Say what you will about the conservative Republican vision for the Nation, it at least has the salient virtue of pristine consistency. The problem is that what this vision is consistent with is an era over 150 years in the past. Since the subject is conservatism in the early 21st-century mode, this is not terribly surprising. We are 60 years past the time of, say, President Eisenhower when the phrase “forward-looking conservatism” was not the oxymoron that it has now become. Rather, what is surprising is that the earlier paradigm which conservative Republicans are apparently using to model their policy proposals is a paradigm that was long ago soundly discredited: the Confederate States of America. In at least three broad areas of public policy – health insurance reform, hostility to unions and the right of collective bargaining, and voter suppression – conservative Republicans are evidently determined to resurrect a cognate form of the old Confederacy and to use it as a pattern for the Nation as a whole. They apparently aspire to have the United States secede from the Union. And if they succeed, we had all best become accustomed to carrying our grits out to the cotton fields in a Thermos jar.
Health Care / Insurance Reform
The ink was not dry on the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) v. Sebelius decision before Republican opponents of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began beating the drums to “Repeal And Replace”. The slogan itself immediately begs an immense question: Replace with what? This is the very question that, in the ensuing months and years, the media at all levels without exception failed to ask.(That rumbling sound you hear now is Edward R. Murrow and Jack Anderson turning over in their graves.) This uncharacteristic reticence on the part of the media is all the more inexplicable when we reflect that never, during all high-40s or low-50s – frankly, I lost count – attempts by Republicans to repeal and / or defund ACA, did any journalist at any level ask it. Never. Now, as this post is written (Wed 9 July), appears a story in Politico to the effect that Republicans had – and still have -- no alternative to ACA, no replacement. So, as it turns out, and as I suspected and said all along, “Repeal And Replace” just means “Repeal, Period”. That Politico story merely let the cat out of the cellophane bag.
Because, in the conservative Republican alternative Universe, workers must be bound to corporations – the plantations of the 21st century – for the same reason that it was in the interest of the mid-19th-century elite of the Confederate South to keep black slaves bound to the plantation. I call the former, contemporary, 21st-century phenomenon "soft slavery". One way among many to bind both black slaves in the mid-19th century to the plantation and to similarly bind workers to the plantations’ contemporary corporate counterparts is to make the respective workers similarly dependent on their employer for the necessities of life – in this case, health insurance. Portable health insurance not tied to one’s employer and whose policies cannot be maxed out, where pre-existing conditions are not kisses of death, etc., etc. … such health insurance has the effect of making workers independent and mobile, making it much more difficult to “keep ‘em down on the farm” – which, in the contemporary conservative psychology, is exactly where they belong. Workers with portable health insurance are not bound as tightly to the plantations of the Corporate State. Hence conservative Republican opposition to ACA.
Opposition to Unions
Another way to bind workers to the corporate plantations of the 21st century is to undermine their right to bargain collectively regarding issues of wages / salaries, working conditions, fringe benefits, raises, pensions, etc., etc. So enforcing the Republican vision of “soft slavery” on workers means working against the right of workers to form unions for these purposes. The effort to undermine workers’ unionization rights begins – but almost certainly will not end -- with denying public employees the right to unionize. At this point, think “Scott Walker” – who opposed teachers’ unions but apparently had no qualms about the unionization of law enforcement officers and firefighters. (Of course, the fact that teachers consistently opposed his reelection, whereas law enforcement personnel and firefighters supported him, is purely coincidental.) In all fairness, however, workers have contributed to the problem by forsaking unions in droves over the last several decades. A detailed study by Cornell University showed that, among wage and salary workers, union membership declined from roughly 1/3 in the 1950s to around 12 percent today. There are many reasons for this decline, but the point is that declining union membership supports the realization of the “corporate plantation’ / “soft slavery” vision of 21st-century conservatism. A substantially unionized national work force is as terrifying to conservative Republicans as the prospect of a slave revolt was to plantation owners in the Old South. Think of the former as Harper's Ferry, but without all the guns.
Selective Opposition to Voting
The conservative Republican “soft slavery” paradigm for the Nation envisions political disenfranchisement being accomplished in parallel with economic austerity. In electorally crucial States like Pennsylvania and Ohio, conservative Republicans seem to have experienced an outright Damascus-Road born-again epiphany about the prevalence of “voter fraud”. (This breakneck-sudden passion for the integrity of the electoral process is enough to remind one of Groucho Marx's remark about Doris Day: "I knew her before she was a virgin!") So they are pressuring State governments to combat this presumptive threat to the integrity of the political process via draconian measures like declining to extend polling hours during workdays, levying cryptic requirements for voter identification at polling places, etc., etc. But every rigorous study of the prevalence of voter fraud finds no evidence of any such fraud of any significant magnitude. Study after study finds that, as a communications engineer might say, the “noise” of voter fraud is lost in the “signal’ of valid voting.
A few cases in point will suffice. The Wall Street Journal – hardly a bastion of bleeding-heart, cradle-to-grave welfare statism – found only 2068 cases of voter fraud nationwide in 12 years. Studies performed by policy.mic, the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law, and The American Prospect corroborate the Journal conclusion. The problem here is not so much opposition specifically to minority voting as it is opposition to voting on the part, not only of minorities, but of all demographic groups less than likely to support conservative Republican candidates and policies. In fact, the current disenfranchisement campaign is really just a logical extension of gerrymandering using contemporary statistical techniques and technology. In both cases – gerrymandering and voter suppression – the Party chooses the voters instead of the voters choosing the Party.
