“In Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves. Where this is the case, in any part of the world, those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege.” – Edmund Burke, 1775
A Republican Congressional candidate in Florida this year produced a campaign ad depicting President Obama as the captain of a slave ship full of white children. That seemed outrageous, but it was only the beginning. The rash of Obamacare=Slavery rhetoric that followed the recent Supreme Court’s ruling on the ACA has made the slave ship ad seem restrained.
This persistent “slavery” line has a deeper resonance than your run of the mill wacky Facebook post. It exposes an old understanding of the role of politics that poisons our culture and limits our ability to build a government that can serve our needs. We need to grow beyond this legacy, but first we must confront it. And time is running out.
The authors of the book Why Nations Fail explain that prosperity and political stability rise from open, inclusive public institutions. A rich network of broadly participatory institutions channel the public will into public policy, creating government with a deep well of legitimacy and responsiveness. By the same token, public institutions of the opposite character explain the persistence of oppression.
The authors also describe “The Iron Law of Oligarchy,” the strange phenomenon that allows repressive institutions to recreate themselves even after a regime change.
“The internal logic of oligarchies is that they will reproduce themselves not only when the same group is in power, but even when an entirely new group takes control…Even when challenged, as US Southern planters were after the Civil War, their power remained intact and they were able to keep and even recreate a similar set of extractive institutions from which they would again benefit.”
Institutions are far more persistent than any particular government and Southerners have inherited political institutions with a frightening history. Much of the white public still is leaning on political assumptions older than they can remember; a legacy of those repressive institutions.
While the rest of America embarked on a great experiment in open institutions and economic development the slave states lived under a regime as cruel and violent as any banana republic. For the planter aristocracy, maintaining power under U.S. electoral democracy was a thorny challenge demanding the maximum independence from Washington and a careful compromise with ordinary white citizens.
Slavery in early America was not limited to Africans and early on the distinction between European and African slaves was murky. A large number of European immigrants came to the colonies either as semi-voluntary indentured servants or as outright slaves. Many were kidnapped (see the origin of the term) from the streets of British port cities.
The Revolution had no direct impact on white slavery in the South. A failed 1800 petition to the North Carolina Legislature to free a white slave girl demonstrates that even after the Revolution there was nothing about the institution of slavery that provided inherent protection for whites (also see the fascinating 1857 Louisiana case of Alexina Morrison).
The planters understood that if the South’s small farmers, tradesmen and merchants ever organized their own independent institutions their slave capital could be destroyed in a single election cycle. Over time the planters developed a racial alliance, a sort of unstated compromise with the white voting public. That alliance granted limited protection to whites by shifting the basis of slavery onto an ethic of white supremacy.
Racism among ordinary white Southerners was not merely ignorance or bias, it was a survival strategy. The subtle compromise between the planters and ordinary whites combined racial supremacy and a shared fear of powerful central authority to keep the aristocracy intact and the remaining white population more or less free.
The Southern formula for liberty became embedded so deep in our psyche that it’s practically a genetic marker:
Freedom = Weak Government + White Racial Superiority
Tamper with either of those variables and you open the door to white slavery. The idea is so old and etched so deep that it has passed to our generation unchallenged. It inspired an enduring legacy of self-generated repression, a sort of crowd-sourced Fascism, able to perpetuate itself with little direction from above.
Freedom in that equation meant nothing more complex than being left alone. If your government is so corrupt that it enslaves a large portion of the population and consistently threatens to enslave you, then you aren’t looking to that government to deliver schools, roads, infrastructure or other services. In the best scenario, that government is impotent and distant. That attitude toward government travelled wherever Southern culture went, from Oklahoma, to the Mountain West, to California’s Central Valley, and elsewhere.
The Civil Rights Acts of ’64 and ’65 weakened the old compromise. A more muscular Federal government put Southern institutions on the defensive where they have remained ever since. Under pressure from in-migration, Federal enforcement, and the influence of global capitalism, the old formula is at last teetering on the edge of collapse, but that weakness has inspired a surprising rally.
Southern whites today, like my ancestors, still carry an almost primal fear that a strong central government could give unstoppable power to either wealthy elites or to minorities who would use that power to strip them of what they have (look again at the slave ship ad). Growing racial equality weakens ordinary whites’ psychological ties to the wealthy. Hispanic migration scrambles the racial order, giving the wealthy a new source of labor and weakening the leverage of working whites. The formula is in trouble and much of the white public, rather than cheering the promising development toward open institutions and authentic liberty, is terrified.
As the Democratic Party grew hostile to the old formula Southern political institutions faced a unique challenge. The South has never tolerated multi-party democracy. In just over a decade, Southerners accomplished the remarkable transformation from single-party white Democratic rule to single-party white Republican rule as the defenders of the old ways fled into the nearly empty Southern Republican Party apparatus, overwhelming any resistance. Their growing power in the Republican Party has created a miserable muddle at a national level as party of Lincoln and Reagan struggles to absorb waves of fuming Dixiecrats hostile to much of the party’s traditional, Hamiltonian message.
A cold demographic reckoning looms for Southern whites. Their domination of public institutions there will end soon, perhaps within a decade. They could use the time they have left to finally build services and social capital that support authentic community, respecting and serving the needs of all citizens.
They could construct fair systems for public education funding, set up rational tax structures, and build the kind of public institutions that foster compassion and understanding across cultural lines. They could cultivate tolerance and respect for diverse religious and cultural traditions.
They could make a choice to break the Iron Law of Oligarchy while they still have time. When political dominance passes to a new demographic coalition, that group could inherit effective public institutions that respect the rights of all citizens regardless of race or wealth. Public institutions could be so open and representative that race and ethnicity become politically meaningless.
Or they could go down in a destructive frenzy, tearing down public institutions, slashing the shared burdens of citizenship, and seizing every trivial scrap of lordship until the last vestiges of authority squeeze out between the fingers of their bleeding fists.
Demographic Karma can be a bitch. White Southerners will soon get the chance to live with the political institutions they constructed, under someone else’s dominance. Whether they will reform those institutions while they have the chance is an open question that will find its answer sooner than most people expect.