Nonetheless, if I am permitted to draw a rather sweeping generalization based on patterns I have detected in teaching both halves of the US survey course, there are a few reasons why the racism—limited government connection makes sense. It was because of the federal government, personified in the Union army, that slavery came to an end and much of the South’s planter class lost the wealth it had accumulated from decades and even centuries of forced labor. It was because the federal government, by enacting social security and recognizing collective bargaining rights during the New Deal, that the stranglehold of Big Business over government was temporarily broken. It was because of the federal government, through Brown v. Board, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that African Americans and other protected classes won access to equal accommodations in public facilities and the right to vote. The same holds true for environmental and women’s rights. These victories need not be construed as a zero-sum game (how are they not a victory for everyone?), but if one sympathizes with those who may have lost out in these victories—the planter class, authoritarians, custodians of tradition, and men of Big Business—then it would make sense why you would be attracted to an ideology that stressed limited government and states’ rights. If I had to guess, a good many of today’s libertarians are white southerners who have some emotional connection, through a direct DNA lineage or otherwise, with the Confederacy. The connections between libertarian ideology and racism are numerous and warrant further investigation with specific examples. This list is by no means exhaustive:
Cliven Bundy. This guy is a real piece of work. A rising star-turned-martyr among Tea Partiers, truck drivers, gun owners, Klansmen, and militiamen, Bundy is the epitome of your stereotypical older white man who feels personally aggrieved by the federal government and yet spends quite a bit of time talking about “the Negro.” His specific beliefs about the power of the federal government and respect for local sheriffs are so asinine and juvenile that they do not merit any extensive expatiation here. Just watch this extremely racist video. This madman actually wondered out loud whether African Americans would be better off picking cotton, as they did under slavery, than receiving welfare. Given how much I’ve read about slavery in the Old South, it pains me deeply to even write that. And then ask yourself whether it is common or uncommon to see so many who wave the Gadsden flag rallying to his side.
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 upended, and 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. And let’s not forget that the current president*, whose rise can be viewed as a direct consequence of Tea Party racism and anti-intellectualism, and whose legitimate claim to occupy the White House is increasingly called into question with each passing day, attained much of his political fame through birtherism. 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.”
Share this insight with a Tea Partier and you’ll most likely get an apoplectic conniption. 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.”
Holocaust Denialism: 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; and indeed, libertarian polices would not be nearly as popular as they are without the presence of such a large number of racists in American society—something Trump’s election made clear.
The Demographic Makeup of Libertarians: Related to this, a number of observers and the study linked above have pointed out that libertarians are disproportionately white men. Of these, I have noticed quite a few believe in conspiracy theories. According to the study, 7 percent of Americans identify as libertarian (though a 2014 Pew Research Center survey brought the number to 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.