Saturday, November 10, 2012

How Democrats and Republicans Switched Sides

One of the more reliable denial memes in politics today is that Democrats were the party of slavery and the KKK, while Republicans were the party that abolished slavery. Very true. Also utterly irrelevant to contemporary politics.

The Republican platform of 1856 was pretty progressive to a modern eye. It called for an end to violence in Kansas and admission as a free state, called for construction of a railroad to the Pacific, endorsed the Constitutionality of Federal Government involvement in building ports and harbors, and opposed calls for the forcible annexation of Cuba.

But it's more complicated than that. The Democratic Platform of the same year condemned Federalism, asserted "That the Constitution does not confer upon the General Government the power to commence and carry on a general system of internal improvements," opposed a national bank, and opposed any Federal measures that would benefit any specific region or industry. Their recipe for access to the Pacific was for a system of post and military roads. Just imagine shipping something from China to California by sailing ship, then by wagon to the Mississippi.

Reading between the lines, the Republican platform favored urban, financial, industrial and commercial interests, while the Democratic platform appealed to rural and agrarian mistrust of banks and commercial interests. In theory it sounds populist, in reality it favored the rural aristocracy, and especially the slave owning interests of the South. Southerners opposed "internal improvements," which would improve mostly the infrastructure of the already technologically superior North. Northerners naturally opposed slavery, not just on moral grounds, but because slave-produced Southern products could undercut northern ones. So the real, built-in conflict was that the party of rural agrarian interests was also the party of slavery.

The roots of the problem go back to the clash between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton wanted America to be an industrial and economic power. Jefferson pictured America as a nation of small yeoman farmers, which he believed would result in a more virtuous society. (Despite his genius in many respects, on some things Jefferson could be a nut, and the things he wrote on this subject are just appalling (1). And Hamilton did more to make America what it is today than many of the other Founding Fathers. It's sad that so many people wanted to replace him on our currency. Fortunately, he became a hot property once his musical came out.)

So one group wanted investment in infrastructure and industry, and they represented urban trade and financial interests. The other tended to represent rural and agrarian interests. Which, in the South, represented slavery. So it's a confluence of historical accidents that the party of the elite and socially conservative also represented economic progress, and the party of the rural farmers and those opposed to economic elites also represented slavery. 

After the Civil War, America really had a four-party system. Two parties on each side formed unstable coalitions that were, in name, a single party, but really consisted of two very different groups. The Republican coalition consisted of newly freed blacks and patrician Northern whites. The Democratic coalition consisted of Northern urban immigrants and laborers, and embittered Southern whites. Mostly the Democrats attracted those groups who supported anyone but the Republicans.

In the 1884 Presidential election, which pitted Democrat James G. Blaine against Republican Grover Cleveland, we can see the patrician attitude of the Republicans emerging. The Republicans blasted the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion." Rum represented uncouth lower-class vice, Romanism reflected disdain for Catholic immigrants and the working class, and Rebellion sent the message that Democrats disregarded the law and were of dubious loyalty. Indeed, for years after the Civil War, the Republicans labeled the Democrats with the "rebellion" tag. The last campaign platform reference to rebellion was in the 1880 Republican platform. Here we already can see the embryonic shape of the future Right.

As long as the Federal government stuck to fiscal policy and national defense, and left social policy at the local level, this hybrid system could persist. Thus, William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial infamy, actually ran for President three times (1896, 1900 and 1908) as a liberal Democrat. In 1896 he supported Free Silver. It's hard to believe nowadays, but there was once a raging debate over whether a little inflation might be a good thing. Bryan's shining historic moment was his speech where he asked "shall we crucify mankind on a cross of gold?" Silver coinage and mild inflation would have benefited workers and farmers, as opposed to the gold standard favored by the robber barons who wanted their money to increase in value (deflation). In 1900 he opposed imperialism and in 1908 he endorsed trust-busting. Late in his life he supported Prohibition and opposed evolution, leading to his role in the Scopes Trial. However, he was concerned about social justice and was definitely not the sour misanthrope caricatured in Inherit the Wind, which is great drama but very poor history. When Clarence Darrow grilled Bryan on the stand (a tactic that would lead to disbarment today), even many supporters of evolution, remembering Bryan's crusading days with respect, thought Darrow had crossed the line. So in the early 20th Century, it was entirely possible for someone to be an economic progressive and a social conservative, even reactionary. To consider another example, otherwise liberal Woodrow Wilson spoke favorably of the film Birth of a Nation.

