Tag Archives: Heather Cox Richardson

Don’t Know Much About History…

It’s not just a song by Sam Cooke…

This Fourth of July, Americans aren’t only fighting over our future; we are also fighting over our past–and the need to learn from it. That requires  a clear-eyed encounter with history– accurate history.

Efforts to teach a non-whitewashed  ( pun intended) history in the public schools has been met with so-called “anti-CRT” bills, angry parents accusing school boards of blaming today’s children for the sins of the past, and “patriotic Americans” demanding that history classes emphasize the ‘greatness” of the country and minimize or ignore deviations from our Constitutional aspirations.

The Supreme Court was able to count on that ignorance of actual history in its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson.

In that decision overruling Roe v. Wade, Justice Alito relied substantially on a dishonest recitation of American history  to justify his result.  Few Americans were in a position to point to that dishonesty and set the record straight. I have previously posted on this subject, but let me repeat a portion of what Randall Ballmer, an eminent historian of Evangelical Christianity, has written.

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

Ballmer tells us that Falwell and Weyrich, who were furious about efforts to tax their segregation academies, were “savvy enough” to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would encounter moral blowback. “Saving babies” was far more palatable.

Another scholar who has criticized the ahistorical tale told by Justice Alito is  Geoffrey Stone, who authored “Sex and the Constitution” and  teaches law at the University of Chicago. Stone was a Supreme Court Clerk when Roe was decided; as he says,

Americans, almost all, believed at that time that abortion had always been illegal, that it had always been criminal. And no one would have imagined that abortion was legal in every state at the time the Constitution was adopted, and it was fairly common. But people didn’t know that.

The justices came to understand the history of abortion partly because [Justice Harry] Blackmun previously had been general counsel [at the Mayo Clinic] and researched all this stuff. But this history also began to be put forth by the women’s movement. And this was eye-opening to the justices, because they had, I’m sure every one of them, assumed abortion had been illegal back to the beginning of Christianity. And they were just shocked to realize that was not the case, and that prohibiting abortion was impairing what the framers thought to be … a woman’s “fundamental interest.”…

In the 18th century, abortion was completely legal before what was called the “quickening” of a fetus – when a woman could first feel fetal movement, or roughly four and a half months through a pregnancy. No state prohibited it, and it was common. Post-quickening, about half the states prohibited abortion at the time the Constitution was adopted. But even post-quickening, very few people were ever prosecuted for getting an abortion or performing an abortion in the founding era.

This accurate history gives the lie to Justice Alito’s claim that the right to abortion was not ” deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions.” Several other historians–notably Heather Cox Richardson–have also disputed Alito’s characterization.

It’s highly unlikely that teaching more accurate history would have included the history of reproductive rights, but it would have–and should have–included those elements of the American past that gave rise to the racial and religious divisions we are experiencing today. Going through school, as I did, without ever encountering the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, the rise of the KKK and so much else leaves students without important context they need in order to understand today’s political debates. (It’s not just the omissions; we are now discovering that the tales we were told, and told to remember,  were often twisted...)

As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar recently argued, “originalism” needn’t be dismissed as simply a dishonest tactic employed by radically conservative judges. Based on good, accurate history, it can be surprisingly progressive.

 

 

The Rear-View Mirror

Like many who read this blog, I get the Letter from an American from Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a historian, and the great benefit of her Letters is that they provide what I like to think of as a look in humanity’s rear-view mirror.

Driving a car requires checking the traffic behind us in order to navigate the road ahead. History serves much the same purpose (which is one of the many, many reasons why the rightwing hysteria over teaching the country’s history of racism is so deranged…)

A few days ago, Richardson shared an “aha” moment.

It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly. But this morning, as I was reading a piece in Vox by foreign affairs specialist Zack Beauchamp, describing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s path in Florida as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the penny dropped.

She proceeded to outline the political currents prior to the election of Trump: the evolution of today’s GOP into the pro-oligarchy party, following what she described as the usual U.S. historical pattern to that point– “in the 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, and then again in the modern era, wealthy people had come around to the idea that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran everything.”

Each of those periods was a reaction to the expansion of civil equality. Richardson reports that wealthier Americans protected their privileged status by playing on the racism of  poorer white male voters– telling them that passage of laws protecting equal rights was really a plan to turn American governance over to immigrants or to Black or Brown Americans.

The idea that poor men of color voting meant socialism resonated with white voters, who turned against the government’s protecting equal rights and instead supported a government that favored men of property. As wealth moved upward, popular culture championed economic leaders as true heroes, and lawmakers suppressed voting in order to “redeem” American society from “socialists” who wanted to redistribute wealth. Capital moved upward until a very few people controlled most of it, and then, usually after an economic crash made ordinary Americans turn against the system that favored the wealthy, the cycle began again.

When Trump was elected, the U.S. was at the place where wealth had concentrated among the top 1%, Republican politicians denigrated their opponents as un-American “takers” and celebrated economic leaders as “makers,” and the process of skewing the vote through gerrymandering and voter suppression was well underway. But the Republican Party still valued the rule of law. It’s impossible to run a successful business without a level playing field, as businessmen realized after the 1929 Great Crash, when it became clear that insider trading had meant that winners and losers were determined not by the market but by cronyism.

