Many thanks to Ben Kitchings for hosting me on The History Voyager Podcast. This was a fun and wide-ranging interview.
A few years ago I wrote a five-part blog series on the topic of grade inflation. Today I am revisiting that topic in shortened form.
Sometimes I receive emails from my students that say, “Why did I get a ‘B’ on this?” or “Why did you take two points off my submission?” It’s easy to read between the lines to figure out that these are more polite ways of saying, “Why didn’t I get my ‘A’?”
Having taught college-level history courses since 2007, I have come across a disappointingly high number of students who express an undue emphasis on grades, as if their grades, and their grades alone, will determine not just their own happiness, but their ability graduate and obtain a successful, satisfying career in life. This mentality is tough for many professors to accept. Most of us teach because we care intrinsically about the joy and importance of our subject; handing out grades is probably the least enjoyable aspect of our job.
I do not consider myself a hard grader. I’m probably average in the grand scheme of things. There are plenty of students who can and do get A’s in my classes. But that’s kind of besides the point. It would be helpful, I think, if students looked at their college experience as an opportunity to work with and encounter a lot of different professors with different teaching styles, demands, and expectations, much like the so-called “real world” for which college is supposed to prepare them.
The Essay Assignment. If it is the essay assignment you are most concerned about, remember that I left bubble comments through Turnitin.com that are particular to your individual paper and also offered some general thoughts for the entire class. I was abundantly clear in my expectations for this assignment, having shared the numerous handouts that explain the factors I would use to determine your grade, including a grading criteria handout, helpful hints for writing, a handout on plagiarism, and how to construct an effective introduction.
When you wrote your essay, did you try to minimize distractions? I emphasize that multi-tasking inhibits our ability to learn and retain information. I’ve blogged about this before and even discussed the numerous articles that reference scientific studies on the subject. Did you take it to heart when I said that writing is a process and that it is best not to write an entire assignment in one sitting? The best work comes from constant revision. Did you print out your essay and read it aloud rather than examining it solely on the computer screen? Did you have a friend or classmate look at your work to make sure it made sense to them? Did you check your essay one final time before submitting it?
Plan Ahead and Prepare. The best students are often the ones who plan ahead. What that means is that you should get started early on your essay, other assignments, or preparing for exams. It means not starting the night before a deadline.
How much work are you putting into my class? Whenever I encounter a student who has struggled in my class, I usually ask about two things: 1) note-taking and 2) the number of hours per week outside of class that you dedicate to studying for my course. The expectation is that for every one unit of coursework, you will need to spend 2-3 hours of work per week outside of class reading, studying, and completing assignments. This means a 3-unit class requires about 9 hours of week outside of class. Some students may need more time. Are you putting in this many hours? If you’re not, then I don’t think you can expect to automatically earn high grades.
I did not always get A’s in college and in hindsight, I regret complaining to a few of my professors about grades. I am eternally grateful for the education I experienced at UC Davis. I was lucky to have amazing TAs and professors. In a few instances I was unhappy with a grade I earned. I complained. It is from the perspective of hindsight and more importantly, from the experience I have gained from being a teacher at the college level, that I regret those decisions. I look back and realize that I was not deeply committed to all of my classes. I had other priorities: a social life, playing guitar in two rock bands, and an on-campus job. My experience, I hope, will be valuable to you in at least two ways. One, despite encountering disappointment in the form of B-level grades, I did not give up. I tried my best and ended up earning a doctorate, presented my research at academic conferences, and published my arguments in peer reviewed journals. I now have a book with a reputable university press. This didn’t happen overnight. Hopefully you can learn from my own experience that a slow and steady pace, exercised with patience and long-term thinking, can yield positive results. Two, I realized that I really just wasn’t a great writer as an undergrad. Every semester I am pleased to encounter the writing of lots of students whose skills are superior to the ones I held at the same age. It was only by reading students’ writing as a teacher that I could dial down my own inflated ego.
Sometimes whether you get the job or win the award has nothing to do with how hard you worked or how much talent you have. I look back at all of the time I spent stressing about grades as an undergraduate or graduate student, and fret that it was such a waste of time and energy! Because in the grand scheme of things, grades had very little or nothing to do with whether or not I got accepted to graduate school; whether or not I received a fellowship; whether or not I received a tenure-track job, an increasing rarity in today’s job market. Much larger structures were always at play; structures that were far greater in magnitude than any individual’s ability to control. Let’s say a history department wants more gender or Latin American historians and less political and economic historians. Do you think that all that groveling and extra effort to turn a B+ into an A- would really matter when it came to whether a department hired me or not? No, state budget cuts, economic forces, changes in the discipline—all these things would arguably matter much more. This is one thing I’ve been trying to tell my students…larger structures often matter much more than individual choice. Your decision to work extra hard may be irrelevant when five reactionary, religious men in robes with a narrow, pre-1929 mindset of the Constitution decide to rule, with no other intellectual fortitude than their own whims, that labor unions are somehow inconsistent with Congress’s ability to regulate interstate commerce.
The Grade you earned is NOT a reflection of your character, worth, or intellect.
Nor does a grade always correlate with effort. Sometimes when students express surprise or unhappiness with a grade that they have earned, they will say that they worked very hard on the assignment. While I certainly appreciate that many of my students are admirably juggling multiple responsibilities with classes, work, family responsibilities, and the occasional emergency, working hard is the bare minimum and something we expect from everyone. A college degree should definitely mean something. It should signify a certain intellectual achievement and communicate to others that you have attained a basic mastery of a subject (your major) and at the same time have covered a broad and well-rounded literature spanning many subjects. An article in Vitae published a very direct if harsh response from Angela Jackson-Brown, an assistant professor of English at Ball State University: “It always amazes me when students feel like their English paper grades should be based on effort. I sometimes wonder: Do you ask the math teacher if she will give you points for trying even though parts of your mathematical equation are incorrect? If you took an astronomy course, would you want partial credit because even though you identified a star as a planet, you at least recognized that they are both in the sky?”
Mastery of the Material. There are lots of theories of how best to distribute grades, but one overriding concern is whether a student has truly mastered the material. Whether you master the material may not always correlate with effort. Some students, having harnessed their own inner talents or gone to prestigious schools with teachers who instilled sound habits of mind, need very little effort to master the material. Others may work numerous hours and just get by with a “C.”
A-level work should be exceptional. Students who submit good work that is not exceptional should not expect an “A.”
Another theory of grading holds that grades are a method to compare student performance. It may be tough to hear, but if you’re a student who is unhappy with a grade, a very likely reason is that many of your classmates put up a better performance.
