Republicanism and the Meaning of Small Government

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same”)—Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1849)

Florida governor Ron DeSantis launched his presidential campaign Wednesday and it didn’t go well. His Twitter conference with CEO Elon Musk was plagued by glitches, a mess front-runner Donald Trump had a field day with, posting a devastating meme readers won’t have much trouble finding (for a sampling of the many memes that followed, see here). The most recent surveys finds that Trump continues to rise in the polls, while DeSantis continues to fall. At this point, it appears DeSantis picked the wrong time to enter the race for president.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has put the interests of Floridians above the profits of Disney infuriating progressives

But I am not blogging about political theater today. I want to talk about political philosophy instead, in particular this question I’m seeing from progressives about why DeSantas is hassling Disney if Republicans believe in small government. This appeal to hypocrisy, presuming it’s not disingenuous, reveals an ignorance of what it means to be a r/Republican—both the principle and the party (hence the r/R). “Big government” is a popular label for competing governing philosophies.

When Republicans talk about the problem of “big government,” they are expressing concern about intrusive government. Republicans desire effective and responsible government that doesn’t trample the rights of individuals or interfere with family life for the sake of a political-ideological agenda or maximizing corporate profits. However, they also believe in safeguarding children from sexualization, which is sometimes, tragically, perpetrated on children by their own parents, and this necessitates limiting what parents can do to their children. The pragmatics of Republican politics stems from the foundational belief that the proper role of the government is not to control people but to promote virtue in citizens and protect them from illegitimate power and unscrupulous actors.

History is important here. During a period when the established parties were succumbing to the pressures of southern slaveholders and their powerful backers (which include capitalists in foreign countries), the Republican Party emerged as a radical force determined to disrupt the nation’s political landscape and return the nation to its original intent as a constitutional republic. The Republican Party originated in the mid-1850s in the United States as a response to the mounting tensions over the abomination of slavery and the power of the slavocracy over the nation. Comprised of various factions, Republicans united under the practical goal of opposing the expansion of slavery into new territories. The New York Tribune, a prominent newspaper founded by Horace Greeley, played a significant role in promoting Republican ideals and providing a platform for influential voices.

One such voice was Karl Marx, who contributed articles to The New York Tribune during the 1850s, helping to shape Republican Party philosophy. Marx, a renowned economist, legal, and political theorist, used the paper as a platform to express his views on American politics and social issues, as well as plugging Americans into the European scene. While not directly involved in the party, Marx’s writings for the Tribune nonetheless influenced intellectual debates and provided insights into the political climate of the time. American readers of readers of the news were not ignorant of the arguments and the platform of the Communist Manifesto, which Marx, along with his colleague Frederich Engels, had pinned at the end of the 1840s to elevate the struggle of labor against capital. Greeley himself advocated the importance of working-class interests and advocated for land reform and public education as means to uplift the laboring classes, a major plank of the Communist Party.

Marx’s writings were not out of place in the Republican movement. Nor was Greeley alone in the party in his pro-worker politics. Many in the party were strong advocates of labor rights and securing the material interests of workers. Socialists and labor activists found a place in the party, particularly during the late 19th century when the influence of these groups grew. The Republican Party associated with the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International. This organization aimed to unite working-class movements worldwide. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, recognizing the importance of labor in the development of the nation, spoke before the New York chapter of the association. This was not a one-off. In a 1861 speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Lincoln acknowledged the value of labor, emphasizing its contribution to society and expressing support for workers’ rights—a speech that was carried in the nation’s major papers. The party’s opposition to the expansion of slavery further escalated tensions between the North and the South, ultimately culminating in the American Civil War. In the midst of war the Lincoln Administration and the International Working Men’s Association corresponded over the importance of Lincoln’s reelection and the war against slavery. (For more on this, see my July 4, 2020 podcast and blog The FAR Podcast Episode # 21 Marx and Americanism: From One Revolutionary to Another.)

What republicanism recognizes is that, once the government becomes integrated with corporate and other forms of concentrated power, citizens become subjects, losing their power to govern their own affairs. Corporate governance, or corporatism, may appear as progressive, and speak about “social democracy,” but it is, as I have shown in many blogs on Freedom and Reason, fascistic in character (it is out of this character that the current leftwing authoritarianism emanates). For the same reason that principled Republicans such as Steve Bannon and Donald Trump oppose the administrative state and technocratic apparatus that manages the affairs of monopoly capitalism, an apparatus they seek to deconstruct, past republicans opposed the monarchy and the slavocracy. This is what Republicans mean by “small government,” namely opposition to concentrated and illegitimate forms of power.