Trump deviated from the usual cycle in one way–he didn’t care about enriching the oligarchy, only about enriching himself, his toadies and his family. Despite his  repellent personality and embarrassing ignorance of government and policy, he was especially dangerous because he turned the Republican base into a cult that no longer respected the rule of law.

Richardson warns that Trump’s deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is especially dangerous because it creates space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies. Two current Republican governors model those ideologies: Abbott in Texas, who is pursuing the South’s Civil War insistence on “states’ rights,” and DeSantis in Florida, who is emulating Viktor Orbán’s “soft fascism.”

Orbán has taken control of Hungary’s media, ensuring that his party wins all elections; has manipulated election districts in his own favor; and has consolidated the economy into the hands of his cronies by threatening opponents with harassing investigations, regulations, and taxes unless they sell out.

DeSantis is following this model right down to the fact that observers believe that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled on a similar Hungarian law. DeSantis’s attack on Disney mirrors Orbán’s use of regulatory laws to punish political opponents (although the new law was so hasty and flawed it threatens to do DeSantis more harm than good).

Richardson counsels us to look in that rear-view mirror–to access the knowledge and tools that history provides to defend democracy from the ideology of states’ rights.” But she also warns that, because the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “soft fascism” is new to us, we need to understand how it differs both from Trump’s version of autocracy and from the old arguments for states’ rights.

At risk of over-extending my somewhat strained analogy, Orbanism represents a massive pothole on the road to democratic self-governance and civil liberty–a pothole requiring us to drive carefully and keep our eyes on the road– ahead and behind.

Will It Work?

I have previously made the point that solving our social and political animosities requires an accurate diagnosis of their causes–or at the very least, recognition of the elements of contemporary life that are feeding those animosities.

If, as many sociologists and political scientists believe, the roots of much contemporary discord can be found in the economic inequality that characterizes today’s U.S.–if that inequality provides the fertile soil for the racism and tribalism that are tearing us apart–then efforts to address economic insecurity should substantially ameliorate that discord. 

In one of her daily Letters from an American, Heather Cox Richardson assumes the accuracy of that diagnosis, and notes that the Biden Administration is pursuing policies that should  mitigate some of the worst of our current economic disparities:

Trump and his loyalists feed off Americans who have been dispossessed economically since the Reagan revolution that began in 1981 started the massive redistribution of wealth upward. Those disaffected people, slipping away from the secure middle-class life their parents lived, are the natural supporters of authoritarians who assure them their problems come not from the systems leaders have put in place, but rather from Black people, people of color, and feminist women.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to combat this dangerous dynamic not by trying to peel disaffected Americans away from Trump and his party by arguing against the former president, but by reducing the pressure on those who support him.

A study from the Niskanen Center think tank shows that the expanded Child Tax Credit, which last month began to put up to $300 per child per month into the bank accounts of most U.S. households with children, will primarily benefit rural Americans and will give a disproportionately large relative boost to their local economies. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “the…nine states that will gain the most per capita from the expanded child allowance are all red states.”

Other elements of administration policy should also be ameliorative: the infrastructure bill will bring high-speed internet to every household in the U.S.; it will also provide $3.5 billion intended to reduce energy costs for more than 700,000 low-income households.

Richardson is a historian, and history teaches us that economic distress has often provided an impetus for the surfacing of bigotries that folks are less likely to express in more prosperous times. A number of scholars, for example, have pointed to Germany’s runaway inflation–and national humiliation–in the wake of World War I as one reason for the country’s receptivity to Nazism and willingness to express long-simmering anti-Semitism, and more recent academic literature supports the thesis that that economic scarcity promotes racial animus. 

As an article in Time Magazine reported, numerous studies have demonstrated that economic scarcity influences how people treat those outside of their own social groups. (There is also a “chicken and egg” element to the relationship between economic anxiety and racism–a column in the Washington Post reported on one study that suggested racial resentment may be driving economic anxiety, not the other way around.)

Democrats often bewail the tendency of low-income voters to cast ballots “against their own interests”–a complaint that assumes (I believe incorrectly) that those interests are economic rather than cultural. A somewhat different but related question is whether a significant improvement in the economic situation of low-income Americans will “take the edge off” and moderate the expression of their cultural fears.

The Biden Administration’s policies will go a long way toward answering that question–and America’s future is riding on the result.

 

The Fourteenth Amendment

Can you all stand another diatribe about our misunderstood Constitution and its history?

Yale Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar has repeatedly made an important–and largely unrecognized–point about the 14th Amendment. That Amendment, which we now consider part of the Bill of Rights, actually revised–or as he says,”reconstructed”–the original Constitution and Bill of Rights.

When I was teaching, I became acutely aware of how few students understood the impact of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Few came to class knowing, for example, that prior to the passage of the 14th Amendment (and the subsequent Supreme Court cases applying its terms) the provisions of the Bill of Rights had restrained only the federal government. (State governments could–and did–“establish” religions, for example. Massachusetts didn’t “de-establish” religion until 1833.)

