The Battle Over the Meaning of America

Authoritarianism didn’t just happen overnight — it’s always been with us.

Many observers, both inside and outside the United States, are bewildered by how quickly this country has turned against the ideals that earned it the respect and admiration of the world, the ideals that made it unique in history as the first country explicitly founded on the principle of popular self-rule.

To these observers, America is defined by the words of the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It’s defined by the strides we’ve made toward full representative democracy since those founding documents were written, such as the extension of the vote to non-property-owning men, then African Americans, then women, then African Americans again (since we didn’t get it right the first time). And by its openness to immigrants from other nations, by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed upon the base of the Statue of Liberty, and by the promise of prosperity and opportunity to all comers.

In this worldview, “America” is an aspirational ideal: a country where we’re all equally deserving of life and liberty, health and happiness, security and opportunity, rights and dignity, and where we’re all treated equally in our pursuit of these blessings.

But we can’t overlook or forget that America is not one people but many, and these peoples have historically disagreed on whether all human beings truly are equal, on who does and doesn’t deserve to take part in government, on the purpose and appropriate role of the federal government, on whether immigrants deserve to be full citizens and — perhaps most crucially — on the meaning of “freedom” itself.

In particular, there’s always been one especially powerful, competing idea about what “America” means. Times change, but this competing idea hasn’t, not much, and it’s been on the rise again in this century. At first, it popped up from time to time in a revealing gaffe or a shocking mob action, an audacious new state law or an inappropriate and excessive application of force. We saw it in the pushback against Black Lives Matter and in the argument over whether or not to admit refugees from Syria. We saw it in the relentless campaign to characterize the Obama presidency as illegitimate and to thwart every perceived “liberal” goal. But most recently, most clearly and most unsettlingly, we see it in the election of Donald Trump and the wave of Republican legislative victories that accompanied it.

This isn’t simply a matter of having different policy priorities: it’s a different, incompatible concept of what America is and ought to be.

It’s also been around longer than our contemporary idea of the “political spectrum,” so terms like “conservative” or even “right-wing” are unsuitable to describe it, and it’s not enough to simply associate it with the Republican Party or the Tea Party. This competing idea originated in the South and is inseparable from it, so I’ve chosen to refer to it as “neo-Confederacy,” even though its influence extends far beyond those historical boundaries.

Does America stand for, and should it stand for, democracy and equality or neo-Confederacy? The struggle over what the United States of America is all about — what “America” means — will be the struggle that defines our times, and we have to be aware of this struggle and recognize it for what it is. We also have to recognize just how deeply this antidemocratic worldview runs in America and how determined it is to reshape our nation and our world.

To understand the full extent to which neo-Confederacy stands in opposition to democracy and equality — and to which it’s endured and continues to endure in American politics — we have to be aware of the fact that the American colonies weren’t all founded for the same reason.

The Puritans of New England and Quakers of the Delaware Valley founded their colonies to escape religious persecution. But the colonies of the coastal South were founded by aristocrats from England, often younger sons, who could get more and better land on these shores than they could back home and who wanted little more than to enjoy the same privileged manorial life as their elder brothers.

In particular, the Deep South was colonized by planters who had already made themselves rich growing sugar and cotton in the West Indies and were looking to expand their system in order to enrich themselves further. In need of many more disposable workers, they put all their eggs in a single basket: the enslavement of Africans. (For historical background, I’m indebted to Albion’s Seed: Four English Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer and to the more recent American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, which manages not only to refine and expand upon Fischer’s theses but to be a lot more readable as well.)

To these Southern aristocrats, the introductory assertion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” would be not only obviously untrue but absurd. When they spoke of “liberty,” what they had in mind was the classical concept of libertas, which was not the same as the concept of natural rights conceived by the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Rather, their idea of “liberty” was privilege conferred by one’s rank in society. Some people had many “liberties,” some had only a few, and the vast majority had none. Their hegemonic concept of “liberty” conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule others while not being ruled over. Thus, a Southern aristocrat like John Randolph could say, without being aware of any self-contradiction, “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty; I hate equality.”