Grade Inflation is a Documented Phenomenon. Many argue that it harms students and professors. Grade inflation is the gradual rise in average grades earned over time without a commensurate rise in performance. We see grade inflation when most students in a class earn an A, A-, B+, or the occasional B. So just as price inflation often corresponds to a devaluation of the currency, grade inflation corresponds to a devaluation of student performance. A’s are handed out just like the dollars that grow on trees.
According to Rosovsky and Hartley, between 1960 and 1997, average collegiate grades increased nationally from a 3.07 GPA to a 3.34. Gradeinflation.com has datasets that show these statistics. If trends continue, virtually every college student will get an “A” by the mid-21st century and the average GPA will approach 3.8, which is higher than my own undergraduate GPA. One study of the CSU and UC systems, where I have spent over fifteen years as a student and faculty member, showed grades inflating at about forty percent of the 32 schools surveyed (9 branches of the University of California and 23 CSU branches). A small percentage of these schools were actually deflating grades while at a larger number of schools, grades had stayed about the same. The study, which analyzed grades between 2009 and 2013, reported an average GPA at UC campuses of 3.03 while the average GPA at the CSUs was 2.93.
A rise in grades would be acceptable if it reflected a rise in student performance. But if anything, the data suggest that performance has been declining. American millenials, when judged against their peers in other countries, have performed quite badly in literacy, technical skills, and math skills. This is true even for those with advanced graduate degrees.
A growing chorus of professors argue that grade inflation is harming both students and faculty. It harms students because it packs a wide range of student performance and achievement into a narrow range of grade distribution. Let’s say 80% of students in a class receive a B+, A-, or A. This would be an example of what is known as grade compression (sometimes scholars distinguish between grade inflation and grade compression but I would prefer to view them as part of the same phenomenon).
As grade compression occurs, we are less able to parse out and differentiate the truly exceptional work from work that is only slightly above average. This devalues hard work. It rewards the underachievers and punishes high-performing students. If a professor gives an A- to a person who slacked off most of the term but managed to put together a strong effort on only exam without truly internalizing the material, and yet at the same time gives an “A” to the person who has performed extraordinarily well, the exceptional student is not rewarded in a manner commensurate with his/her effort.
An additional harm to students wrought by grade inflation comes in the form of leading students into fields for which they are ill suited. By giving out higher grades, colleges give an implicit endorsement to employers that a given student would make a strong candidate for a position. The student who shows up late, talks and texts in class, and doesn’t do any of the reading—but yet pulls off a B+ because the professor is a pushover—may be in for a rude awakening upon entering the workforce. There is a school of thought—call it traditional, old fashioned, or disciplinarian if you wish—contending that professors are ultimately not doing students any favors to prepare them for the job market by being too lenient.
A lower grade is supposed to motivate you to do better. As one student at Princeton University commented in an article by William Abbott, “if I get the same grade for my very best work that I get for work that is not my very best, I’m less motivated to try to stretch as far as I can.” The incentive for improvement is one of the justifications for why we have grades in the first place, despite their problems. If you get an “A” with minimal effort, you haven’t really pushed yourself. Say you get a “B” in a class but then work incredibly hard to improve your writing skills and then in the next class you get an “A” by the same professor. Wouldn’t it have been worth it? Wouldn’t you feel proud of yourself for the real, measurable improvement in your skills? But you wouldn’t have gone through this improvement unless you had a professor who gave you a “B” or a “C.”
The late UCSB economist, Philip Babcock, in a 2010 essay, wrote that average study time would be about 50% lower in class in which the average grade expected was an “A” compared to the same course taught by the same instructor in which the average grade expected was a “C.” To rephrase, if professors gave lower grades throughout the term, students would make the natural adjustment of studying harder. And to the extent that more study leads to more learning—at least up until a certain saturation point—we see, therefore, that passing out lower grades will actually lead to more learning. And that’s what we want, right? For what else is the job of a university, and the professors who work there, than to provide an environment in which the student learns the most?!
I know you want it to come to you easily. Believe me, I was there because like yourself, I, too, was an undergrad who wanted to get A’s and move on with my life. But sometimes the most satisfying experiences in life come to you after many hours and even years of hard work. It may be frustrating and you want to give up, but I’m confident that you can rise to the occasion!
It’s the LEARNING that matters, NOT the grades! Grades are arguably the least important factor to consider when you evaluate a class. Among the factors you should consider are: did the professor challenge me intellectually? Did the professor give me a new way to look at something that I had not considered before? Have I acquired new skills and/or reinforced old ones? Have I gotten a general sense of the major themes that have played out in American history?
You might enjoy your college experience more if you focus more on the process, and less on the outcome. The outcome of a class is the grade that goes on your transcript and the units that accumulate toward earning a college degree. The process is the intellectual journey of numerous hours you spend cultivating sound study habits, studying for exams, attending class, taking notes, writing an essay, etc. Focusing only on an outcome puts a lot of pressure on yourself! Now, I am not saying that you should forget about grades or ignore them. But what I am asking you to do is to bring your emphasis on outcomes more in harmony with the process.
Here’s an analogy from a completely different phase of my life. When I started out as a junior tennis player in my teens, I would put a lot of pressure on myself. I would get nervous and blow matches I should have won. We call this “choking.” My coach, Wes Hollon, diagnosed this flaw fairly easily and he told me that my problem was that I was too focused on winning and losing (the outcome). Instead, he wanted me to focus on mastering plays, whether it was hitting forehands crosscourt, taking less risks on my first serve, or whatever. These plays, in effect, were the process, not the outcome. His philosophy was that if you focus on the process, the outcome will fall naturally into place. And you know what? He was right! I started winning more matches! Now apply this to your studies: focus on developing your academic skills as part of a lifelong journey; don’t sap up all of your energy by focusing too much on outcomes.
I've got an article out in Zocalo Public Square today. In this piece I talk about the ambiguity involved in deriving lessons from past economic crises to make a larger point about the messiness of constructing historical analogies. Enjoy!
Earlier today I heard the very exciting news that an article manuscript of mine, tentatively titled "Profit, Nationalism, and 'Virgin Land': Nicholas Biddle and the Expansion of Cotton and Slavery," will be published by the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography some time in early 2021. I am really looking forward to seeing this come out in print!
Check out a brief presentation I made during a Virtual Town Hall with fellow historian Liam O'Mara. In this talk I go over:
* general models for recessions
* the causes and consequences of the Great Depression
* the Great Recession
* what policies may help us today
I've published a review of Andrew Browning's book on the Panic of 1819 for The Economic Historian.
Here is the Twitter unroll, which allows you to see the accompanying Twitter thread I wrote (including cool images of bank notes). You can view this even if you don't have a Twitter account. Enjoy!