At the local level, reactionaries pretty much ruled. Censorship was widespread. The First Amendment says only that Congress shall not abridge free speech. It was not until 1925 that the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech applied in the States, by virtue of the 14th Amendment statement that the Constitution applied within the States. This doctrine, the Incorporation Doctrine, has been applied piecemeal as cases arose and has still not been applied to every provision in the Bill of Rights. The term "banned in Boston" reflects the active censorship the city once practiced. (The reason the Incorporation Doctrine isn't universal is that court cases can only be brought over actual issues, not hypothetical ones. So until there's an issue, the doctrine isn't applied.)

It was a great time for white males. It was possible to kill a black man or rape a black woman with near total impunity over most of the country. Discrimination against minorities and women was widespread, open, and legal. For women, career paths were mostly limited to housewife, teacher, nurse, telephone operator or secretary. As long as the Bill of Rights applied only Federally, it was perfectly possible to support segregation at the local level and vote for an economic progressive who supported trust-busting at the Federal level.

The first great shock to the unstable coalition system was the Katrina of its day: the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The flood killed 246 people in seven states and inundated a seventh of Arkansas at its peak. Black victims were subject to severe discrimination. They were rescued last, were frequently pressed into forced labor, and conditions in black refugee camps were deplorable. One outcome was that the Great Migration of blacks to the north, then mostly stalled, resumed. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, already had a reputation as a humanitarian. He promised to do something about the treatment of blacks, but after he was elected President, failed to push reforms (in fairness, little more than six months into his term, he had the Great Depression to cope with). In 1932 many formerly Republican blacks switched their allegiance to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats, and stayed there.

The New Deal started to erode the Democratic coalition. Southern Democrats found themselves agreeing with Republicans in rejecting deficit spending and the birth of a social safety net. New Deal reforms would inexorably extend tendrils into many areas formerly subject only to local control. After World War II, Harry Truman's desegregation of the Armed Forces and other civil rights initiatives further alienated Southern Democrats, to the point where Strom Thurmond ran as an independent candidate for President in 1948. The Supreme Court ban on school segregation in 1954 came during a Republican administration, but further mobilized social reactionaries (Both Eisenhower and Thomas E. Dewey, who lost to Truman in 1948, were progressive Republicans). The great tectonic shift came in 1964, when Barry Goldwater (who was a strong conservative but hardly a reactionary, especially by present standards) opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and carried the South, but failed to win the Presidency. Lyndon Johnson continued to push through civil rights legislation, presciently noting it would lose the South for Democrats for a generation.

The Cold War also began to mold a coalition of the Right. Communism's seizure of private property and creation of a state economy appalled economic conservatives, and their suppression of religion appalled religious conservatives. Joe McCarthy tapped into the paranoia and helped create the suspicion that progressives and social activists, if not actually Communists themselves, were dupes at best and sympathizers at worst. And the McCarthy Era strengthened the idea that, whether or not progressives were Communists, it scarcely made any difference because many of their goals were those most abhorrent to economic and social conservatives.

The day they pushed the red button and launched the nuclear arsenal was June 25, 1962. That was the day the Supreme Court ruled official prayer in school was unconstitutional (unofficial and personal prayer is not and never has been in question). To the far right, this was the day the courts "kicked God out of the schools." It was effectively a declaration of war, an unforgivable repudiation of the notion that America was essentially Christian. Any chance opponents of the ruling would align with progressives was totally demolished. (Compared to this ruling, Roe v. Wade merely "made the rubble bounce.")

It's very hard to be a social reactionary and an economic progressive. In the 19th century, when the two spheres were widely separate, it was possible, but once progressive social policy began to impinge on economic policy, tensions arose. If you support labor unions or oppose discrimination, that's very hard to square with a belief in the absolute sanctity of private property. What do you do about poverty? Do you try to eliminate it out of progressive ideals, or tolerate it on the grounds that it's the outcome of bad personal choices? Do you support women in the labor force, or keep them subservient? It's also hard to be a social progressive and an economic reactionary. How can you support eliminating poverty but not support a minimum wage or safety net? How can you favor equality of housing and hiring when there's widespread obstruction of it in the private sector?

Many observers ask today how social and economic reactionaries coalesced. The answer is that social and economic progressives coalesced, and squeezed the reactionaries out. Although there are economic reactionaries who care only about their bottom line and don't give a fig for gay rights or abortion, and there are social conservatives who despise Wall Street only just less than gays or abortion, the reality is there's a substantial overlap between the two groups.

