Oligarchic ideology based on racism and sexism runs deep in the intellectual history of the United States. As American historian and professor Heather Cox Richardson demonstrates in her latest book, How the South Won the Civil War, the battle between oligarchy and democracy did not end with the war—in terms of the battle of ideas, the oligarchic South actually won.
The story begins with the US founders. For all their virtuous qualities, they couldn’t seem to fully transcend the biases of the times, supporting in various degrees the ideas of white supremacy, sexism, slavery, and divinely-inspired class hierarchies and concentrations of wealth and power (perhaps with the exception of Thomas Paine). Despite the rhetoric of equality found in The Declaration of Independence, once independence was won, inequality was swiftly built into the Constitution. As Richardson wrote:
“Without irony, Virginian James Madison crafted the Constitution to guarantee that wealthy slaveholders would control the new government. Under the new system, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation, Virginia commanded an astonishing 21 electoral votes, 15.9 percent of the total votes in the Electoral College, the highest percentage of votes controlled by a single state in American history.”
If women and poor white men (without the necessary property qualifications) couldn’t vote, and black people were to remain property, and Indian rights were non-existent, in what sense can we say the country was founded on principles of equality? The idea that “all men are created equal” clearly meant all white men of property.
No wonder Abraham Lincoln had to turn to the Declaration, and to his own conscience, rather than to the Constitution in his fight against slavery. Lincoln’s evolving views and arguments against slavery escaped even the brilliance of the founders, many of which held slaves themselves. As Lincoln wrote:
“You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.
You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.
But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”
The irony is that Lincoln was right in that poor and working-class whites throughout history have, in a sense, become slaves to their economic superiors who have an interest in exploiting them for profit in return for low wages and minimal benefits. Lincoln may have prevailed, but the southern ideology was not defeated.
Richardson proceeds to show that, despite the Union victory, oligarchic ideas based on social hierarchies moved west, embodied in the image of the western cowboy as a rugged individualist that asked nothing of the government other than to be left alone. (Except that he asked a lot from the government when he needed help removing Indians or protecting property and the white male vote.)
The West ultimately joined forces with the South, as Richardson details, and the idea of rule by a wealthy majority morphed into the cornerstone of the modern Republican Party, which keeps the old oligarchic ideas alive and well via a repulsive combination of unfettered capitalism, social conservatism, and fundamentalist Christianity, propped up and perpetuated via conservative media outlets.
The real brilliance of Richardson’s book is that it shows how the oligarchy in this country has used the same tactics of persuasion to retain power since the very beginning. The rhetoric of twenty-first-century oligarchs is virtually indistinguishable from the rhetoric of the southern plantation owners of the 1850s.
The strategy is the same: win the poor and working-class white vote by telling them that evil minorities and women are stealing their jobs and wealth so that they never come to see that it is in fact the oligarchy that is rigging the economic system in their favor to siphon worker productivity into ever-higher profits for the wealthy (neatly demonstrated in our continuously rising levels of inequality and middle-class wage stagnation). In summary, people cannot unite economically if they are divided racially.
The strategy never seems to fail, because if poor white people can at least feel superior to minorities, they won’t revolt against the wealthy elite that are in reality the root of the problem. This is the divide-and-conquer strategy the right is well-known for using throughout history. Blame immigrants, the media, the left, the intellectual elite, anyone except the economic elite that push for steeper tax cuts and lower regulation (trickle-up economics).
The game plan simply hasn’t changed in over 150 years because, despite its shameful and exploitative history, the targets of this manipulation are not reading scholarly works in American history. If you ever wondered why leaders like Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump said things like “I love the uneducated,” it’s because they know the uneducated are more likely to fall for the rhetoric that will actually get them to vote against their own interests.
Will democracy survive yet another onslaught of oligarchic subordination? The question is open, but the choice is ours—we know the history and we know the fight. The question is, will we mobilize the vote and fight back, once again, against the same oligarchic ideology that simply refuses to die?