Here is my latest book review, published in American Nineteenth Century History, Volume 20, no. 2 (216-217). If you're unable to read the review from the link here are a few of my thoughts from the review. This volume was edited by Paul Finkelman and Donald R. Kennon as part of a series for the United States Capitol Historical Society. All of the essays were interesting but in particular I'd like to highlight Lesley Gordon's chapter on the Fire Zouaves, a New York army regiment comprised of Irish working-class men. Gordon's chapter shows us how congressional committees could criticize the president, question military strategy, and find politically expedient targets to channel northern fury over the debacle at the first battle of Bull Run. Similarly, Fergus Bordewich's probing analysis of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War underscores the importance of civilian oversight of the military in a democracy. Together these chapters raise important questions while encouraging historians to consider whether they should devote more attention to congressional action when narrating the Civil War.
The vast majority of academic historians subscribe to some version of Response #2. Conservative activists, almost all of whom are not professional historians, have spent a great deal of time and money in trying to make Response #3 a plausible alternative despite the fact that it is not rigorous and relies on a selective reading of out-of-context facts. In doing so, they have dismissed the many years of hard work and expertise upon which academic historians have built their conclusions. They have maligned professors as liberal, leftist, or radical propagandists who cannot be trusted to be evaluate evidence objectively.
There is a fairly straightforward way to settle this debate and it lies in examining the entire body of evidence on party realignment in holistic fashion. If that is the case, what more can be said? All along I have wondered why this even became a debate in the first place. Why are historians engaging the larger public on Twitter by debating something that was settled long ago? Why are non-experts allowed to challenge experts on their field of expertise and thereby force the experts to take time out of their day to prove, in fact, that they are experts? Answering these questions requires that we think about the worlds of conservative politics and right-wing media echo-chambers in which Dinesh D'Souza and company spend most of their time.
Who Exactly are these Wannabe Historians?
The individuals who have most vocally challenged the scholarly consensus on party realignment include D’Souza, Carol Swain, Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Tom Cotton, Eduardo Neret, and others. They sometimes appear on Fox News. D’Souza resigned as president of a Christian college amid charges of adultery and deception. He pled guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws a few years ago, but was pardoned by the current president* and White House occupant. Swain is a former academic who has done short videos for Prager University, which bills itself as the conservative alternative to academia. It is actually called “PragerU” because it is not a real university. It is basically a scam funded by oil tycoons. And it shows. Among its featured videos and articles are ones that endorse fossil fuels and disseminate climate denialism. One op-ed penned by Prager himself disparaged environmentalists, created a false dichotomy between conservation and jobs, and cited the work of Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist whose work was lambasted by experts for misuse of statistics (Oreskes and Conway 258). Watching Prager, in short, is more destructive than ignorance for it actively misinforms the viewer.
It cannot be coincidental that D’Souza, Owens, and Swain are all people of color. The posts in this series have documented in fine detail how the GOP has embraced white nationalism and has struggled with attracting non-white voters. With that knowledge in hand, it is not hard to guess how the elite white power structure that governs the GOP, cognizant of the party’s race problems, would attempt to cover them up and fool the public by putting forth people of color as their chief propagandists. Having recently read this piece on Owens’s background, I am more convinced than ever that her rapid advance was based much more on pure opportunism than any consistent commitment to core ideological principles. The worst part is how mainstream media willingly accommodates this cynical ploy by putting Owens and Cornell West on at the same time, giving them equal screen and air time when 80-90% of the African American voting population would be more inclined to agree with West (there are plenty of other examples of this kind of false objectivity in cable news, including a contrived debate between Charles Blow and Paris Denard). For all the time that conservatives spend whining about the liberal media, they sure do a good job over-representing black conservatives in positions of prominence on television.
D’Souza, Swain, Owens, and others engage in a feature (not a bug) that has long defined conservatism: anti-intellectualism. We see this virulent distrust of expertise in the refusal among conservatives to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence on human-caused climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, and human evolution. Swain exhibited this trait when she blamed “left-leaning academic elites and journalists” for purportedly fabricating the “myth” of the Southern Strategy. D’Souza similarly staked much of his early writing career on sloppy and inaccurate critiques of academia. While professors are not immune of course from helpful and valid criticisms and feedback that accompany any profession, the current iteration of anti-intellectualism so pervasive among today’s GOP is especially toxic and pernicious. To use the phrasing of Newt Gingrich, who may be more responsible than any other figure in recent memory for polarizing and dividing Washington and the American public, professors are “out of touch,” “coastal elites” who do not understand “real” and “hard-working” Americans.
One of the ways in which anti-intellectualism plays out in society is through the politicization of knowledge and information that should ideally be non-controversial. Don’t like the Congressional Budget Office study that says tax cuts don’t pay for themselves? Attack the economists! Don’t like the scientific data pointing to significant human-caused climate change? Attack the climate scientists! Don’t like the universities that introduce students to the evidence of racism, corruption, and greed that challenge cherished American institutions like the church, military, and business community? Attack the professors! Don’t like the judge that struck down North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering? Attack the judges! Don’t like the uncovering of the Access Hollywood tape or the coverage of the Mueller Report? Attack the liberal media! When one considers this increasingly long list, it is ironic and hypocritical indeed for conservatives to deride the “victimhood mentality” that supposedly plagues American universities. The tragedy is that rather than engage evidence or evaluate an argument based on the merits, conservatives who adopt this anti-intellectual posture effectively kill the messenger for reporting information they don’t want to hear.
For all of the “gotcha moments” and McCarthyist “watchlists” that try to get professors fired for radicalizing the youth, there is a stunning lack of curiosity and seriousness as to why professors, especially in the humanities, are so overwhelmingly liberal in the first place? Answering this question with due justice would require its own post, but briefly, it could be that professors are arming students with the facts and critical thinking skills that allow them to deconstruct and rebut misleading arguments, which tend to be disproportionately concentrated on the side of the political spectrum that lies more often. It could be the fact that it is disproportionately Republican politicians who want to cut funding for public schools, scuttle departments, or eliminate tenure. It could be that teachers and professors intrinsically value an open-mindedness to multiple ways of thinking and a fundamental belief in the equality of all human beings that conflicts with the emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, conformity, and authority that are mainstays of conservatism. In any case, just because professors are liberal, it does not mean that they can’t do their jobs well or that they “discriminate” against conservative students by giving them bad grades, which one study by a lifelong Republican debunked.
Professors are like everyone else in that they share the best and worst of humanity’s range of behavioral types. But what distinguishes professors from the general populace is that they have spent an inordinate amount of time reading books and articles, writing, publishing, and speaking in front of audiences. In other words, they are informed and educated. That leaves us with two generalizations that we can safely make about professors: 1) they are educated and 2) they are liberal. The odds are that these two variables are connected somehow, perhaps causally. Could it be that being more educated causes one to adopt a more liberal policy position? If that is true, and most of us agree that it is better to be more educated than less educated, then what exactly is the problem? Given the relationship between education and political liberalism, are we really ready to accept that by trying to thwart the spread of liberal ideas in the classroom, the D’Souza crowd is essentially yearning for a society that is less educated and thus more open to manipulation and control?
