America’s Unequal Heritage
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The Tea Party movement has perpetuated a lot of dangerous and silly myths about American history in its leaders’ and members’ attempts to advance themselves as the only true defenders of America’s Constitution. Some of the earliest Tea Party leaders even said that the original United States Constitution of 1789 was “divinely inspired” — an idea which would have dumbfounded most of the people who wrote it, who were Deists (believers in God but not in an interventionist God that takes an ongoing role in human affairs) — and, by implication, that the amendments that have been made to it since are not only objectionable but attacks on the divine plan. The Tea Party has largely adopted the position of its coalition partners in the radical Christian Right that the opening words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — were not a guarantee of religious freedom for non-Christians but simply a statement that no one branch of Christianity could ever be the “official religion” of the United States the way Roman Catholicism is in Italy or Anglicanism is in Great Britain.
Though claiming a reverence for the Constitution as a whole, the Tea Party has been fiercely critical of a good deal of it — particularly the birthright citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (“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”) and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, which respectively allowed the federal government to collect income taxes and moved the election of U.S. Senators from the state legislatures to the people at the polls. Indeed, it’s hard to say whether the “divine inspiration” the Tea Partiers claim for the Constitution of 1789 extends to the Bill of Rights, approved two years later, since aside from the Second (the right to bear arms) and the Tenth (federalism and state’s rights) Amendments, they don’t appear that enthralled by the Bill of Rights — particularly the ones guaranteeing “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” due process for those accused of crimes and a ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
But there’s one aspect of the U.S. Constitution that the Tea Party is right about, at least in regards to the framers’ original intentions. The Constitution really does make this country a republic, not a democracy, and the form of government it sets up is intended, among other things, to protect the rights and properties of the elites — who today are being called “the 1 percent” — from attempts by the majority to distribute wealth and income more equally. You don’t have to take the word of the Tea Partiers for that; it’s clearly articulated in Federalist #10, probably the most oft-cited of the Federalist Papers written in 1787 as part of the campaign to get enough states to ratify the Constitution so it could take effect. Though three people wrote the Federalist Papers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — #10 was written by Madison, who quite literally knew more about the Constitution and the “original intent” of its framers than anyone else.
Not only did Madison actually write most of the Constitution himself, but during the Constitutional Convention he also took the notes that are our only primary source for what went on inside it and how the various disputes over what the Constitution should say were resolved. Sometimes Madison’s notes have been used for progressive purposes — as when they were cited as the Supreme Court’s authority for striking down states’ attempts to impose term limits on Congressmembers. But there’s little comfort for progressives in what Madison had to say in Federalist #10. Madison made clear that the Founders had no intention of making the U.S. a democracy — even though “democracy” is the word generally (and incorrectly) used to describe our form of government. Instead, this country was to be a representative republic which would, in Madison’s words, “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
What that meant in practice was a system in which the electorate would not get a chance to vote directly for any office higher than their own member of the House of Representatives. Senators would be chosen indirectly, by state legislators, and the President would be picked by an Electoral College whose members could be selected any way the state legislature chose. What’s more, the pool of potential voters would be considerably smaller than what we’re used to now. At the time the Constitution was enacted, the states restricted the franchise to owners of “property” — which in 18th Century-speak meant land. It took centuries of struggle before that limited franchise was actually extended. The populist movements of the 1820’s that gave rise to the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the modern Democratic Party struck down the “property” requirement and essentially won the vote for all white males.
People of color didn’t theoretically get the vote until 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed — and over the next 30 years a campaign of terror and intimidation waged largely by white-supremacist Southern Democratic politicians and their paramilitary arm, the Ku Klux Klan, effectively abolished the African-American vote until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And, of course, over half the American population remained disenfranchised until 1920, when after decades of struggle women won the vote through the Nineteenth Amendment. (In a few states some people of color could vote before 1870, and women before 1920.)
