With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the grip of the aging Robber Barons and their descendants began to slip. Despite fierce opposition from the political Right, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted a series of reforms that increased regulation of the financial sector, protected the rights of unions and created programs to lift millions of Americans out of poverty.
After World War II, the federal government went even further, helping veterans get educated through the GI Bill, making mortgages affordable for new homes, connecting the nation through a system of modern highways, and investing in scientific research. Through these various reforms, the federal government not only advanced the "general Welfare" but, in effect, invented the Great American Middle Class.
As the nation's prosperity surged, attention also turned to addressing the shame of racial segregation. The civil rights movement -- led by remarkable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually embraced by Democratic Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson -- rallied popular support and the federal government finally moved against segregation across the South.
Yet, reflecting the old-time pro-slavery concerns of Patrick Henry and George Mason, southern white political leaders fumed at this latest intrusion by the federal government against the principle of "states' rights," i.e., the rights of the whites in southern states to treat "their coloreds" as they saw fit.
This white backlash to the federal activism against segregation became the energy driving the modern Republican Party. The smartest right-wingers of the post-World War II era understood this reality.
On the need to keep blacks under white domination, urbane conservative William F. Buckley declared in 1957 that "the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically."
Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, who wrote the influential manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, realized in 1961 that for Republicans to gain national power, they would have to pick off southern segregationists. Or as Goldwater put it, the Republican Party had to "go hunting where the ducks are."
Then, there was Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" of using coded language to appeal to southern whites and Ronald Reagan's launching of his 1980 national presidential campaign with a states' rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the notorious site of the murders of three civil rights workers. The two strands of historic conservatism -- white supremacy and "small government" ideology -- were again wound together.
In New York magazine, Frank Rich summed up this political history while noting how today's right-wing revisionists have tried to reposition their heroes by saying they opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 simply out of high-minded "small-government principles." But Rich wrote:
"The primacy of [Strom] Thurmond in the GOP's racial realignment is the most incriminating truth the right keeps trying to cover up. That's why the George W. Bush White House shoved the Mississippi senator Trent Lott out of his post as Senate majority leader in 2002 once news spread that Lott had told Thurmond's 100th-birthday gathering that America 'wouldn't have had all these problems' if the old Dixiecrat had been elected president in 1948.
"Lott, it soon became clear, had also lavished praise on [the Confederacy's president] Jefferson Davis and associated for decades with other far-right groups in thrall to the old Confederate cause. But the GOP elites didn't seem to mind until he committed the truly unpardonable sin of reminding America, if only for a moment, of the exact history his party most wanted and needed to suppress. Then he had to be shut down at once."
This unholy alliance between the racists and the corporatists continues to this day with Republicans understanding that the votes of blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities must be suppressed if the twin goals of the two principal elements of the Right are to control the future. That was the significance of this year's ruling by the Supreme Court's right-wing majority to gut the Voting Rights Act. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Supreme Court's War on Democracy."]
Only if the votes of whites can be proportionately enhanced and the votes of minorities minimized can the Republican Party overcome the country's demographic changes and retain government power that will both advance the interests of the racists and the free-marketeers.
That's why Republican-controlled statehouses engaged in aggressive gerrymandering of congressional districts in 2010 and tried to impose "ballot security" measures across the country in 2012. The crudity of those efforts, clumsily justified as needed to prevent the virtually non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud, was almost painful to watch.
As Frank Rich noted, "Everyone knows these laws are in response to the rise of Barack Obama. It is also no coincidence that many of them were conceived and promoted by the American Legal Exchange Council, an activist outfit funded by heavy-hitting right-wing donors like Charles and David Koch.