Why are they doing this?
No serious or respectable academic historian agrees with D’Souza. Kevin Kruse and others have repeatedly dunked on them on Twitter in humiliating fashion. So why would they continue to peddle disinformation? It could be that D’Souza won’t listen to anything written by a professional historian (bad); he won’t examine evidence that contradicts his views (even worse); or he believes there is something to be gained in persisting (frightening). Unfortunately there are large swaths of white suburbanites, rural whites, and whites without college degrees, especially among men over 50, who have been primed by decades of conservative media to be suspicious of academics. And in that sense, a depressingly high percentage of Americans will believe whatever D’Souza says, no matter how far-fetched, if he merely pushes the right buttons of permanent culture war.
It could also just be a cold political calculation. The larger conservative project, in addition to seeking to overturn the New Deal and Civil Rights Movement, has been fairly effective in weakening the institutions and norms that would prevent the rise of an authoritarian president* and give Republicans an advantage at the polls, despite their status as a minority of the population. Citizens’ United, gerrymandering, welcoming foreign interference in our elections, the attempt to put a citizenship question on the census, and voter suppression are all part of this project.
Education is now a more significant predictor of voting behavior compared to the past. It used to be in the 1990s that Republicans maintained an advantage among college-educated white voters. Now, they're increasingly identifying as Democratic while whites without a college degree are the bulwark of the GOP.
It may just be that Republicans have concluded that if college graduates vote for Democratic candidates, then the larger system of higher education helps the Democratic Party. Anything that could weaken higher education would, therefore, help Republicans. So if they can convince even a few unsuspecting people that college professors are out to radicalize the youth and suppress free speech, less people will attend college. And if less people attend college, there will be less professors, and presumably, more Republican voters. A sad calculation, isn’t it? The trouble is, it might be working.
What Can We Do?
There’s certainly a compelling case that engaging the D’Souzas of the world will be counterproductive. It spreads misinformation and gives bullies and trolls the attention they are so desperate to obtain. It may also elevate your blood pressure to deal with non-sense! Then there are studies suggesting that if you come across someone like a climate denier or an anti-vaxxer, trying to convince them with facts and logic will only make them more stubborn in their views. Their ideas are so wrapped up in their identities as conservatives that if you show the absurdity of an idea like climate denialism, you are not just attacking a bad idea, but attacking the person. For all these reasons, I initially ignored D’Souza’s claims.
But then I noticed that his ideas weren’t going away, no matter how many times we debunked them. I sensed that this cadre of conservative activists were trying to throw into question decades of received wisdom that historians have worked hard to establish. They were trying to muddy the waters; to throw sand in the face of the umpire to prevent an accurate call on which political party is more open to demographic change and which party has descended into bigotry and white nationalism. Their hope is to maintain power by encouraging a sort of apathy among enough voters who will say “Both sides are bad,” and therefore “I’m gonna go with my gut” or “I’m gonna go with the guy [and it’s always a guy] who tells it like it is.” Or some other banal, meaningless catchphrase that should be unacceptable in a third grader, let alone a functioning adult. And in that sense I agree with fellow historian Christopher Deutsch, who argues that D'Souza is engaged in an electoral strategy. In an article for Tropics of Meta, Deutsch made a convincing case for dunking on D’Souza, noting with alarm the conservative assault on higher education in Wisconsin. Historians, whether they admit it or not, are locked in a battle that may threaten the very survival of their profession.
The larger backdrop to this discussion is that academia is not in very good shape. Even prior to 2008, the best you could say was that it was treading water. Then we suffered the worst recession since the 1930s. In spite of the fact that the stock market, unemployment, and consumer confidence have reached record levels in recent months, academia, especially the humanities, was essentially shut out of the ten-year economic recovery. The longer-term trend is that over the last four decades it has succumbed to a more privatized model that devalues the labor and artistry of teaching, which is shown in universities’ increasing reliance on part-time labor. Some adjunct professors with doctoral degrees live in cars or have to choose between paying rent and the health care not provided to them by their employers. This neoliberal business model leaves students with decades crippling student loan debt and as a result, rather than viewing public education as a journey in the exploration of ideas, too many students now adopt a customer mentality where professors are forced to compromise their ethics. The fundamental mission of a university is a ghost of what it once was.
D’Souza and his allies have aligned themselves with the forces that have already undermined academia. To the extent that public universities (prior to the neoliberal turn) are worth preserving, it is essential to push back vigorously on D’Souza’s commentary. Remember all the predictions from the 1990s that the Internet would democratize society? How wrong that turned out to be in the age of fake news, Russian bots, and misinformation. We need to take this challenge seriously. Historians are often faulted for not engaging with the public. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to the study of history have not just an opportunity, but an obligation, to fight quackery with evidence and analysis through public engagement.
Party Realignment Part 4: In U.S. History, the Philosophy of Limited Government has almost always had an Important Racial Dimension
In the last post I showed how Dinesh D’Souza, Carol Swain, Charlie Kirk, and Candace Owens were among those perpetuating this largely false belief that today’s Democratic Party is the direct descendant of the Party of Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. Swain, in a video produced by a fake university which comes across as an apologia for Richard Nixon and a half-hearted attempt to resurrect Dwight Eisenhower into a civil rights hero, dismissed the notion of a “Southern Strategy.” The South became Republican, she says, not because of the Civil Rights Act sponsored by Democratic politicians, but because the South’s values had changed. It was apparently no longer defined by racism. According to Swain the [white] South turned to Republicans because the region's people are pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-small government.
Aside from the fact that it almost impossible to reduce a very complex topic to a 5-6 minute video, the overall stance is insidious. An outside observer who is unschooled in the intricacies of American history may find this video persuasive, thereby absolving the GOP of their complicity in racist policies. How unfortunate, I think, since there are lots of issues with Swain's version of events. Politifact ruled her claim as “false” and I’d like to add some of my own thoughts in a rebuttal.
If Swain insists that the South’s values have changed and are no longer defined by racism, I would like her to explain why Trump won the ex-Confederate states by 8.4% over Hillary Clinton. Saying that these voters merely believed in guns, conservative Christianity, and limited government while failing to mention race is a glaring and serious omission since Trump was so explicit about his racial resentment (discussed in the second post in this series). As badly as mainstream media covered the 2016 campaign, we still knew enough about him based on reporting to declare in no uncertain terms that Trump was a deranged, racist maniac, serial liar, and charlatan. And the white South still voted for him in large numbers.