This is why, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, with overwhelming support by the Republican Party, it was only a matter of time before the South became Republican. With Jim Crow a lost cause, southerners soon embraced the party of individualism, populism, and virtue, leading them to leave the Democratic Party in droves. However, through their control of the means of ideological production, progressives have manufactured a lie about this history. They tell you that the parties flipped—if they admit the actual history of the Democratic Party at all. But it takes only a little knowledge to realize that the claim that this is because Republicans is a racist party makes no sense. The fact is that Democrats stood for concentrated unelected government ever since the days of the slavocracy—all the way through Wilson and Roosevelt to today. It’s no problem for them to tell men and women that they shouldn’t marry, that they will be taken care of by the state, that the children belong to the master, and to organize society along racial lines.

Embracing a corporation like Disney is second nature to Democrats. Fealty to state and corporate apparatus should surprise no one in light of the fact that this is a party founded in slavery and shaped by the logic that inheres in governing philosophies that derive from that abominable system. Racism comes easy to Democrats. Indeed, racism 2.0—Affirmative Action, the custodial state, critical race theory, DEI, and anti-white bigotry—is the product of the Democratic Party and the progressive ideas that have colonized American institutions over the twentieth century. So it is to be expected that Democrats would be upset when a Republican governor elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a woke corporation like Disney or the programs of woke colleges and universities.

* * *

I want to say a bit more on the myth that the Democratic and Republican parties swapped places as the racist party of America because my own family misled me about this thanks to their deep and uncritical loyalty to the Democratic Party. To be sure, they admitted that the Democrats may have long ago been the party of racism, but reassured me that they are now the antiracists (which I have sense learned doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means). The Democratic Party is the home of progressivism, which, concerned with social justice, is a forward-looking standpoint (also a misleading claim). Republicans are the party of backwardness, bigotry, and racism, not Democrats. These are all untruths.

You won’t be taught this in public schools, but respective voting records of the two parties on the 1964 Civil Rights Act explode the deception. A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act. The legislation aligned with the Republican Party platform of promoting equal rights and opposing racial discrimination. In fact, Republican votes were critical in securing the passage of the Act, as they provided critical support to offset the opposition from southern Democrats. While the majority of Democrats supported the Civil Rights Act, there was a significant opposition from southern Democrats who hailed from states in the South where segregation and racial discrimination were deeply entrenched. They sought to maintain the status quo and prevent the federal government from interfering in racial matters.

The vote tally on the original House version was 290 for to 130 against (69–31%). The Senate version was 73 for to 27 against (73–27%). The Senate version, voted on by the House, won 289–126 (70–30%). The original House version broken down by party: Democratic 152–96 (61–39%); Republican 138–34 (80–20%). Republicans were even more likely to support civil rights in the Senate, with the Democratic Party voting 46–21 (69–31%) and Republicans voting 27–6 (82–18%). The Senate version voted on by the House found the Democratic Party voting 153–91 (63–37%) while the Republican Party voted 136–35 (that’s 80–20%). So while a majority of both parties voted for the legislation, significantly more Democrats, both in frequency and in proportion relative to party, voted against the bill.

The majority of Republicans also supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Similar to the Civil Rights Act, Republicans played a significant role in securing the passage of the Act, providing crucial support to offset opposition. Again, while the majority of Democrats supported the Act of 1965, and notable opposition within the party was relatively limited compared to the opposition seen in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there were still dissenting voices among southern Democrats. A similar pattern was seen with the Fair Housing Act, aka Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Here, reflecting Republican concern about big government, there was some opposition within the party over concerns related to federal intervention, property rights, and the potential impact on private housing decisions. There was similar opposition to the Voting Rights Act given that the Constitution leavings electoral matters up to the states. But neither oppositional moment was driven by racism, but rather from principle.

The story progressives tell American youth in public schools is very different. After the vote, the story goes, southerners switched to the Republican Party because Democrats pushed the Civil Rights Act and, since southerners were racist, they rebelled against the party that had protected their white privilege. That’s just how racist white southerners are. The Democrats, which had become more progressive over the years, had seen the light and the racists needed a new party, so they fled to the Republican Party. Of course, this necessarily assumes that the Republican Party was a racist party that would welcome the segregationists. That’s the story I was told growing up in a Democratic family only later to learn it was nonsense. As I noted above, Republicans overwhelmingly supported Civil Rights. Why, if Southerners are so motivated by racism, would they switch their loyalty to the less racist party—to the party that guaranteed the destruction of Jim Crow? Aren’t Southerners stuck in the past? Backwards bigots who can’t think beyond heritage? Didn’t Republicans abolish slavery, pass the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and occupy and humiliate the South?How could racists side with the Party of Lincoln?