Years later, William Joseph Harper wrote a lengthy defense of slavery in which he rebutted the most well-known statement in the Declaration of Independence:

Sen. William Joseph Harper (S.C.)
Is it not palpably nearer the truth to say that no man was ever born free, and that no two men were ever born equal? . . . It is the order of nature and of God, that the being of superior faculties and knowledge, and therefore of superior power, should control and dispose of those who are inferior. It is as much in the order of nature, that men should enslave each other, as that other animals should prey upon each other.

A magazine called DeBow’s Review asserted of the Southern system, “We are the most aristocratic people in the world. Pride of caste and color and privilege makes every white man an aristocrat in feeling. Aristocracy is the only safe guard of liberty, the only power watchful and strong enough to exclude monarchical despotisms” — that is to say, the “despotisms” of a monarch supreme enough to deprive the Southern aristocrats of their “liberties.” Or the “despotisms” of Northern democrats: a Civil War–era magazine, the ironically named Liberator, complained that every low-born Yankee “is continually devising some plan to bring down his aristocratic neighbor to his own detested level.”

While all life before the mid–20th century was sexist to some degree, men and women were far less unequal in the North than in the South, where Fischer characterizes their sex roles as “male predators and female breeders.” Because of the aristocrats’ concern for their noble bloodlines, women (particularly married, aristocratic women) were expected to meet strict standards of virtue, while men were free to prey on any woman in the neighborhood — and servant and slave girls were especially easy prey. According to Fischer, they took a “jocular attitude toward rape” and in some cases punished the crime less severely than petty theft. George Fitzhugh, in yet another apologia for slavery, wrote of the “affection which all men feel for what belongs to them” — a category in which he included “wives, children and slaves.”

Meanwhile, in the highlands of Appalachia, a much more egalitarian people, the Scots-Irish — who would have gleefully fought over the suggestion that any coastal aristocrat was better than they — nevertheless took a similar attitude toward sex roles. Although both men and women were considerably freer with their sexuality (resulting in astronomical rates of premarital and extramarital pregnancy), there was no question that men were dominant and women dependent in backcountry families. Moreover, not only were women consigned to an inferior status, among both the coastal aristocrats and the backcountry settlers, women were expected to do the lion’s share of the work in the farm, field and household. For the men, extensive leisure was one of the “liberties” to which they were accustomed.

The naturally egalitarian Scots-Irish detested the Southern aristocrats during the colonial period and the early years of the republic, and they mostly sided with the Union during the Civil War. Afterward, however, they joined the erstwhile Confederates’ coalition, bonding over shared contempt for blacks and hatred of meddling Yankee reconstructionists. In the century and a half since that time, on only a handful of occasions has it been possible to pry them apart.

Race, sex, language, religion, opinion, national origin, property: to neo-Confederates, every one of these differences is justification for some disparity in rights and dignity, some cause to act in an unbrotherly way. In their worldview, African Americans are more exposed to poverty and crime because of some purported fault in their culture, not because of decades of thoroughly documented discriminatory treatment. Women are still valued and judged primarily for their fertility and chastity, and their lower status and unequal earnings in the workplace are nothing to be concerned about. Protesters against gun control are given carte blanche to carry high-powered weaponry wherever they please; protesters against economic inequality or police brutality are pepper-sprayed and beaten despite posing no threat. Undocumented immigrants who cross the border illegally are “illegals,” considered outlaws — almost unpersons — while the employers who hire them illegally are not.

Terrorism has been the ever-present bogeyman in contemporary politics, invoked to justify all sorts of restrictions on civil liberties. Yet Southern authoritarians and their ideological fellow travelers have always employed force and fear, including methods that we would characterize as terrorism if used by anyone else, to maintain their social order — both on the plantation and in the backcountry.