In theory there is nothing inherently racist about the belief in limited government, supporting the right to bear arms, or being “pro-life,” which I would rephrase as adopting the anti-choice position advocated by predominantly white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics while ignoring other issues that harm human life; namely, guns, foreign invasions, and human-caused climate change. The key problem is that in practice and historical experience, these positions have almost always had an important racial dimension. The individuals most likely to believe in guns, a conservative version of white Christianity, and limited government are also the same people most likely to prefer policies rooted in racial animus. As the rest of this post will make clear, the evidence is rather abundant, especially after the Civil War, that limited government philosophy was often a more abstract and respectable way of communicating one's preference for racial hierarchy.
Swain claims to have uncovered some sort of secret scandal that academic historians have spread a myth about southern Democrats switching parties over the Civil Rights Act. I have already discussed in the previous post why her focus on congressional votes exclusively is misleading, but I’d like to emphasize that no historian with whom I am familiar has ever argued that the Civil Rights Act was the only reason the white South went to the GOP. That’s a straw man. The party switch was a lot more drawn out and complicated.
But what about guns and the “pro-life” position? Are there racial dimensions here, too? Yes, there are. Weapons ownership has historically been a white privilege in the American experience. The Virginia Slave Code of 1705 prohibited blacks from owning weapons. So did the Black Codes of 1865. Between these two events, the founding fathers enshrined the right to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia in the Bill of Rights as part of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. While the framers inherited from England the concept of the right to bear arms, which they wanted colonists to invoke to push back against governmental tyranny, they also wanted the colonists to put down potential slave revolts and use deadly force against Native Americans. The reasons we have a Second Amendment are complex, but we cannot fully disentangle them from questions of race. Consider how in the 1960s, Governor Ronald Reagan of California favored gun control when it was predominantly African Americans in the form of the Black Panther Party who were constituting a largely imagined threat to whites.
Similarly, it is impossible to disentangle white evangelical Protestantism and the “Moral Majority” from questions of race. While Roe v. Wade and Engel v. Vitale, which outlawed prayer in public schools, certainly provided the core set of issues that energized the Moral Majority, so did desegregation of public schools. If we are trying to understand in a comprehensive way why so many white evangelical Protestants in the United States in the 1970s and 80s began to form an alliance with the GOP, we need to understand the controversy involving the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in South Carolina.
Statistics show that white evangelicals have a troubling association with white nationalism--a sentiment that is beyond coincidental and which seems to have intensified during the Trump presidency. Consider the following:
* white evangelicals have largely supported Trump’s immigration policy that has resulted in the immoral and inhumane separation of families and possible human rights violations;
* of various groups surveyed in a Pew poll, white evangelicals were the least likeliest to say that the U.S. has a responsibility to accept refugees (see image below).
* according to a February 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey, white evangelicals were the only group out of those surveyed to believe that Christians are more likely to face discrimination compared to Muslims in the United States.
* Just a few weeks before the 2016 election, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants said the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values. Nearly as many favored building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (64 percent) and temporarily banning Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S. (62 percent). And 63 percent believed that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
Now I'd like to move on to the core purpose of this entry, which is to show the long-standing historical link between limited government philosophy and racial animus.
1780s -- Thomas Jefferson and Enlightenment Philosophy
The author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States achieved worldwide fame for defending individual liberties against tyranny. Jefferson, of course, was a key figure in a broader, intercontinental cultural and intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment in which esteemed luminaries sought to apply reason, logic, and scientific principles to other realms of human life. As such, Jefferson sought to observe his own slaves, scientifically. The result, published as Notes on the State of Virginia, became one of the earliest iterations of scientific racism. Jefferson wrote, "A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight….But this may proceed from a want of forethought….They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient….their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection….that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior…in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous….It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced this distinction…nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head….”
Slavery was such a fundamental component of the economic development that gave rise to the modern world--thereby giving extra leisure time so that elite men like Jefferson could ponder abstract topics--it would be difficult to separate the system of slavery from prevailing assumptions of ideology and political economy. It was during the Enlightenment period that classical liberalism enjoyed its heyday. One of the core features of this ideology was the protection of private property, free from governmental interference. What often gets left out is that slave property was included in most Americans' understanding of property. It is no coincidence that Enlightenment liberalism and the codification through law of race-based, chattel slavery in the American colonies occurred at roughly the same time. If early Americans cherished classical liberalism and designed a system of government that would deliberately protect the individual's right to property from the confiscatory hand of "Big Government," then the protection of slave property was a key motivating factor. For more on this topic, see the work of James Oakes.
Many of Jefferson’s fellow southerners and ideological heirs voiced constitutional objections to federal funding for internal improvements as a proxy for their racial fears. If a powerful federal government could finance transportation projects or charter a national bank, then in the hands of a northern abolitionist president, it could also wipe out slavery. There were certainly times when white southerners abandoned their penchant for limited government as the Louisiana Purchase and various fugitive slave acts demonstrated, but this ideological deviation almost always protected slavery.
1857 -- Scott v. Sandford
In the infamous Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that African Americans, whether free or enslaved, could never be citizens. He also struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional. His reasoning on the latter part was based on an interpretation of the Fifth Amendment's protection of private property that had been popularized by John C. Calhoun as early as the 1830s. Calhoun was part of a cadre of southern politicians and intellectuals who come up with a system of beliefs known as pro-slavery ideology. They said that slavery was not a necessary evil, but a positive good--an important departure from the thinking of many of the founders. Pro-slavery politicians argued that slaves were property and the Fifth Amendment protects an individual's right to property with due process. No law passed by a legislature would fulfill the requirements of due process. It is important to point out that by the 1830s, Calhoun was well aware of the South's minority status in the country in terms of population. It behooved Calhoun and his slave-owning constituents to find any way that could insulate the South's relatively small class of planters from popular rule and small 'd' democracy. If they could give property (including slave property) extra protection, they might avoid what they regarded as onerous restrictions from Congress. Calhoun rejected majority rule in favor of "limited government" when it came to the "Tariff of Abominations" in 1832. He did the same when it came to the Fifth Amendment and slave property.
Following Calhoun's lead, Taney used the Supreme Court's power of judicial review to wipe the Missouri Compromise off the books. This decision was based on Taney's assertion that the Bill of Rights (including the Fifth Amendment) applied to the western territories. So if a slave owner took his slave into the western territories and did not break any laws, Congress had no authority to prevent the individual from taking his "property" where he pleased. Taney believed that due process had not been met. The point of due process, which dated back to Magna Carta in early-13th century England, was to secure an individual's right to a fair trial and protections against indefinite detention. The government, whether a king or a constitutional republic, cannot punish individuals without first giving them a fair hearing and an opportunity to prove themselves innocent. Certain procedures must be followed so that a government or king does not rule in an arbitrary or despotic manner. Accordingly, it came to be understood over time that a government could not legally take property without following certain procedures.