Jonathan Bingham, a Republican (how times have changed!)and “one of America’s forgotten second Founders” who sponsored the 14th Amendment, constantly pointed to the Supreme Court ruling that first eight amendments did not “extend to the states.” In his book The Bill of Rights, Amar quotes Bingham saying “These eight articles I have shown never were limitations upon the power of the states until made so by the 14th Amendment.”

Heather Cox Richardson recently provided historical context for the passage of the 14th Amendment.

In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution had prohibited slavery on the basis of race, but it did not prevent the establishment of a system in which Black Americans continued to be unequal. Backed by President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over the presidency after an actor had murdered President Abraham Lincoln, white southern Democrats had done their best to push their Black neighbors back into subservience. So long as southern states had abolished enslavement, repudiated Confederate debts, and nullified the ordinances of secession, Johnson was happy to readmit them to full standing in the Union, still led by the very men who had organized the Confederacy and made war on the United States.

Northern Republican lawmakers refused. There was no way they were going to rebuild southern society on the same blueprint as existed before the Civil War, especially since the upcoming 1870 census would count Black Americans as whole persons for the first time in the nation’s history, giving southern states more power in Congress and the Electoral College after the war than they had had before it. Having just fought a war to destroy the South’s ideology, they were not going to let it regrow in peacetime.

Richardson reminds us that, despite passage of the 13th Amendment, emancipated Black Americans in southern states could not vote, testify in court or sit on a jury.

In part, the Fourteenth Amendment was a response to the Dred Scott decision, which had declared that Black men “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens.” The Fourteenth Amendment rejected that ruling, with specific language stating that  “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

But the Amendment did more than clarify that Black people were citizens.

The amendment also addressed the Dred Scott decision in another profound way. In 1857, southerners and Democrats who were adamantly opposed to federal power controlled the Supreme Court. They backed states’ rights. So the Dred Scott decision did more than read Black Americans out of our history; it dramatically circumscribed Congress’s power.

This was the crux of the “states rights” argument. Under the pre-14th Amendment Constitution, “democracy” was defined by the state–or, as Richardson notes, by those people in a state who were allowed to vote. In other words, white men.

The Fourteenth Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals from state legislative discrimination. It changed the locus of governmental authority in a number of ways, and as we are seeing–as red states send National Guard troops to the border, try to limit federal vaccine efforts, sue repeatedly to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and engage in numerous efforts to circumscribe the ability of the federal government to guarantee equal rights–  that change is still being resisted.

For far too many politicians and jurists, respect for “originalism” is very selective. It stops with ratification of the “original” Constitution in 1788–and ignores everything that has come after, no matter how profoundly what came after altered, limited and/or enlarged what had come before.

 

Context And Clarity

One of the great virtues of Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” is her ability as a historian to “connect the dots” and provide context to the news of the day. That context often strips away the non-essentials that can confuse us, and provides the clarity so often missing from the reporting that follows our daily headlines.

A recent letter was triggered by Rick Scott’s angry op-ed excoriating the reaction of what he sneeringly called “woke” corporations to the Georgia election bill. Here’s where the history operates to clarify the moment in which we find ourselves:

The ideological faction that is currently in control of the Republican Party grew out of opposition to the active government both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. But since Americans actually liked business regulation, a social safety net, and infrastructure projects, those Movement Conservatives who wanted to take the government back to the 1920s got little traction until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision enabled them to harness racism to their cause. With federal government efforts to end segregation in the public schools, businessmen who hated government regulation warned voters that their tax dollars were being used to give Black Americans extra benefits. It was socialism, they said, and it would encourage Black people to step out of their place.

This formula worked. Businessmen determined to cut the government bankrolled Movement Conservative candidates, and people determined not to let their tax dollars go to Black or Brown people voted for them. In 1986, Grover Norquist, a former economist for the Chamber of Commerce, brought together business people, evangelicals, and social conservatives. “Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.”

Richardson points out that the racist and sexist language was initially understated. That allowed supporters–including corporations concerned about their images– to wink at it.  But that was before Trump and his attack on “political correctness”–i.e., civility–brought the racism and sexism out into the open.

In the wake of Georgia’s effort to suppress minority votes and the corporate response, several observers have suggested that we are on the cusp of a realignment that would sever the longstanding relationship between  the GOP and the corporations that have previously supported and funded it. After all, they reason, Republicans may deny the reality of demographic change, but businesses cannot and will not. Corporate America has increasing numbers of minority employees–even in management–and vastly increasing numbers of minority customers. Unlike the GOP, they don’t live in an alternate reality.

It would be very satisfying if Corporate America deserted the Republican Party, but as both Paul Ogden and Richardson point out, small donors are increasingly able to replace any monies that corporations might withhold from GOP candidates.

There is a truism in politics to the effect that voters are more motivated by what they are against than by what they are for. Stirring up anger and bias are, unfortunately, timeless tactics for getting out the vote. With the niceties of “political correctness” stripped away, the departure of most moderates from the party, and the dwindling need to placate corporate and business supporters, today’s GOP is putting all of its electoral eggs in the racism basket.

And as we saw in 2020, there’s a depressingly substantial portion of the electorate responsive to that appeal.