Mainstream commentators endlessly dance around the obvious explanation for the Right's intense anger against "guv-mint" -- and indeed against any significant legislation that addresses the suffering of minorities and the poor, whether it's immigration reform, health care or food stamps. That unspoken word is racism.
Racism is the subtext for many of the actions of the modern Right and the modern Republican Party. The mainstream media may desire to dress up the motivations as some principled commitment to small government, but both historically and currently, the insistence on a tightly constrained federal government has been about maintaining white supremacy.
Slavery, after all, was not just some peculiar institution, part of the South's unique cultural heritage. It was the South's dominant industry. It was where the Southern aristocrats had invested their money.That was true when slaveholders such as Patrick Henry and George Mason fought ratification of the Constitution because they perceived that the document's concentration of power in the federal government -- stripping the states of their "independence" and "sovereignty" as specified in the Articles of Confederation -- would eventually doom slavery. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Right's Dubious Claim to Madison."]
So, after the Anti-Federalists lost their fight against ratification of the Constitution, they went to Plan B; they quickly reorganized behind the charismatic figure of Thomas Jefferson, another slaveholder, to essentially redefine the Constitution away from its clear intent and to insert new theories about states' rights, including the unconstitutional concept of state "nullification" of federal law. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Right's Made-Up "Constitution.'"]
Their political success in this constitutional revisionism -- with Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party putting Virginian defenders of slavery in the White House for 24 consecutive years from 1801 to 1825 -- allowed the "small government" Jeffersonian philosophy to overwhelm the old Federalists who were the original advocates of the Constitution's powers. The Federalists maintained some strongholds in the North but eventually faded from the political scene.
Throughout this pre-Civil War period, the maintenance of slavery was always twinned with an insistence on a constrained federal government, even to the point of the South opposing federal disaster relief for fear that the precedent could be used to free the slaves. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Source of Anti-Government Extremism."]
Going to Extremes
Then, with the election of an anti-slavery president in Abraham Lincoln, the intensity of the South's commitment to those twin attitudes -- defense of slavery and hostility toward the federal government -- led 11 Southern states to take the extreme step of seceding from the Union, inviting a devastating war.
And, the South's bloody defeat did not extinguish those passions. If anything, the humiliation of losing the Civil War made the commitment even stronger.
When the federal government sought to restructure Southern society to give freed blacks education, an economic stake in the society and civil rights, the anger of Southern whites intensified. It was expressed in violent resistance to Reconstruction and in a cruel determination to reassert white dominance after Union troops withdrew in 1877.
After all, it takes real hatred to terrorize people because of the color of their skin, to lynch black men for almost any perceived offense, to rape black women to demonstrate their powerlessness, but that's what was done across the South.
White racism had a particularly ugly side because the fury was not justified as some reaction to genuine oppression; it was rather an act of oppressing. Historically, whites had economic advantages over blacks and other minorities. If the circumstances were reversed, you might understand the ferocity of the behavior. But here was the oppressor acting out some vengeful victimhood.
To some white Southerners, their behavior was justified by the intrusion of the federal government on their "way of life." You see, the federal government made them the "victims." After Reconstruction, the fierceness of this white racism/victimhood -- especially resistance to the idea that black people deserved full citizenship rights -- continued for generations. It became a dominant feature of Southern life and spread to some areas of the North as well.
Even in my schoolbooks in Massachusetts in the 1950s and 1960s, you would find a sympathetic portrayal of slavery as mostly paternalistic and of the South's "gallantry" in the Civil War -- along with a contemptuous of view of Reconstruction, i.e., Northern "carpetbaggers" and freed blacks running roughshod over the genteel whites of the South.
Resisting Civil Rights
America's institutionalized racism was finally challenged by the civil rights movement, but that provoked another spasm of fury from Southern whites. Their anger against renewed federal intervention led them to spit on black school children, bomb churches and murder civil rights activists.