You hear it all the time, these days. Tea baggers, militia members and various other conservatives all that to "take their country back." My usual response was to ask just how far back they want to go. I used to think I knew. It turns out, I had my time machine set all wrong.
After so long "standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’," at what point in our history would conservatives like to have stopped the clock? If they could "turn back time," how far back would conservatives take us? Assuming, of course, that we’d let them.
Years ago, long before I stumbled into blogging, I got into a discussion/argument with a conservative about their penchant for returning to the "good old days," and pointed out that (borrowing a line from Billy Joel) "the good old days weren’t always good" for everybody. My opponent argued that we could return to those days and "make them good for everybody." It seemed impossible then, and it seems even more so now.
I guessed that period was probably the 1950s – when (the great, white) father knew best, and everybody else knew their place; women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, blacks in the back of the bus, etc. In my defense, I got that idea from some conservatives.
It turns out I was way off. I didn’t go back far enough. Not nearly.
A few years ago, I offered the following summary of present day conservatism.
I’ve joked, on occasion, that the great complaint of the last 20 years or so of American politics boils down to the reality that being white, male, and heterosexual (throw in Christian or Protestant here, too, if you like) just doesn’t come with as many privileges it used to. If I were to make a sweeping generalization, I’d say that a good bit of conservative politics these days, boiled down to gravy, adds up to not much more than that.
Fast forward to the present, and that description seems almost tailor made for the tea party demographic, according to a recent poll. But it turns out 20 years ago – and even 30, 40, or 50 years ago – isn’t far enough back.
Thanks to Devilstower, I stand corrected, and have set my time machine back to conservatism’s apparent "golden era" of freedom: the 1880s.
Other conservatives have jumped in a different direction and declared that they’re really “small government Libertarians.” Only they don’t seem to understand what Libertarian actually means. Take for example this article in which Jacob Hornberger anoints 1880 as the peak of America’s Libertarian golden age.
Let’s consider, say, the year 1880. Here was a society in which people were free to keep everything they earned, because there was no income tax. They were also free to decide what to do with their own money—spend it, save it, invest it, donate it, or whatever. People were generally free to engage in occupations and professions without a license or permit. There were few federal economic regulations and regulatory agencies. No Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, bailouts, or so-called stimulus plans. No IRS. No Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, and Labor. No EPA and OSHA. No Federal Reserve. No drug laws. Few systems of public schooling. No immigration controls. No federal minimum-wage laws or price controls. A monetary system based on gold and silver coins rather than paper money. No slavery. No CIA. No FBI. No torture or cruel or unusual punishments. No renditions. No overseas military empire. No military-industrial complex.
As a libertarian, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a society that is pretty darned golden.
Ah, the 1880s. I can hear people getting wistful from here.
Devilstower goes on to catalog the virtues of an era long before all that Hornberger decries.
A golden age in which people kept all that they earned. Of course, what they earned in the absence of those debilitating minimum wage laws could be nothing more than worthless tokens from the company store. What they earned from twelve hours of work seven days a week could be actually be a bigger debt to the company that sent you into a mine or factory and made you pay for the wear on your tools, the water you drank, the fuel for your lamp, even the blasting powder you used.
Still, a lifetime of debt wasn’t so bad in a golden age without OSHA and its safety laws, since lifetimes could be quite brief. Mining accidents didn’t kill a piddling 29 men, they killed thousands every year. Over 3 miners out of every 1,000 died on the job each year (twice the rate of Great Britain with it’s freedom-robbing concern for safety). But miners were pikers compared to folks on the railroad. Trainmen fell at a rate that made each year of work roughly equal to the risk of being among the troops on D-Day. Now that’s freedom you can feel (well, briefly). It was an age where any construction project worth its salt could measure progress by body count and factory workers were privileged to know that they really were valued far less than the machines they tended. And death wasn’t all that this golden age had to offer! It was an age when American workers could look forward to the liberation of being disabled for life, and know that they wouldn’t be burdened by the crushing burden of worker’s compensation or government aid.