For all the lies they told themselves and others about how happy and well-treated their slaves were, they knew their system generated a constant pressure to flee, resist or rebel, and they lived in daily fear of uprising. To hold revolt at bay, they employed brutal methods including whipping, branding, mutilation, maiming (including slicing of the Achilles tendon), castration and execution. Any free citizen who helped a slave to escape would face a similar penalty for his crime against the social order. If an indentured servant abetted a slave’s escape, not only could he be fined, imprisoned or punished corporeally, his period of servitude could be extended.

Of course, justice for the aristocrat was entirely different from justice for the low-born citizen: in 1700, to kill another man’s slave in the heat of passion was punishable by a fine of £50 — according to Woodard, “about the price of a good gentleman’s wig.”

There were no “good guys” in the War of the Regulation.

The aristocrats were far from the only perpetrators of unequal or subverted justice. In colonial days, settler leaders in southern Appalachia reacted to the lawlessness of the frontier (and, in North Carolina, of their own corrupt colonial government) by forming vigilante gangs known as Regulators. Outlaws — and suspected outlaws — were whipped, branded or hanged. When there weren’t enough of those to chase down, the Regulators meted out their “justice” on anyone considered immoral or lazy, in some cases forcing them to labor on pain of torture. Sheriffs and judges sent upcountry to bring the Regulators under control were viciously attacked, resulting in an escalating duel of retaliation between the vigilantes and the government.

In the end, the Regulators were crushed — but the settlers took their revenge during the Revolutionary War, fighting an “exceedingly ugly” guerrilla war against loyalist landowners “marked by ambushes, the execution of prisoners, and the torture, rape and plunder of noncombatants,” according to Woodard. And in the post–Civil War era, backcountry vigilantes terrorized and murdered not only free blacks but schoolteachers and judges aligned with Reconstruction administrations. The original Ku Klux Klan was one such group that grew beyond Appalachia to extend throughout the South as it served the interests of the neo-Confederate hegemony.

In just the past several years, we saw Cliven Bundy and his followers defy the federal government when it sought to collect fees he legally owed, and the government backed down. We saw a mob of anti-immigrant protesters block a bus of undocumented detainees from reaching a federal processing center in their town (arguably an obstruction of justice), and no one was arrested. We saw investment bankers crash the nation’s economy with fraudulent securities; only a couple of designated scapegoats were prosecuted. Yet every day, thousands of African Americans and Latinos are stopped and searched without cause or warrant, taken into custody if they object, and beaten or executed if they fail to comply quickly and thoroughly enough with an officer’s directions. The presidential administration of George W. Bush normalized torture and detention without trial of “unlawful combatants” who remain incarcerated in an offshore prison, kept there by neo-Confederate refusal to allow them to be transferred to mainland prisons or given a constitutional trial.

Doug Muder sums up the neo-Confederate attitude and the way force and fear are used to defend it in a spectacular post on his blog, The Weekly Sift:

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.
When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.
An 1874 cartoon depicting a black family between a lynched body hanging from a tree and the remains of a burning schoolhouse, with the White League and KKK shaking hands in mutual congratulation.

The backlash against Reconstruction resulted in the formation of paramilitary groups such as the White League and Red Shirts, which operated openly, threatening and murdering black voters, Reconstructionist officeholders and poor whites who supported the Reconstruction. The federal government attempted to suppress the groups but eventually gave up because the violence was too ubiquitous. By the early 20th century, Southern citizens and officials would brag openly of using torture and murder to keep blacks and reform-minded citizens from participating in politics.

Carried back into power by these terrorist gangs, the neo-Confederates proceeded to thumb their nose at the U.S. Constitution and create the apartheid system known as Jim Crow, which is most notable for the ways in which it restricted the right to vote through rigged “literacy tests” and various poll taxes.

Limitation of the franchise was nothing new in the South. The aristocratic ruling class thought democracy was a despicable and dangerous absurdity; their idea of a republic was on the Roman model, with participation confined to the patrician class. They excluded non–property owners from voting and skewed representation in their legislatures to favor the areas they controlled (one of the grievances of the North Carolina Regulators). Though opposed to John Adams’ presidency in general, they supported his Alien and Sedition Acts. As more citizens were granted the right to political participation, the South became a region of one-party rule, with opponents and dissenters threatened with violence or simply murdered. If the commoners could vote, they had to vote the way the aristocrats wanted them to.

