While pundits and politicians from both parties celebrate averting a potentially disastrous government shutdown—for the moment, at least—a much bigger issue has been lost in the debate over the federal budget: the way in which race has for generations deeply shaped our discussion over the size and cost of government.
A New York Times editorial declared last weekend that, “It’s Not Really About Spending”, but rather the Republican Party’s social agenda. While partly true, the focus on abortion, the environment or even the deficit misses the long racial legacy behind the current debate. This is not simply a debate about the budget, but rather an all-out fight around the purpose and power of the federal government—and we’d do well to remember the history that still informs that fight. Simply put, we can draw a straight line from the Confederacy, to the Dixiecrats, to today’s tea party Republicans.
Concern over the size of the federal government has been a rhetorical Trojan Horse for conservatives for centuries. The origins of the American right’s hostility to the national government can be found in our young republic’s conflict over the institution of racialized slavery. The debate over whether slavery could exist or expand was the defining conflict in American politics from the founding, and its legacy has continued to shape our political discourse ever since.
Supporters of slavery, rooted in the plantation South, sought to defend the wealth their brutality created by limiting the power of the federal government. This gave birth to the euphemistic demand of “states’ rights” that would remain a dominant part of national politics all the way through the 20th century. The federal government, they argued, should have limited authority to regulate the South’s peculiar institution. It took a bloody Civil War to resolve the issue.
Still reeling from the war and harboring strong resentment at the national government’s efforts to empower formerly enslaved people during Reconstruction, the defeated Confederate states never abandoned their Trojan Horse argument about the power and purpose of the federal government. With the tragic end of Reconstruction, “states’ rights” continued as the primary political ideology through which Southern power brokers advanced arguments for racial exploitation.
From Jim Crow all the way through to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, “states’ rights” and its twin sister “limited federal government” remained the rallying cry among conservatives. Reagan famously launched his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964, explicitly lauding his belief in “states’ rights.” And lest we forget, it wasn’t that long ago (2002) that former GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praised the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond. “I want to say this about my state,” Lott declared. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.” Remember what the Dixiecrats stood for: limiting federal government and its encroachment on the Southern system of racial exploitation.
The history embedded in these ideas becomes tangible when looking at the policy outcomes they have been used to promote. Conservative activists-turned-Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas and John Roberts have used them to actively undermine federal civil rights and affirmative action efforts. From Reagan forward, Republican lawmakers have used the limited-government idea to hammer away at the social programs that were created in the 1960s to deal with the legacies of Jim Crow and slavery—welfare, equitable public education, Medicaid and Medicare. Indeed, throughout the Regean era, the “welfare queen” and “smaller government” tropes lived side-by-side, justifying a broad anti-federal agenda.
The tea party movement’s deficit-spending obsession is the ideological grandchild of this limited-government and states’ rights ideology. And much like their political ancestors, modern conservatism invokes the bloated government bogeyman to oppose all efforts at racial justice. By undermining the ability of the federal government to raise revenue and targeting what remains of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the right is really seeking to “repeal the 20th century,” in Harold Meyerson’s apt words.
And let’s be clear about the legacy that our federal safety net programs are trying to address. A quarter of all African Americans live in poverty today, compared to 14 percent of Americans overall and 9 percent of whites. African Americans account for nearly a quarter of those receiving food assistance. More than a quarter of African Americans get health care through Medicaid. The typical black family has a dime for every dollar of wealth held by the typical white family. And all of these numbers are echoed among Latino families and other people of color.
So the next time you hear the tea party right arguing for “limited government” and “fiscal responsibility” aimed at reducing the budget deficit, do not be deceived. If conservatives were really concerned, on principle, about the national debt, their silence wouldn’t have been so deafening over the first decade of the 21st century, when George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and war-making exploded the deficit. Remember that they are the direct political descendants of those who opposed government’s role in ending Jim Crow, and the ideological grandchildren of southerners who fought a war to protect the institution of racial slavery. That is the political genealogy of the right’s current rhetoric around the purpose and size of the federal government.
In contrast, we need to continue to offer and defend a bold vision for a strong, robust and powerful federal government that continues to be an instrument for racial equity and social justice. It is no longer only the issue of racial inequality at stake. Women’s’ rights, the environment and economic justice are all up for grabs if we don’t see the conservative Trojan Horse for what it is. President Obama, then, is faced with a dire choice. Will he push against the current wave of attacks on the role and purpose of the federal government, especially knowing its long racial history? Or will he, tragically, end up reinforcing the legacy of racial injustice inside the belly of this small government, state’s rights, budget-cutting Trojan Horse?
Dorian Warren is an assistant professor specializing in the study of inequality and American politics at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is a board member of the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com.