President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, federalized the National Guard in Little Rock and turned them against the Democratic administration of Arkansas Governor Orval Eugene Faubus. Lyndon Johnson, the same president who signed the Civil Rights Act into law, preaching law and order, organized the war on crime and drugs, which disproportionately impacted the black community. Republican president Richard Nixon established Affirmative Action as the official policy of the United States. Republican president Ronald Reagan thwarted the more punitive criminal justice bills pushed by the Democratic Party led by Joe Biden in the Senate. The Clinton Administration ran on a law and order platform and passed into law Joe Biden’s draconian criminal justice bill. This raises a related question: why would blacks switch their loyalty to the Democrats?

In the absence of explicit racism in the Republican Party, progressives claim that conservatives blow their racism through dog whistles. “They aren’t explicitly racist,” we’re told. “They hide it in coded language.” No, Republicans aren’t racists, which is why you can’t hear the whistle. “What about Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’?” What about the reality that the idled welfare recipients in America’s impoverished inner cities is a result of the progressivism that lies at the heart of Democratic Party policymaking? Is the custodial state that robs black Americans of their dignity and sinks their communities into pathologies—fatherlessness, joblessness, and violent crime—the work of populist Republicans? Or is it the work of progressive Democrats? Today, 27 of the 30 most violent cities are run by progressive Democrats. It’s not a hard question to answer.

What explains the upside-down ideology? This requires a much longer blog, but I Shelby Steele, who distinguishes between “poetic truth” and objective truth in civil rights discourse and politics, gives us a big part of the answer. Social justice types use poetic truth to push replacing equality with equity. Equality means every individual is treated the same before the law; equity, in contrast, means that every individual is treated as a member of a group. If a group is different than another group on some statistical metric, let’s say poverty, then members of that group are supposed to receive a privilege. Even if some members of that group are richer than members of the other group, each will enjoy the privilege. Social justice types argue that equality is unjust because members of despised groups on average do better than the beloved groups.

Poetic justice is a strategy used by those seeking power. It establishes a new hierarchy in the place of the one it claim exists. Victimhood and its claims of oppression have become a source of power in a society where guilt has become widespread. But objective reality refutes the claims of social justice types and reveals the position as racist. The Democratic Party is racist because it roots politics in racial difference, a tactic that artificially divides individuals into arbitrary groups based on selected phenotypic features, and not in our common humanity as a species. Progressives pursue a politics of identity. They see social relations not in economic classes and individuals (material and physical realities) but in imagined communities (subjectivities)—categories kept alive by ideology. Progressives see justice in terms of which groups get what things. They do this instead of defending justice as the principle of equality before the law. As such the Democratic Party is also profoundly illiberal. You hear it in their rhetoric of equity and practice of tokenism, which is disguised in the language of diversity and inclusion.

The Democratic Party was the party of slavery, the party of the Ku Klux Klan, the party of Jim Crow and segregation, and now the party of antiracism. Progressives pushed eugenics. Woodrow Wilson, the progressive, was a racist president. The Roosevelt Administration institutionalized red lining across the nation. The Democratic Party continues as the party of racial identity. Democrats and progressives never overcame their racist past but have rather redefined it. Moreover, the Democratic Party is misnamed. Democrats do not really believe in the deliberative work of the republic—in nation-states that represent the sovereign people. They’re globalists. When they talk about democracy they mean technocracy. Democrats don’t believe in foundational law, the Constitution and other founding documents and the common law that inspires our basic liberties and rights. They see good government as policy developed and implemented by experts and specialists who adhere to progressive doctrine.

Southerners were drawn to Republicans not out of racism, but because they found their small government philosophy attractive to their beliefs in individualism and personal liberty, as well as their commitment to virtue. Globalism, multiculturalism, regulation, transnationalism, welfarism, and other progressive and social democratic ideas and policies, as well as hostility towards Christianity, alienated southerners who found republican values more to their tastes. There they found support for religious liberty, individualism, patriotism, populism, and sense of nationalism. With the race question out of the way, there was no reason to remain in the Democratic Party. And now that the Democrat Party has reengineered racism as anti-white bigotry, there is no reason to return.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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