America’s continuing budget and debt-limit crises represent more than misguided political tactics. This is a conflict between two different views of who we are, what’s important, and where the US is headed. It’s a repeat of the ideological clash that resulted in the America’s first Civil War. Who started this fight?
The first Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, began when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The new Civil War began with the formation of the Tea Party by the Koch brothers and the disruptive 2010 election. The two ideological insurrections have four issues in common.
Race. The first civil war was fought over slavery, the practice of owning human beings in order to force them to work without wages. This had a racial component, as well as an economic component. By 1860 there were 3.5 million Black slaves in the Confederacy, 39 percent of the population. Slaves were regarded as less than human – in the original US Constitution they were described as “three-fifths” of a person.
Although slavery was ended in December of 1865, and Blacks have had voter protection since 1965, racism continues. Roughly 37 percent of Southerners are Black or Hispanic. Pollster Stan Greenberg recently conducted Tea Party focus groups and heard stalwarts made racist comments. They hate President Obama. “While few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities.”
Cheap Labor. The Confederate South fought to preserve a plantation economy dependent upon slave labor. Political writer Michael Lind observed that the current strategy of Southern Republicans is similar,
[It’s] primarily about cheap and powerless labor… If the South and the U.S. as a whole through some magical transformation became racially homogeneous tomorrow, there is no reason to believe that the Southern business and political class would suddenly embrace a new model of political economy based on high wages, high taxes and centralized government…Tea Party supporters are primarily Southerners. A recent study by political scientists Stacy Ulbig and Sarah Macha noted, “While less than one in five (19.4%) minority non-Southerners and about 36% of Anglo non-Southerners report supporting the [Tea Party] movement, almost half of white Southerners (47.1%) express support.”
But wherever they are in the US, the Tea Party attitude is homogenous. Pollster Stan Greenberg observed:
Tea Party enthusiasts form just over a fifth of the base Republican voters... These are straight ticket, anti-government, pro-business voters… [who] want to return to a time when they believe government was small, people lived largely free of the government, and Americans took responsibility for themselves.State’s rights. Confederates fought for State sovereignty as does the Tea Party. A Tea Party Congressman proposed a constitutional amendment that would “give states the authority to repeal federal laws and regulations.” There’s sentiment within the Tea Party for states to either secede from the United States or break up into smaller states, where conservative Republicans would be the majority.
In the South the strategy is to form a nation within a nation. Michael Lind wrote:
The economic strategy is to maximize the attractiveness of the former Confederacy to external investors, by allowing Southern states to out-compete other states… in a race to the bottom by means of low wages, stingy government welfare… and low levels of environmental regulation. The political strategy… is to prevent the Southern victims of these local economic policies from teaming up with allies in other parts of the U.S. to impose federal-level reforms on the Southern states. Voter suppression seeks to prevent voting by lower-income Southerners of all races who are hostile to the Southern power elite. Partisan gerrymandering of the U.S. House of Representatives by conservatives in Southern state legislatures weakens the votes of anti-conservative Southerners.Political Power. As rich southerners had a disproportionate political influence prior to the first Civil War, so they have had undue influence in the last 14 years. Southerners founded the Tea Party; a recent study found that “front groups with longstanding ties to the tobacco industry and the billionaire Koch brothers planned the formation of the Tea Party.” (Koch Industries is headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, but the family is from Texas.) Michael Lind observed, “The dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables.”
The Southern funders of the Tea party started the new civil war. They want the federal government to either go away or, in the words of conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, “shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” They want greatly reduced taxes and government regulation. They want federal programs to either go away or be run by the states. They want to neuter the federal government.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org