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Conservatives would like us to believe that hatred of government and racism are totally separate phenomena. That one has nothing to do with the other. They’re wrong.
Resentment of the federal government and racism have gone hand-in-hand in the United States for 200 years. In the 19th century, Democrats were the anti-government party. That was the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Southern slave owners embraced the Democratic Party because they feared the federal government would take away their property without compensation. And it did.
Southerners rallied to the cause of “states’ rights” because it meant the preservation of slavery. Later, that morphed into segregation.
Of course, resentment of government is not limited to racists. It has deep roots in U.S. history. The Europeans who first settled the United States came here seeking either economic or religious freedom. As the late sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset put it, the United States was populated by “runaways from authority.” They were escaping the authority of oppressive governments and established churches.
The belief in limited government is enshrined in our Constitution. That’s why Tea Party activists worship the Constitution. The first founding document — the Articles of Confederation (1781) — provided for a federal government that was so weak, it had to be thrown out and replaced by the Constitution in 1789.
That’s why gun rights are written into the Constitution and held in reverence by gun activists. They see guns as their ultimate protection from the abusive power of government. Which is how they were used by the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed militia of supporters when the federal government tried to seize his livestock.
Conservative radio host Sean Hannity tried during his broadcast to separate the “legitimate” issue of government overreach from racism. “People for the right reasons who saw this case as government overreach,” Hannity told his listeners, “now are branded because of the ignorant, racist, repugnant, despicable comments of Cliven Bundy.”
Conservative commentator Crystal Wright labeled Bundy’s comments “racial missteps.” Texas Governor Rick Perry called them a “side story” to the real story — an abusive federal land grab.
Today, the Republican Party is the anti-government party. Therefore, it has inherited the same support from racists that Democrats used to have.
The coalition created by President Ronald Reagan brought together a variety of interests united by one thing: resentment of big government. The coalition included middle-class voters attracted by low taxes. It included business interests that favored deregulation. It included religious conservatives who opposed judicial activism. It included men who tended to favor risk-taking over a government-provided safety net. It included gun owners who feared that the federal government would take their guns away.
Regan’s supporters also included white voters who were motivated by racial fear and resentment. They were one of the earliest constituencies in this new Republican coalition. Racists were almost all Senator Barry M. Goldwater had in 1964, after the Democrats embraced civil rights. They were the key to President Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” win in the 1970s. Racial backlash voters oppose an activist federal government because they want to protect their interests against what they regard as black encroachment.
Consider this fact: Nixon’s worst state in 1968 was Mississippi, where he got 14 percent of the vote. George Wallace got 63.5 percent. Nixon’s best state in 1972 was Mississippi, where he got 78 percent of the vote. Add the 1968 Nixon and Wallace votes and you get the 1972 Nixon vote. Racists were simply folded into the Republican coalition.
African-Americans have little resentment of a federal government that rescued them twice from intolerable conditions — from slavery in the 1860s and from segregation in the 1960s. The anti-government movements of the past 50 years have isolated African-American voters from the rest of the electorate. Democrats are identified with government, and since 1964, no other group — not even self-described Democrats and liberals — has voted as solidly or as consistently Democratic as African-Americans.
Bundy expressed puzzlement that so few minorities are part of the right-wing revolt against big government. “If they’re not with us,” Bundy declared, “they’re going to be against us.”
He’s right. They are.
Bundy’s explanation? Same as the explanation that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered in 2012 about the “47 percent” who are “dependent on government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name it.” Bundy said, “Are they better off being slaves? . . . Or better off being slaves to the United States government, in the sense of the subsidies, I’m wondering.”
Since 1976, the National Opinion Research Center has asked people how they feel about government: Is Washington trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses? Or should the government do even more to solve the country’s problems? The question has nothing to do with race. But the answers do.
While Americans of both races became more critical of government during the 1980s, blacks were always twice as likely as whites to favor the principle of activist government. Bundy represents the most extreme position on this. “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” he has said.
The division in opinion over government helps explain two seemingly contradictory trends in American politics. On the one hand, there has been a steady decline in racial bigotry. On the other hand, racial division in U.S. politics has grown wider. African-American voters remain overwhelmingly Democratic while whites have become more and more Republican.
The race issue in this country is inextricably linked to the issue of big government. It always has been.
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