This history is important in understanding and dealing with the Tea Party because it highlights how profoundly reactionary a movement it really is — and how elitist it is, despite its periodic claims to be populist and anti-corporate. The Tea Party is the latest in a series of Right-wing movements aimed at nothing less than reversing virtually all the gains progressives have struggled for over the last two and one-half centuries of American history and returning to the original understanding of the Constitution: a limited franchise comprised exclusively of affluent people who in any case were not given direct authority to vote on the highest offices in the land.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s it was a common complaint on the Left that the Right of the day wanted to return us to the values and mores of the 1950’s, when Blacks were still on the back of the bus, women were still in the kitchen and Queers were still in the closet. Then it began to occur to people on the Right that there were some aspects of the 1950’s that didn’t fit their world view — like the upper bracket of the income tax, which was 91 percent (although almost nobody actually paid that much), and the percentage of workers in labor unions: one-third, higher than at any time before or since. So starting with the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections — after which talk-show host Roger Hedgecock said the new Congress would “undo the mistakes of the last 60 years” (i.e., go back to a pre-New Deal economy and society) — they proclaimed an intent to go even further back: to the 1880’s, before Social Security, unemployment insurance, laws protecting workers’ health and safety, to a time idealized in Ayn Rand’s writings as one in which “job creators” (Republican-speak for corporations and the super-rich) got to amass huge profits and build giant industries while the workers who actually created their wealth got just barely enough to live on, and sometimes not even that.
Now the Tea Party wants to take us back even farther than the 1880’s — to the early years of the United States, when the country was dominated by owners of huge plantations whose workforces they either owned outright as slaves or paid such pittances they might as well have, and in which only a handful of property owners had political rights at all. At least part of this stems from a Right-wing understanding that a republic can survive only as long as it does not allow the dispossessed majority — “the 99 percent,” as the Occupy movement calls them — to redistribute wealth and income by voting high taxes on the 1 percent. Once again, James Madison’s words in Federalist #10 support the Tea Party’s agenda: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than any particular member of it.” Madison, who on some issues — notably the freedoms of the Bill of Rights — was among the most progressive of the Founding Fathers, would, if he were alive today, quite likely denounce the Occupy movement as an “improper or wicked project.”
The Tea Party’s drive to return to the Founders’ desire for a limited republic that would ensure the dominance of propertied interests — the great landowners who were the 1 percent of their day — is taking many forms on the ground. It includes not only such unlikely dreams as a call to repeal the 17th Amendment and return the election of Senators to state legislatures but a series of restrictions on voting rights Republican governors and state legislators are rushing through to keep younger, poorer and darker people from being able to vote at all. Under the guise of preventing “voter fraud,” states governed by Republicans are cutting back or eliminating same-day voter registration, early voting and mail ballots — used largely by working-class and student voters — and in Florida a Republican legislature and governor passed such draconian restrictions against private organizations’ voter registration drives that the League of Women Voters announced they would stop doing them because, as the group’s Florida president Deirdre Macnab said, “We could not put our volunteers at risk of these fines and penalties.”
When they’re covered at all — which, aside from an excellent front-page article in the October 30 Los Angeles Times, they generally haven’t been by the mainstream media — these restrictions on voting rights have been portrayed as Republican efforts to defeat President Obama and the Democrats in 2012 by shrinking the pool of potential Democratic voters. That’s just a short-term goal; the long-term intent is farther-reaching than that. It was expressed by Florida State Senator Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) when he called voting “a hard-fought privilege” — not a right, but a privilege, which in legal-speak means a gift (like driving or practicing medicine) the government giveth and the government can taketh away. “This is something people died for,” Senator Bennett said. “Why should we make it easier?”
At a time when a lot of the rhetoric on the Left is openly contemptuous of electoral politics, and many Leftists wrongly believe that both major political parties are so totally dominated by corporate lobbyists and the 1 percent’s campaign donations that it doesn’t matter who wins elections (it doesn’t matter anywhere nearly as much as it should, but it still matters), the American Right is pursuing a long-term strategy to re-establish a piece of the Founding Fathers’ “original intent” this country should have outgrown a long time ago. The idea that under the guise of a “republic” we should actually be governed by a self-perpetuating elite runs counter to over two centuries’ worth of struggle to build a truly democratic America out of the limited republic the original Constitution bequeathed us. We ignore this struggle at our peril. To paraphrase Senator Bennett, people died so that wage workers, people of color, and women could vote in this country. Why should we make it easier for the Tea Partiers and the rich people who fund them to take our votes away from us?