In constitutional law, there are two kinds of due process: procedural and substantive. Procedural due process guarantees fair procedures in a trial or hearing or public forum. Substantive due process means you have to follow a fair procedure but you also need a good reason to take someone's property. So something can meet the standard of procedural due process and yet still fall short of the standard of substantive due process. To make things easier, we might substitute the word "substantive" for "fundamental." There are some rights that are so fundamental according to proponents of substantive due process that even if you follow sound procedure in the form of legislation, courts can still strike down the legislation as unconstitutional. Effectively an unelected judge was overruling and limiting the scope of what a democratically-elected legislature could accomplish in order to serve the interests of large property holders.
Now most people thought Congress could seize property so long as it followed proper procedures. That was known as procedural due process. But Calhoun and Taney thought this was not good enough. They think it deserved fundamental protection, or substantive due process. And in the text of Taney's decision in Scott v. Sandford, you can see that Taney wants to make sure that Congress doesn't go beyond the authorities that are explicitly outlined in the Constitution. In other words, Taney was making the case for limited government. But if we combine Taney's thoughts on the Fifth Amendment with his views on black citizenship, it is clear that limited government philosophy was being touted in service of racism and white supremacy.
1865 – Late Convention of Colored Men and Founding of the KKK
In each state groups of former slaves met to share their concerns and to request assistance from the federal government. The following message came from a convention of freedmen in Alexandria, Virginia. An excerpt of the message stated: “We warn you in time that our only safety is in keeping them under Governors of the military persuasion until you have amended the Federal Constitution that it will prohibit the States from making any distinction between citizens on account of race or color.”
That same year, in December, a group of ex-Confederate officers met in Pulaski, Tennessee, to found the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the nation’s oldest domestic terrorist organization. The Klan operated as the de facto military arm of the Democratic Party. Klan leaders required applicants to take an oath swearing that they would “oppose Negro equality both social and political,” to favor “a white man’s government.” In the very same section, applicants were asked to favor “constitutional liberty” and the “constitutional rights of the South” and the “inalienable right of self-preservation of the people against the exercise of arbitrary and unlicensed power.”
It is clear that the Klan oath wedded limited government philosophy with racism. African Americans, on the other hand, appealed to the federal government and military governors to protect them from race-based discrimination emanating from the individual states. Thus, it was in the Civil War era that African Americans came to understand that the federal government had a responsibility to protect everyone, including ethnic minorities. This was especially important in the southern states where whites were likely to use their majority status to enact policies that harmed African Americans.
1896 – Plessy v. Ferguson
In a 7-1 decision, the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to state-sponsored discrimination in public transportation. Plessy upheld Jim Crow laws as constitutional according to the 14th Amendment. Essentially this was a decision in favor of limited government since it was kneecapping the ability of federal authorities to use the 14th Amendment to provide equal access. Individual states were free to impose Jim Crow laws. In 1952, conservative jurist William Rehnquist wrote that he believed that Plessy was decided correctly. The implication was that Brown v. Board, which was then under consideration and would eventually supplant the Plessy precedent, rested on shaky constitutional grounds. Richard Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the High Court and in 1986, Ronald Reagan appointed Rehnquist to succeed Warren Burger as chief justice.
1954-56 – Brown v. Board and the “Southern Manifesto”
The connection between racism and limited government became clear once again during the modern Civil Rights Movement. Those who opposed Brown and insisted on maintaining state-sponsored segregation invoked the language of states' rights--one example of limited government.
On March 12, 1956, 19 Senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives signed the “Southern Manifesto,” a resolution condemning Brown. The resolution encouraged states to resist implementing its mandates. In 1958 the Court responded to this opposition by revisiting the Brown decision in Cooper v. Aaron, asserting that the states were bound by the ruling and affirming that its interpretation of the Constitution was the “supreme law of the land.” Here are some excerpts from this manifesto: “We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people.”
One can see in the same document that many white southerners regarded state-sponsored segregation as consistent with an "originalist" interpretation of the Constitution. The document stated, “The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the 14th amendment nor any other amendment. The debates preceding the submission of the 14th amendment clearly show that there was no intent that it should affect the systems of education maintained by the States.” One of the important questions the Southern Manifesto forces us to ask is: can one disentangle the legal philosophy of originalism from the larger environment that spawned it, including racism against African Americans?
As if the connection between limited government, states’ rights, and racism was unclear, the document statements that said “We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachments on rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law and to the Constitution…We commend the motives of those States which have declared the intention to resist forced integration by any lawful means. . . .”
1960-64: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and the Civil Rights Act
A group of African American college students organized sit-ins at Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, demanding equal accommodations at Woolworth’s lunch counter. Libertarians and many conservatives did not sympathize ideologically with the students. Philosophically they favored the business owners who wanted the freedom to do as they pleased, even if it was the freedom to discriminate. Any attempt to regulate private businesses by the federal government to provide equal access, no matter how righteous, was ultimately an infringement on “liberty." One wonders whether the African American students at Woolworth’s would be satisfied with the glib rejoinder that they had the “liberty” to seek out another business that would serve them, which sounds reminiscent of another shallow philosophy often advanced by conservatives: “liberty of contract.”
Fast forward to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned private businesses from discriminating against protected classes. Barry Goldwater, a founding father of modern conservatism, famously went before the Republican National Convention in San Francisco and said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” Another leading light of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley, opposed Brown and the Civil Rights Act in the National Review.
1980 – Reagan Campaign Speech
During the 1980 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan stopped in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to deliver a speech at the Neshoba County Fair. Philadelphia was the location where three prominent civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964. In his speech, Reagan asserted his belief in “states’ rights.” The predominantly white crowd cheered but African Americans knew at the time what Reagan meant. This was coded, “dog-whistle” politics, and a watered-down version of what segregationists had recently advocated.
1981 – Lee Atwater Interview
Republican strategist Lee Atwater discussed the Southern Strategy in a 1981 interview later published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis. Here is part of the interview:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964 [...] and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster...
Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don't quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
A celebrity-turned-martyr among Tea Partiers who proudly wave the Gadsden flag, Bundy is the epitome of your stereotypical older white man who feels personally aggrieved by the federal government and yet derives substantial benefits from it. He holds outlandish, asinine views about the power of the federal government and authority of local sheriffs. In what will most assuredly not come as any surprise to those who are familiar with libertarianism, Bundy just happens to spend a lot of time talking about “the Negro.” To see what I mean, watch this extremely racist video. This lunatic actually wondered out loud whether African Americans would be better off picking cotton, as they did under slavery, than receiving welfare.