Jim Crow endured until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and beyond, since both acts met with continued resistance in the Deep South. Just four years ago, after the Supreme Court decided 5–4 in Shelby County v. Holder to strike down the VRA’s preclearance formulas, Texas and Mississippi immediately enacted new voter identification laws, similar to those advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council and enacted in other states controlled by neo-Confederates. Such voting restrictions have since swept the nation — and, according to some, swung the states that gave Trump his victory.

For all the neo-Confederates’ talk of the “dignity of work” the Calvinist work ethic is not a Southern value. The backcountry settlers valued the warrior ethic above the work ethic, and they relegated the hardest work to women; to the coastal aristocrats, work was something you made other people do so that you could live a life of leisure. (James G. Birney, a Kentucky abolitionist, entertainingly grumped that under the plantation system, “the majority are to be made poor and miserable [so] that the few may spend their useless lives in indolent voluptuousness.” Shades of Occupy Wall Street.)

Gov. and Sen. James Henry Hammond (S.C.)

In fact, during the Civil War era, many leaders in the Deep South argued that all lower-class people should be enslaved, regardless of race, for their own good. They held that enslaved laborers were happier (!), fitter (!!) and better looked after (!!!) than their “free” counterparts who worked for industrial capitalists, and that free societies were inherently unstable because the exploited might rise up and revolt, whereas slaves could be kept in their place through violence and political exclusion, making the authoritarian Southern system more “well-designed and durable,” as James Henry Hammond put it.

Woodard observes penetratingly in American Nations:

The goal of the Deep Southern oligarchy has been consistent for over four centuries: to control and maintain a one-party state with a colonial-style economy based on large-scale agriculture and the extraction of primary resources by a compliant, poorly educated, low-wage workforce with as few labor, workplace safety, health care, and environmental regulations as possible. . . . Once in office, they focused on cutting taxes for the wealthy, funneling massive subsidies to the oligarchs’ agribusiness and oil companies, eliminating labor and environmental regulations, creating ‘guest worker’ programs to secure cheap farm labor from the developing world, and poaching manufacturing jobs from higher-wage unionized industries.

Neo-Confederates today preach about the “dignity of work” while doing all they can to perpetuate the existence of workplaces in which employees are powerless nobodies, defenseless against the whims of their bosses. They preach about the “dignity of work” while redefining “work” to mean “working for someone else” — not working in the home, not freelancing, not starting one’s own business — and condemning the Affordable Care Act for “rewarding people for not working” when it allows them the flexibility to leave their current jobs. They preach about the “dignity of work” while opposing increases in wages, opposing stable pension benefits, and opposing a safety net for the poor and precariously employed. These positions seem absurd and contradictory until you realize what they’re really saying to American workers: “God created you to serve your betters. You will serve them, and you will be grateful for it, and you will not complain.”

The hegemonists of the South have always demanded their own way, left the Union to get their own way, started a gratuitous war against the Union they had just left to assert the superiority of their own way, employed force and fear to throw off their vanquishers and revert to their own way as soon as they could, persisted in that way despite warnings from the U.S. Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional, and upon gaining control of all three branches of government between 2002 and 2006, pursued that way to an extent that made life in the United States of America scarier than it had been at any time in my 40-year living memory — until now. Because, to reiterate Muder’s words, “The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.” So it would be naïve to think they won’t keep pushing to get their way one of two things happens: either the country repudiates their neo-Confederate ideology decisively, once and for all; or they prevail.

The Republicans have gone all in for neo-Confederate authoritarianism. We have to go all in, too, for liberty, equality, justice and dignity for all — or the long arc of the moral universe will bend away from us, away from justice, and back into the darkness of rule by force and fear.