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In Today’s USA, Persistent Echoes of 1860

Back then, the nation verged on civil war. Now there’s talk of a new one, making this book essential.

Crawford Kilian 18 Jul 2022TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

When you grow up in a particular social system, it seems like the natural order of things. Questioning it seems as pointless as complaining about the weather.

But social systems are constructs, like theme parks. And the American social system has been under construction for over 300 years. It’s been marketing itself to the world as a rich, powerful democracy where all are equal. But it was started as an oligarchy of rich white men, and with few interruptions it has continued to be an oligarchy.

As American historian and Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson describes them in her 2020 book , the founders of the republic were the prosperous descendants of generations of wealthy men. Many of them were enslavers who had set themselves up as a kind of colonial aristocracy. The nation they created was to be one of equals — as long as they were white, male and rich.

What’s more, most believed that such equality required the existence of an inferior class. Richardson calls this the “democratic paradox,” and it has driven American politics since before the revolution. Rich white men, being superior, deserved to rule over women, children, the poor and the enslaved. They would have the leisure to rule because the enslaved and the poor would support them. Today’s oligarchs, the billionaires, think the same.

Benign dictators

Then as now, not everyone agreed that the rich should be the natural governing party. Even in the 18th century, slavery was morally abhorrent to many, especially in the northern colonies that didn’t rely on slave labour. And in the young United States, slave owners and slave states were a minority; slavery would have to expand or risk eventual abolition by the growing populations of the northern states. In the meantime, the southern oligarchs marketed themselves as an aristocracy of benign dictators — educated, cultured and naturally superior to ordinary men.

That idea should have been ditched after the Civil War, but instead it persisted in white terrorism against emancipated Black people in the southern states. The Jim Crow era maintained white supremacy from the 1890s to the 1960s.

And white supremacy migrated west as well, both before and after the Civil War. The west relied on government support, but marketed itself as a place where a hard-working white man could prosper if only the government would leave him alone.

The myth of the plantation aristocrat was replaced by the cowboy. Richardson argues that the original cowboys were ill-paid young men doing dangerous work for little pay (and a third of them were Black, Mexican or Indigenous). But they could be mythologized into hard-working, courageous young white men who were rugged individualists. (Richardson notes that the government was deeply involved in creating and sustaining the wealth of the western cattle and mining barons.)

The rugged individual cowboy became a major mythological figure in literature, movies and TV. Americans absorbed a vision of their own history out of a mishmash of the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind and countless western movies. Richardson notes that in such movies the government is usually the U.S. Cavalry, arriving late to rescue white settlers unable to solve their problems with their own firepower.

Trust-busting oligarchs

Slave-owning aristocrats evolved easily into corporate oligarchs, presiding over a world in which most Americans had no chance of rising to such heights. Some oligarchs, like Teddy Roosevelt, might break up massive corporations in the name of equal (white) opportunity, but trust-busting did little or nothing for the ordinary working person.

Gradually, though, the vote had been expanding. Richardson wryly notes that women got the vote only when they argued that wives and mothers would “purify” America — not because they were equal to men, but they were imagined to be more moral than men. Black men might be able to vote in some states, but even the 14th and 15th amendments said nothing about the status of Black women, Indigenous peoples or other racialized Americans. Oligarchy prevailed.

The Depression and the Second World War forced dramatic changes. Under president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taxes on the rich went up and money went into programs to help the poor. The war intensified this process, narrowing the income gap between rich and poor even more. Americans were embarrassed to know that Hitler had admired American racial policies, and that many Americans had shared his antisemitism. That pushed American racism into the shadows. After the war, equality improved with the integration of Black soldiers in the U.S. army, and then Black children into the public schools. Egalitarianism became at least an aspirational goal.

The oligarchs weren’t finished, though. Richardson describes the postwar “golden age” when white workers, at least, could earn enough to buy a house and send their kids to college. She also mentions the 1971 Lewis Powell memorandum, a corporate lawyer’s capitalist manifesto. The memorandum triggered a flood of corporate money into think tanks, conservative journals and graduate schools, building a new case for a hierarchical society with a weak government.

This corporate revolution gave ammunition to "Movement Conservatism," which had arisen in the 1950s to promote a basically Confederate ideology: the supremacy of rich white men, presiding over millions of individualists who would be deftly prevented from taking collective action to improve their condition.

The ‘corrupting influence’ of government

White male supremacy made inroads with American working-class men in the 1980s and ‘90s. Richardson writes: “As the postwar economy faltered, young white men whose future was no longer ensured used their dominance over women to cling to the idea that they were special.” The government wasn’t even the U.S. Cavalry anymore, just an engine of repression and wealth redistribution.

“More and more evangelical families,” Richardson writes, “particularly in the western states, took their children out of public schools to homeschool them without the corrupting influence of government and its secular principles.”

The enslavers had staged a hostile takeover of the Democratic party in the 1830s; their spiritual descendants staged a similar takeover of the Republicans in the 1990s and 2000s.

“The world of 2018,” Richardson says, “looked a lot like that of 1860.” People the plantation aristocrats would have dismissed as white trash were now solid supporters of oligarchy, credulous paranoids who thought every election was rigged unless their candidates won.

A theme park utopia

The American paradox has yet to resolve itself. Some Americans still see “democracy” as an equal society of rich white males who thrash out matters between themselves — a theme park, preserving a phony vision of an American utopia designed by the founding fathers.

Most, however, see “democracy” as meaningless if it is not inclusive of everyone and acting in the interests of the majority. Rather than return to the past, they use history as a foundation to build a better country. The gap between these two groups has grown very wide and seems to be growing wider. As leading voices in the U.S. media muse aloud about a coming second civil war, it is hard to imagine how the gap might narrow again.

Canada resonates to both visions, though the white male supremacists have kept their heads down until recently, and the egalitarians seem to be making little progress. It’s perfectly possible that our own oligarchs could game our system by putting a populist in power as they did with Donald Trump. It remains to be seen if the majority will forestall such a move.  [Tyee]

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