The Tea Party:
In 2013, according to one survey, nearly 40% of libertarians identified as part of the Tea Party movement. Ostensibly a “grassroots” phenomenon that received generous funding from SuperPACs like Freedom Works and wide amplification from conservative media that just so happened to coincide with the ascent of the nation’s first African American president, the Tea Party is a prime example of using history inaccurately for political purposes. They claim to be concerned mostly about taxes (hence the acronym Taxed Enough Already), the national debt, and bank bailouts, just as the Founding Fathers presumably wanted liberty in the form of low taxes. We should emphasize that contemporaries of this famous 1773 event, which eventually became known as the “Tea Party” much later, referred to it as “the destruction of the tea” at the time. The term “Tea Party” came from the writings of a shoemaker, George Robert Twelves Hewes, who experienced the original tea-dumping firsthand but did not apply the term “Tea Party” until he wrote about his experience in the 1830s, about sixty years after the fact.
Tea Partiers should also be aware that the American Revolution, as scholars like Gary Nash have written, was more than just a tax revolt. It was also an opportunity to reorganize society and a multi-sided civil war that threatened to upend multiple forms of hierarchy. Those who have looked into the Tea Party, beyond the surface-level slogans about freedom and liberty, have found that its followers seem to be much more concerned about racialized issues like immigration and Obama’s birth certificate than their professed concern about taxes. Christopher Parker and Theda Skocpol have produced valuable studies on this topic. In one peer reviewed study by Eric D. Knowles et al., the authors concluded, “Broadly, the data support claims that the Tea Party is—for some White supporters, at least—a racially motivated movement. Anti-Black sentiment was associated with Tea Party identification across time points. This relationship, however, appeared to be masked by assertions of national decline and the embrace of libertarian ideology.” The authors add: “White identification appears to be a product of immersion in the [Tea Party] movement.”
Few accusations elicit more anger from Tea Partiers than the charge of racism. Yet when you ask Tea Partiers themselves what issues and policies they are most concerned about, time and time again the responses show much more preoccupation with racial issues than raw economic ones. And consider that the chief symbol of the Tea Party, the Gadsden flag, has been historically connected with white supremacy. It still is today. How can one not come away with this conclusion when looking at political protests where the Confederate, Nazi, and Gadsden flags are flown simultaneously? At the center of a famous lithograph by R.H. Howell, based on a drawing by Henry Cleenewerck, is the mantra: “OUR MOTTO: Southern Rights, Equality of the States, Don’t Tread on Me.” Cleenewerck witnessed a public demonstration in Savannah, Georgia, after Lincoln’s election in 1860. The demonstrators burned Lincoln in effigy. The men attending this demonstration were committing treason in the form of secession so that they could protect the $3 billion in slave property from a president who pledged to protect slave property in the South. Notice that the snake featured in this lithograph is very similar to the snake portrayed in the Gadsden flag. And both the anti-Lincoln demonstration of 1860 and today’s Tea Party movement use the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”
This article explores how many members of the fascist-leaning, white nationalist alt-right, including Richard Spencer and Gavin McInnes, got their start in libertarianism. David Neiwert, a journalist who has written extensively on the radical right and various hate groups, expanded upon these links in a recent Twitter thread. Many self-described libertarians, according to Neiwert, are actually just right-wing authoritarians. A shockingly large number of libertarians have absolutely rolled over for Donald Trump, who is easily the most authoritarian leader in the history of the U.S. presidency. Neiwert tweeted, “Recall that alt-right founder Richard Spencer started out dabbling in libertarianism. Many other alt-righters claim it in describing their origins: Milo Yiannopoulos. Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet. Augustus Invictus. “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell….Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes still describes himself as a libertarian. To this day, large numbers of Proud Boys describe themselves as libertarian. So do many of the “III Percent” and Oath Keeper militiamen I’ve interviewed. Spencer lives in Whitefish, Montana, a region of the country where the “don’t tread on me” slogan and white nationalism are popular (think of the neo-Nazis and Aryan Nation types in Couer d’Alene, Idaho). If so many libertarians are more than willing to give up their supposed reverence for individual liberties in the support of authoritarians, we have to look beyond individual liberties to see what animates libertarians. Racism is a strong candidate.
Journalist Mark Ames spent many hours searching for the February 1976 issue of Reason Magazine. It took him a long time to track it down, he suspected, because the current editors of Reason were understandably ashamed of what that particular issue showcased: a hotbed of Holocaust denialism pitched as “historical revisionism.” Reason has now made the issue available, but Ames’s discoveries were notable for showing how Ron Paul, the Koch Brothers, Murray Rothbard, and Holocaust deniers were linked in an incestuous web of wealth, power, and bigotry. Check out the whole issue in hard copy and one will find “Buy Gold!” advertisements. One gets the sense that an elaborate conspiracy involving the Rothschilds is only a page or click away. The gold standard is discreditable enough on its own given the historical evidence, but its embrace by racist cranks doesn’t help. The pages of Reason add to a substantial body evidence showing that while not every libertarian is a racist, their ideology clearly appeals to racists.
The Demographic Makeup of Libertarians:
Libertarians are disproportionately white men. Quite a few believe in conspiracy theories. According to one study, 7 percent of Americans identify as libertarian (though a 2014 Pew Research Center survey placed the number at 11 percent). Of those, two-thirds are men (68 percent) and nearly all are non-Hispanic whites (94 percent). Why is this the case? Cathy Young, a libertarian journalist interviewed in a New Republic article by Jeet Heer, suspected that “for a variety of reasons (whether innately psychological, culturally driven, or shaped by life experience), women are less likely to be drawn to political philosophies that emphasize self-reliance and risk. Women are also more likely to rely on government services, both as clients and as employees.” Historically, women like Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt were key to building the U.S. welfare state that libertarians abhor. And libertarianism is generally hostile to the types of collective efforts that challenge sexism, including anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, and paid leave. I cannot help but think this is related to the current gender gap in today’s politics: women favor Democrats over Republicans by significant margins.
One editor at Reason, Jesse Walker, agreed that the libertarian gender gap is real, arguing that for “various historically contingent sociological reasons, the American libertarian movement has drawn a lot on subcultures that are heavily male (computer programmers, for example), and that in turn had something of a self-perpetuating effect.” Aside from computer programming, libertarianism overlaps with other male-dominated subcultures such as science-fiction fandom, the gaming community, Men’s Rights Activists, and organized humanism/atheism. A more direct and cutting analysis came from journalist Kevin Drum at Mother Jones. Hardcore libertarianism, he opined, is a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they’ve been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they’d naturally rise to positions of power and influence.
