madison sought to craft economic policies that would stave off the inequality that naturally arose in manufacturing societies. Franklin deplored the conditions of the laboring poor he saw while in Britain and attributed it directly to the rise of manufacturing and industrial capitalism. He also believed it was morally just for the wealthy to pay taxes that provided a safety net for the laboring poor, from whose exploitation the rich benefited.
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