Back to the future in America: Jim Crow and The New Deal
The ruling philosophy of Republicans in Congress is Reaganism. The ruling philosophy of the GOP base is Trumpism. It’s not a difference of philosophy. It’s a difference of emphasis.
The party base, still in thrall to Trumpism, is girding to fight a culture war with Democrats. The newly elected House Republican majority is girding for a showdown with Democrats over government spending — a more traditional conservative cause that was a high priority for Ronald Reagan but not so much for Donald Trump.
Historically, there are two strains of populism: economic populism (resentment of the rich, big business, Wall Street) and cultural populism (resentment of the well-educated, experts, government bureaucrats). When conservatives come under attack from economic populists, they often defend themselves by championing cultural populism.
In his classic study, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow,” which Martin Luther King Jr. called “the historical bible of the civil rights movement,” the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward wrote about how conservative southern White Democrats invented the Jim Crow system and adopted the ideology of white supremacy to defend their economic interests against a rising tide of economic populism among poor whites and Blacks. They used racism to fend off economic populism.
Something like that may be happening now in the Republican Party.
Donald Trump showed Republicans how they could embrace right-wing cultural populism — anti-immigrant, racist, sexist, fundamentalist, isolationist — to win elections.
The Republican who has adopted this strategy most enthusiastically isn’t Trump himself but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has declared war on the education establishment and its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion — what used to be called “political correctness” but is now termed “wokeness.”
DeSantis won a huge re-election victory last year, while Trump is seen as the big loser of the 2022 midterms because many of the candidates he endorsed were defeated. Now, even without declaring his candidacy, DeSantis is becoming competitive with Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Cultural populism has triumphed over economic populism. If you want to identify a voter’s partisanship today, you can do it by asking a few simple questions: “What is your race?” (Whites are more likely to be Republicans.) “How often do you go to church?” (Regular churchgoers are more likely to be Republicans.) And “Do you have a college degree?” (College graduates are more likely to be Democrats.) Those are cultural divisions, not economic divisions.
In the Trump era, Republicans like DeSantis depend on cultural issues to get elected. But economic issues dominate the Republican agenda in Congress. Specifically, government spending. In his first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 1981, President Reagan said, “The taxing power of government must be used to provide revenues for legitimate government purposes. It must not be used to regulate the economy or bring about social change.”
That became conservative orthodoxy.
House Republicans are demanding austerity as the price for allowing the federal government to continue to pay its debts. Some conservatives are even talking about cuts to “entitlement programs” like Social Security and Medicare. Trump is not one of them. “Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” the former president warned in a video message.
There are two kinds of government spending — public works and social welfare. Public works spending involves benefits available to everyone that people cannot provide for themselves — things like good schools, fast highways, safe streets and a clean environment. Social welfare spending is targeted by need. It helps disadvantaged people get things that others are able to provide for themselves — like housing, food and health care.
Entitlement programs are a form of public works. They are, by definition, not based on need. You are “entitled” to a benefit because you belong to a certain category, and it is a category anyone can belong to — the elderly, children, veterans, disabled persons, victims of natural disasters. Entitlement programs are expensive, often wasteful and inefficient ways to bring about social change. That is not their purpose.
FDR’s New Deal was not a social welfare program. The Great Depression was like a natural disaster that affected everybody, the just and the unjust alike. When Democrats came to power in 1933, they did not attempt a massive program of social change. They passed an ambitious program of public works.
In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was aimed at social change. Its one lasting achievement is Medicare, a popular — and expensive — entitlement program.
President Biden is a traditional Democrat. He has been touring sites of aging and dilapidated rail tunnels in Baltimore and New York to draw public attention to one of his proudest achievements as president: a trillion dollar infrastructure law. A public works program.
Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).
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