Practitioners of voter suppression would do well, however, to tread lightly around Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Theoretically and in principle, if any given State legislature ends up codifying the voter-suppression practitioners’ efforts and casting such activities into the form of binding law, the consequences for that State could be fearsome (obsolete language about voters’ gender and voting age deleted; boldface added):
Section 2 … [W]hen the right to vote at any election … is denied to any of the … inhabitants of such State … or in any way abridged … the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such … citizens shall bear to the whole number of citizens …
The language of Section 2 of the 14th Amendment is rather convoluted, but the bottom line is that, if a given State becomes overly zealous about combating voter fraud by suppressing, rather than authenticating, the right to vote, then the offending State’s representation in Congress shall be reduced by an amount proportional to the percentage of voters who had their voting rights suppressed. This would entail, not only reduced representation in the House of Representatives, but also, for that reason, a reduction of that State’s electoral votes. To the best of my knowledge, Section 2 has never been invoked since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Also, population growth and the end of slavery have removed almost all the cutting edge off of Section 2. For example, if the post-Civil-War Virginia state legislature had suppressed the votes of ex-slaves, they would have ended up suppressing the votes of roughly 1/3 of the population -- and reducing Virginia’s representation in the House accordingly. Such apocalyptic consequences would not be possible today. (Well ... probably ... but see next paragraph.) Hence my care in saying "Theoretically and in principle". Section 2 of the 14th Amendment today could, however, at least serve as a kind of coal miners' canary signaling the point at which collusion between voter-suppression practitioners and State legislatures had crossed the constitutional line from voter authentication to voter suppression.
... we must temper any estimate of the diminished relevance of Section 2 by remembering that the Supreme Court recently pretty much eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by ruling unconstitutional the practice, mandated in that Act, of monitoring with especially meticulous and critical care and attention the voting and voter-registration practices of States that have a history of voter suppression. The full implications of this decision are not clear. But at the very least, there are grounds for apprehension concerning the difficulty of dealing with suspicious voting requirements, given that the Court has essentially ruled that, regardless of past historical practice, all States have to be treated equally vis a vis critical examination of voting, voter registration, and voter-registration criteria. Nor is there any point in relying on the Congress to update the 1965 criteria whereby States may incur closer scrutiny. The Republicans already control the House of Representatives, and may well control the Senate after this year's elections. Consequently, the probability of any action to address the issue of updating the monitoring criteria of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is probably on a par with the likelihood that Donald Trump will buy a decent toupee or that Ted Cruz will sponsor a "National Hug-An-Immigrant Day".
Other straws are in the wind -- far too many for me to deal with in a brief blog post -- strongly indicating that conservative Republicans aspire to turn the clock back to a kind of "para-antebellum" era when workers depended on their employers, not only for their livelihood, but for their very lives; when union-busting was the favorite outdoor sport of large corporations, aided and abetted by the courts; and when, for certain people, the attempt to vote was hazardous to their health. If I had space and time, I would also mention: the emphasis on conservative Christian religion, which sees one's first politico-economic priority, not as closing the income-inequality gap, but "pleasing God" by working against abortion and gays and for guns. I would also mention the resurrection of strong States' rights agitation and rhetoric on the part of Republicans. (You are being naive if you think Gov. Rick Perry was just indulging a taste for headline-grabbing hyperbole when he said Texas should consider seceding from the Union.) One of the most serious errors most consistently and most often committed by rational people of good will, irrespective of political ideology, is the belief that people with sinister motives and hidden agendas do not mean precisely what they say. It is no longer your parents' conservative Republican Party, the Party of Barry Goldwater and Dwight Eisenhower. Nor is today's conservatism the conservatism of William F. Buckley, William Rusher, Mary Ann Glendon, James Jackson Kilpatrick, F. A. Hayek, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Today, it is the conservatism of Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Ann Coulter. There are still a few "old school" conservatives around, as witness David Brooks -- the kind of conservatives you could drink a beer and have a nosh with, debate with, while remaining friends. (Think of Mr. Buckley's old Firing Line talk / debate TV show: that's what I mean. Given Republicans' almost erotic fixation on the 2nd Amendment, a contemporary version of Firing Line might well be just that!) Old-school conservatism was feisty and combative but informed. Contemporary conservatism is merely nasty, mostly adrenaline, and very little acetylcholine, with none of the nuance, subtlety, or intellectual depth of, say, Jerry Springer.
You can think of the present conflict as only the latest manifestation of an issue -- the role of government in society -- that has recurred time and again in the history of the Republic ... without, for all that, being settled. Today's Republicans seem to be taking their talking points straight out of John C. Calhoun's South Carolina Remonstrance and Disquisition on Government. Contemporary conservative writers are even beginning to revive Calhoun's antebellum concept of "nullification". We fought a Civil War, saw 700,000 people (including non-combatants) slaughtered, endured the promise and disappointment of the First Reconstruction, undertook a Second Reconstruction a century later -- and here we are dealing with it still. I am old enough to remember when many of my older relatives in Arkansas darkly vowed "The South shall rise again". It may well do just that, if the present species of conservatism has its way, not as a distinct political entity, but as a template for the entire Nation. The South may have lost the battle in 1861-1865.
But it may still win the war.
James R. Cowles