Monday, August 27, 2012

Doubling down on whiteness in an earlier time

As we head into a Republican convention that will formally nominate a candidate whose weak prospects have led him to "double down on whiteness," it's not a bad moment to look back at the distortions that a sectional embrace of white supremacy embedded in the politics of the pre-Civil War United States. Let's continue my discussion of Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of American 1815-1848. Previous installments here and here.

Howe is no fan of Jacksonian politics (1828-40). He describes this south western movement rooted in Alabama, Mississippi, and the further frontier as a force that turned racial prejudices into a political principle.

White supremacy, resolute and explicit, constituted an essential component of what contemporaries called "the Democracy" -- that is, the Democratic Party. Jackson's administrations witnessed racial confrontation not only between whites and Native Americans but also between whites and blacks. In the case of African Americans, however, the government did not embark on an initiative of its own like Indian Removal but responded to actions by the blacks themselves and their handful of radical white supporters. [Early white abolitionists were as far outside the intellectual and social mainstream as gay liberationists in the 1950s.] …The southern practice of ignoring inconvenient federal laws in order to preserve white supremacy was established long before the Civil War. …The refusal of the Post Office to deliver abolitionist mail to the South may well represent the largest peacetime violation of civil liberty in U.S. history. Deprived of access to communication with the South, the abolitionists would henceforth concentrate on winning over the North.

As we watch Mitt Romney pander to white racial anxiety, we are reminded that it was the political party carrying the name "Democratic" that pioneered assembling majorities by manipulating racial fears. The labels change; the poisonous power of race among whites has been chronic.

The success of the Democratic Party among white wage-earners owed more than a little, unfortunately, to the emphasis it placed on white supremacy. Democratic politicians found an effective way to synthesize their party's appeal to two disparate groups, the northern working class and the southern planter class. They declared that solicitude for southern slaves distracted attention from the plight of northern "wage-slaves," who, they insisted, were actually worse off.

This bit of political sleight of hand from the 1830s seems awfully contemporary, doesn't it? Then as now, the one percent always seek to turn popular discontent to their own advantage.

Okay -- so there were a lot of white people in the early United States who wanted to keep black slaves and freed black people down and to kill off native people entirely. But it is worth also attending to how racial animus effected the policies and strategies that politicians adopted to grow the new country. The rapidly expanding nation needed government to build its infrastructure and communications; then as now, private enterprise was not going to create roads, canals, and communications systems that were universal and rational. Whigs fought for a national bank to mitigate financial panics (recessions) and for such institutions as a national post office. The party of populist white supremacy feared such innovations would lead to a slippery slope that might end slavery. The contemporary label for government action in the economy was "internal improvements."

Democratic suspicion of government aid to internal improvements reflected not a horror of the market revolution but a fear that such a program might threaten the institution of slavery. The danger, from the slaveholders' point of view, was twofold. In the first place, national plans for internal improvements might be designed to wean areas in the Border. States or Upper South away from slave-based agriculture toward a diversified economy in which slavery would become vulnerable to gradual emancipation. In the second place, national plans for internal improvements set a precedent for federal activity that might encourage interference with slavery -- for example, by exercising the interstate commerce power over the interstate slave trade. Jacksonians welcomed transporting farm products to market, so long as it could be done without the centralized planning that raised the specter of emancipation.

The era's Democrats won three consecutive national elections based on their racially inflected opposition to this kind of government meddling. The Northern states, where big industrialists had more influence, did create their own improvements -- the slave dependent South, though apparently as wealthy or more so, did not, for fear of destabilizing the slave system. It took the Civil War to make a breakthrough, not only by freeing the slaves, but also by empowering national government to assist "interstate commerce."

The party labels have changed. Now it is Republicans who lead the white supremacist and anti-government charge. Their geographic base looks a lot like that of the Jacksonian Democrats. But we're still living with the race-soaked contradictions of our early sectional history.


Anonymous said...

Were Romney truly catering to "anti-government" white worker sentiment he would be a sabre-rattling, warmongering, (Big government much required) outsourcing vulture capitalist. And Andy Jackson would have had Lloyd Blankfein hung. Romney wants banking deregulation.

Anonymous said...

"would not be".....not would be

janinsanfran said...

@Anon: glad you added the second comment. I was scratching my head.

Agree that Jackson would have had no part of Romney's coddling of bankers. On the other hand, Jacksonian Democracy did essentially have a thing for the gold standard, like current Reps. I'll admit it: I don't know how a modern society can do its $$ without ripping off the working class. Lots of regulation might help.

But I stick with the point of this post: Jacksonian democracy worked because of rousing gut level racism -- just as Mitt is now trying to do.

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