The Ludwig Von Mises Institute
The Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI) is a pseudo-scholarly think tank located in Auburn, Alabama that operates on the margins of academia but still manages to attract unsuspecting readers. It espouses “a radical libertarian view of government and economics inspired by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, whom the institute says ‘showed that government intervention is always destructive.’” What a simplistic statement! Indeed, the institute, which publishes material that is not subject to independent, blind peer review, aims to “undermine statism in all its forms,” and its recent interest in neo-Confederate themes reflects that. One of the LVMI’s senior fellows, Walter Block, once stated that slavery “was not so bad – you pick cotton and sing songs.” Block also argued that white business owners had the right to exclude black customers at Woolworth’s because no one should be forced to associate with people against their will. In a libel lawsuit against the New York Times that a judge dismissed, 17 of Block’s fellow faculty members at Loyola University New Orleans wrote a joint letter calling on the university to “take the long overdue and necessary steps to condemn and censure Professor Block for his recurring public assaults on the values of Loyola University, its mission and the civil rights of all.”
Thomas DiLorenzo is a senior fellow at the LVMI. He’s a Lincoln iconoclast who has conflated Nazism and socialism, an interpretation so absurd and so thoroughly debunked by academic historians that it need not merit a reply here. The LVMI hosts 20 senior fellows and 0 are women. Of the 89, associated scholars, only 7 are women. Now take a look at the gender ratio of the LVMI’s staff to see that women serve in subservient positions in larger numbers. Based on profile pics, which is admittedly tricky and imprecise, very few senior fellows and associated scholars are people of color and none, as far as I can tell, are African American.
LVMI founder Lew Rockwell argued that the Civil War “transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order.” Desegregation in the civil rights era, he said, resulted in the “involuntary servitude” of (presumably white) business owners. In the past, Rockwell has praised the electoral success of European neofascists like Joerg Haider in Austria and Christoph Blocher in Switzerland. Both Rockwell and institute research director Jeffrey Tucker are listed on the racist League of the South's Web page as founding members — and both men deny their membership. Tucker has written for League publications, and many League members have taught at the institute's seminars and given presentations at its conferences. Rockwell, who is also vice president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, runs his own daily news Web site that often features articles by League members. From 1978 to 1982, Rockwell was Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff. He later wrote anonymously for the Texas libertarian’s newsletters, which sympathized with the militia movement and peddled a lot of bigotry against blacks, gays, and Jews. The newsletter referred to African Americans as “animals” in at least one instance and lamented the fall of apartheid South Africa as “destruction of civilization.”
Some Concluding Thoughts
When we think of limited government philosophy in the modern U.S. context, we usually think of fiscal conservatism, lowering taxes, balanced budgets, and cutting funding for government programs. This discussion has shown that supporting “low taxes” is never purely about limited government in the abstract. This is because the consequence of lowering taxes means that the wealthy, who are overwhelmingly white, will be taxed less to fund social insurance programs that help the poor, who are more likely to be people of color.
The debates over the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka “Obamacare,” are instructive. Part of the ACA included an expansion of Medicaid. While the framers of the ACA most likely intended the Medicaid expansion to apply to every state, the Supreme Court ruled that this portion of the law (and not the entire law) was unconstitutional. According to their version of federalism in which the federal government and state governments have shared, equal authority, the federal government could not compel the state governments to expand Medicaid.
On the surface, looking at this map shows that southern states resisted the expansion of a "Big Government" program like Medicaid. But the story doesn't end there. There's almost always an important racial component. A lot of African Americans live in the southern states that have denied Medicaid expansion. And it is African Americans and other people of color who are most harmed when Medicaid fails to expand. If that is the case, then all of a sudden a question that is supposedly abstract and purely about political ideology or jurisprudence ends up having real-life consequences involving questions of racial justice and social equality.
Someone with a skeptical eye may look at all of these maps, polls, and quotes and say, “Alright, Campbell, you’ve shown quite a bit of evidence that there is a link between limited government and racial animus, but how do you know if there’s a causal relationship? Can we prove that in most cases those who believe in limited government are actually racist? How do we know when folks genuinely believe in limited government without the racism?”
I hesitate a bit here because being trained as a historian, I am more interested in narrative and textual evidence compared to a social scientist like an economist or political scientist, who might be more apt to look for those causal links by running regressions. So if there are social scientists who read this and can come up with a common-sense way to measure causation, then by all means, please let me know. On the other hand, I am not sure that is something we can ultimately prove in a scientific sense, so I will leave you with these thoughts…
- One way to test this might be to see if a person if consistent about applying limited government philosophy. Do they favor limited government in all circumstances or only in circumstances in which the applicability of limited government philosophy happens to hurt people of color more than white folks? Do they claim to believe in limited government and fiscal responsibility but say nothing during the Trump tax cut or the Bush invasion of Iraq?
- Most Americans are ashamed to openly admit that they are racist. Adopting a political philosophy of limited government is one way for racists to espouse their views to the wider public without being shamed. Given the way that the federal government has protected the civil rights of minorities in U.S. history, it would make sense that someone who favors racial hierarchy would find anti-government or limited government philosophy appealing.
- Lee Atwater admitted that states’ rights, forced busing, and lower taxes were code for getting conservative whites to vote for Republicans. Essentially “limited government” was a campaign trick. He told the interviewer not to quote him, which indicates that he was saying something deeply honest that would expose him to scrutiny.
- Drawing on Professor James McPherson in his analysis of the causes of the Civil War, states’ rights was almost never an end in and of itself. States’ rights was a means to an end. States’ rights and limited government was a means to preserve slavery and limited government. And in the cases in which white southerners departed from states’ rights—fugitive slave acts, public support for transportation, foreign policy that extended slavery overseas—the larger purpose was almost always the preservation of racial hierarchy.
Further Reading--Suggestions Welcome!
Kuziemko and Washington, "Why Did the Democrats Lose the South?" (2018)
Nicole Hemmer, Messengers of the Right
Kevin Kruse, White Flight
Leah White Rigeur, The Loneliness of the Black Republican
Angie Maxwell, The Long Southern Strategy
Acharya, Blackwell, and Sen, Deep Roots
Carmines and Stimson, Issue Evolution
Thomas Schaller, Whistling Past Dixie
Eric Schickler, Racial Realignment
Black and Black, The Southern Republicans
Robert Mickey, Paths Out of Dixie
Nicholas A. Valentino and David O. Sears, "Old Times There are Not Forgotten" (2005)
Gordon B. McKinney, Southern Mountain Republicans 1865-1900
Click here for the next post in this series.
Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. I neither speak for my employers, nor do I require my students to agree with the thoughts expressed here. Opinions are my own.
Annotated Index to all Blog Entries