Understanding how the two branches of the Right came together might help understanding the frustrating problem of social conservatives who side with economic conservatives. Many social conservatives would welcome universal medical care, a strong jobs plan, and curbs on Wall Street. But not at the price of helping to enact a social agenda that many of them find anathema.

So yes, the Republicans did oppose slavery and the Democrats did support the KKK. That's about as relevant to politics today as saying you won't shop IKEA because the Vikings once sacked your ancestral village. A more relevant question is this: if there were to be a serious effort to re-establish slavery for non-whites, which party would support it and which would oppose it?


1. Letter to John Jay, August 23, 1785. 
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it's liberty & interests by the most lasting bonds.
I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice & the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned.
Letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787:
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

White Hot Rage

So Obama has been re-elected. Obama haters are reacting with predictable fury and Obama supporters are, in many cases, reacting to their outrage with Schadenfreude. Meanwhile foreigners are astonished at the vitriol being hurled by the far right.They're not sure whether to be amused or appalled by the threats to move to Britain, Canada or Australia, all of whom have social policies well to the left of Obama. There hasn't been that much talk yet about moving to New Zealand, possibly because many of the worst poo-flingers haven't heard of it or don't know where it is, or are afraid of being eaten by orcs. Good thing too, since New Zealand is the most liberal of the lot and heads would be exploding like party favors if they were to move there and then find out what New Zealand was actually like.

In the 1960's, urban and campus riots were explained (often justified by apologists) as the inevitable result of frustration at an unresponsive System. While the Vietnam War was intractable, the social system had, in fact, been very responsive. Most of the worst rioting took place after the passage of major civil rights reforms. It's as if people were lashing out at the realization that fixing a lot of societal evils did not automatically make their personal lives better. I asked a lot of people how they'd react if the Right was doing the rioting and was told, "Oh, that will never happen."

Well, guess what? It's not riots yet (their HOA's forbid them) but the sense of frustration is very much like the Sixties. For fifty years the Right has been in retreat. They even held the White House and both branches of Congress for a while and still didn't get what they wanted. So they have taken a hard line and refuse to back up any more. There's no place left to go.

The prehistory of the Tea Party probably begins with FDR. Up till then, the Federal Government mostly stayed out of local business, leaving communities free to persecute gays, discriminate against blacks, ban abortion, and regulate the sexual practices even of consenting adults. It was actually possible for social conservative William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Trial infamy, to run for President as a Democratic economic progressive. The New Deal provoked the hatred of economic conservatives, while the civil rights initiatives of Harry Truman began to alienate the South, to the point that Strom Thurmond ran as an independent candidate on a states rights platform. As more and more progressive social policies were dictated at the Federal level, social conservatives aligned more and more with economic conservatives. It's not that the conservatives coalesced, but that progressives coalesced and squeezed the conservatives out.

I believe it all really began with the banning of official prayer in school. To many on the right, this was an unforgivable repudiation of the idea that Christianity had special legal status, and tantamount to a declaration of war. What the far Right wants, first and foremost, is Christian supremacy. Tolerance of other faiths is all right, but when the rubber hits the road they want American institutions to be unabashedly and explicitly Christian. They want Christian supremacy proclaimed at public events by official prayer, and they want the power to legislate Christian doctrine, including a ban on abortion, an end to gay rights, and ultimately, in all probability, the power to legislate all private behavior.

Don't they realize how unfair this is? No. They consider Christianity to be objectively, demonstrably superior to other beliefs. If you don't accept their evidence, that's your problem, not theirs. They don't consider it unfair any more than we consider it unfair for the FDA to ban quack remedies. Their view is exactly that of James Carville: "We're right, they're wrong." They consider it unfair to have other beliefs held on a par with Christianity. It's like climate denialism in reverse; in their view, the evidence for Christianity is so overwhelming that opposition to it can only be explained by willful denial and venal motives.

Second on their list is absolute private property rights. They may band together in those ridiculous HOA's to enact communal standards on lawn care, but anyone who doesn't want to live like that is free to live elsewhere. But they absolutely detest the idea that anyone has the power to tell them whom they can rent to, whether they can drain a wetland on their property or root out an endangered plant. And since taxes are a direct threat to untrammeled ownership of property, they hate taxes wholly apart from having to pay money. Having to pay taxes and having their use of their own property restricted is adding insult to injury. In fact, the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament warned the Israelites (1 Samuel 8: 11-18) of the consequences of having a king, so not only are taxes held to be oppressive, but anti-Christian as well.

I suspect a lot of them would like to see something like Israel as described in the Book of Judges. There was no formal government, just tribal elders and occasional judges to decide weighty matters. Law and order was mostly private. There was, true, a regular parade of conquerors from the major empires, mostly passing through on the way to their real goal, and a lot of harassment from petty neighbors like the Philistines and the Amorites. On the whole, it's about as close to a libertarian society as we find in written history. In fact, the society of Judges 17:6 would probably be ideal: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

Finally, they want a meritocracy. More precisely, they want an aristocracy, not in the sense of a hereditary nobility, but "rule by the best," which is the actual Greek meaning of the term. Not a meritocracy of achievement (that would force too many people to face the fact that they just can't cut it), but one of "authenticity," a term that numerous observers have used to define a subtle blend of the right values, behavior, beliefs and attitudes: the "Right Stuff" of the Right. The Right Stuff includes pride in one's property, hard work, sexual discretion, deferred gratification, and lawfulness. The Wrong Stuff includes laziness, slovenliness, promiscuity, dependency, and crime. The best part of having the Right Stuff is you get pretty free rein to transgress the moral codes (like snorting coke, having an affair, getting a cheerleader pregnant or getting an abortion) as long as you publicly profess the standards, and especially if you have the money to pay for any damage you cause). It's far more important to work to preserve the privileges of the Right Stuff against the Wrong Stuff than to observe all the standards punctiliously. Discretion is all important. The closest thing to a system that achieves these goals is plutocracy. The people with the Right Stuff believe they deserve privilege because they are the producers of wealth and the preservers of social decorum.

Since people with the Right Stuff are the best members of society, they hold that giving to those with the Wrong Stuff is wrong on many levels. First, it takes from those who deserve it and gives to those who don't. Second, it insulates the undeserving from the consequences of their behavior. It deprives those with the Right Stuff of their Right Place in the social order. People who believe in social hierarchies (with themselves in the upper echelons, of course) believe they have a right to that status, and get offended when people they perceive as lower are given equal standing. They get doubly offended when the Government intervenes on behalf of the low-status group. And when you violate the absolute sanctity of private property on behalf of the low-status group, well, you just have a perfect storm.

Moderates have nothing to offer them. No moderates are going to promise them Christian supremacy, absolute private property rights or outright class stratification, which are the things they want most. When the Democratic choice in 2008 boiled down to Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, the far right was confronted with the prospect of losing to a candidate who seriously threatened deep erosion of the core values of the far right. They demanded a candidate who would defend those values. The situation got even worse in 2012. Now their rage is white hot. People like this can never really be beaten. They can die out, or they can be marginalized. But when they're marginalized, they're still there, and they're still angry, all the more so for being marginalized. Social pundits are sorely puzzled as to where all the racism has come from in modern American society. The answer is it was there all along. It wasn't acceptable to express it, so it was exiled to our equivalent of the Northwest Frontier Provinces. But just like the Taliban, they're not content with exile. They intend to rule.

Postscript, 2017

This piece was written in 2012. I've posted things like it may times on liberal-leaning sites, always to a chorus of "Lalalalala I can't HEAR you," or being called a "troll." Well, now we have Trump. Are we having fun yet?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Intellectual Honesty for Religious Believers

Deuteronomy 25: 13-14 (NIV) Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small.

Proverbs 20:10 Differing weights and differing measures— the LORD detests them both.

More broadly, Thou shalt not have any double standards. Go ahead, show me where in the Bible God says it's okay to hold others to strict intellectual standards but be slovenly in your own thinking. Do you suppose when St. Paul supported himself by making tents (Acts 18:3) he felt it was okay to do sloppy work because he had so many more important things to do?

If you want to cite a case where you prayed and got what you asked for as evidence for the efficacy of prayer, then every answered prayer by a Muslim or Buddhist counts as evidence for their beliefs, and every unanswered prayer counts as evidence against the efficacy of prayer. If you want to cite "problems" with evolution as evidence against evolution, then everything evolution can explain counts as evidence for it. If you want equal time for creationism in schools and museums, you have to grant equal time for evolution in your pulpits and equal shelf space for evolution in Christian bookstores. If you want to cite examples of intelligent design in nature, then every case of bad design, like having a too-small birth canal or nerves passing in front of the retina, counts against it. If you want to cite noble deeds by believers or vile deeds by atheists, be sure to mention all the cases that are the other way round.

"B-b-but I can't prove anything using those rules." Yeah, that's kinda what "faith" means, doesn't it?

Romans 13:1-2 (NIV) Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

When you take your car to the shop, you don't try to tell the mechanic what to do based on the Bible. In that situation the mechanic is the lawful authority. You don't refuse a blood transfusion based on the Bible, or at any rate, those who do, usually die. When you're sick, the doctor is the lawful authority. Now I know people will tell me the doctors gave someone six months but the person was healed by prayer or some alternative treatment. But the doctor didn't say the person must die, only that he was likely to barring some unforeseen circumstance. And - see the point above - be sure to mention the cases where people sought prayer or alternative treatments and died anyway.

What does it mean to say something in the Bible is "true?" Apologists repeatedly point to verifiable historical facts in the Bible that match other accounts. In other words, external reality is the standard. If the Bible said grass was red and sheep had six legs and pigs can fly, it would have been laughed out of existence before the ink was dry on the papyrus.

And that means, when it comes to external reality, specialists who study those fields are the lawful authority, not the Church, not priests, ministers or Popes, not the Bible. When astronomers said the earth rotated and revolved around the Sun, they, not the Church, were the lawful authority (Martin Luther said of Copernicus: "this fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy." For the first twenty years of its existence, Harvard University taught earth-centered astronomy. The Catholic Church quietly admitted its error when it removed the ban on Galileo's book in 1835.)

So people who study the history of the earth are the lawful authority, not Genesis. Biologists are the lawful authority on evolution, not creationists. A science degree is worth something in evaluating science; a theology degree is worth nothing.

Exodus 20:16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour. (KJV)

Is there an asterisk in your Bible that leads to a footnote saying: "unless you get it in an e-mail," or "unless you see it on a Christian blog?" Or even "to the best of your knowledge?"

No. It says Thou shalt not. No ifs, ands or buts. If it's false, and you forward it without checking it thoroughly, you, personally, are lying. There is no lie so vile that Christians will not pass it along in e-mail. The Procter and Gamble symbol is Satanic? *Forward* Obama eats aborted babies on toast? *Forward*

In fact, the Procter and Gamble thing is even more sinister. In 1997 the company filed a lawsuit against people who were deliberately spreading the message, presumably to undercut consumer loyalty and sell another company's products.

And there's no asterisk here that says "to the best of my knowledge." That means that unless you thoroughly check the story, you have no business passing it on. If you don't have time to check things out, you don't have time to have an opinion. The Post Office puts out Islamic stamps? First, why is that any more offensive than Christmas or Hanukkah stamps? Second, the stamps are actually sold by a custom stamp company that charges extra and reimburses the Post Office for the postage. That took me two minutes to check on line when someone sent me an indignant e-mail.

The Nazis based their ideas on Darwin? It took me ten whole minutes to locate Mein Kampf, download it, and run a word search. Of the dozen or so uses of "evolution" (Entwicklung in the original German - I checked that, too - the word is used many more times and mostly translated as "development") not a single one refers to biological evolution. Darwin is not mentioned once. So now that you've read this, if you repeat that the Nazis based their ideas on Darwin, you are deliberately lying. If you doubt me, locate Mein Kampf and do the research yourself.

Philippians 2:3 (NIV) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

Go into a Christian bookstore and leaf through a few tomes about secular humanism, evolution, or other religions. Do the authors esteem the people they're writing about as "better than themselves?"

James 3:1 (NIV) Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 

Small wonder Luther labeled James "an epistle of straw." It must have seared his soul every time he read it. The average Christian reads James about as often as he reads Habakkuk. And certainly, to listen to the blather lots of Christians spout when trying to evangelize, they don't think this verse applies to them.

Next time somebody tells you that "in Biblical times, people used to...," ask him what his source is. Josephus? Tacitus? Livy? Suetonius? Better yet, don't ask him. Ask if he can name a few historians from Biblical times. Next time someone tells you that a certain word meant something in Greek or Hebrew, ask him to write out the Greek or Hebrew alphabet. I recently heard a devoutly Christian professor of New Testament Greek say that whenever he heard preachers expand on the meaning of some Greek word in the Bible, ninety per cent of the time it was wrong. Not judged doctrinally, merely by the well defined standards of Greek. The second half of this verse is sobering.