Any laborer making it to to retirement would find… well, whatever they had laid aside for themselves, assuming they were paid in actual money and that they were cagey enough to hide it somewhere their employer couldn’t “borrow” it. Meaning that a large percentage got to experience the invigorating freedom of starting a second career as a beggar after decades of crippling repetitive work, breathing toxic fumes, and exposure to corrosive chemicals made them unable to continue to hum hi-ho at their old tasks. Well over half of America’s senior citizens basked in the autumnal liberty of living in poverty.
It was a golden age without labor laws in which only 5% of people faced the awful restriction of an 8 hour work day while 3 times that many were blessed with a workday that was 12 hours or longer. Many industries, breweries for example, had a standard workday of 15 hours. And with all the extra freedom of that age, many children were able to experience the blessings of back-breaking labor starting every day by the time they reached the age of 10, with more than a third generating freedom dollars before they turned 15.
Still, before I had a chance to get all misty and nostalgic – or think about how much sense that would even make – David Boaz at Reason sent me back to reset my time machine even further back, when he pointed out that conservative/libertarian longing for a "golden age of lost liberty" conveniently leave out the reality of slavery.
Has there ever been a golden age of liberty? No, and there never will be. There will always be people who want to live their lives in peace, and there will always be people who want to exploit them or impose their own ideas on others. If we look at the long term—from a past that includes despotism, feudalism, absolutism, fascism, and communism—we’re clearly better off. When we look at our own country’s history—contrasting 2010 with 1776 or 1910 or 1950 or whatever—the story is less clear. We suffer under a lot of regulations and restrictions that our ancestors didn’t face.
But in 1776 black Americans were held in chattel slavery, and married women had no legal existence except as agents of their husbands. In 1910 and even 1950, blacks still suffered under the legal bonds of Jim Crow—and we all faced confiscatory tax rates throughout the postwar period.
I am particularly struck by libertarians and conservatives who celebrate the freedom of early America, and deplore our decline from those halcyon days, without bothering to mention the existence of slavery. Take R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., longtime editor of the American Spectator. In Policy Review (Summer 1987, not online), he wrote:
Let us flee to a favored utopia. For me that would be the late 18th Century but with air conditioning….With both feet firmly planted on the soil of my American domain, and young American flag fluttering above, tobacco in the field, I would relish the freedom.
I take it Mr. Tyrrell dreams of being a slave-owner. Because as he certainly knows, most of the people in those tobacco fields were slaves.
Well. That explains the return of the three-cornered hat.
With that, I turned off my time machine, unplugged it and posted an offer on craisglist to give it to the first person who’d agree to take it. (Except for tea baggers. Naturally, they’d refuse a handout, and thus I’d have to charge them something.)
Both Boaz’s and Devilstower’s posts bring to mind the familiar "Thank a Liberal" meme that, an impressive list of the things that many Americans take for granted in our day-to-day lives – the 40 hour work-week, interstate highways, Medicare, child labor laws, public schools, water service, rural electrification, food and drug safety, safety regulations at work, etc. – but that make our lives far easier than those of our forebears.
[Images via the Project for the Old American Century.]
Indeed, it reads like the mirror opposite of all that the writers Boaz and Devilstower reference apparently believe need to be undone, and should never have been done. Kind of like the woman in the video below who seriously wants "repeal civil rights."
More recently, the publisher of Nevada’s largest newspaper published a column calling for the repeal of the 19th amendment.
I like to think I can take a joke, and appreciate political commentary intended as humor, but this item from Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, wasn’t amusing. The headline read, “Time to repeal the 19th Amendment?”
People and candidates for public office should be judged on the basis of their ideas, stance on the issues, character, experience and integrity, not on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion or disability.
Therefore, we must repeal the 19th Amendment. Yes, the one granting suffrage to women. Because? Well, women are biased….. Men are consistent. Women are fickle and biased.
He later claimed it was an attempt at satire, dismissed all criticisms of his points, hid behind his "I’m rubber, you’re glue" defense shield, saying, "The only legitimate argument was that I’m not a good enough writer to attempt satire. Apparently".
On that, he’s actually close to right. After all a decent satirist wouldn’t have missed the glaring irony in so many readers taking him seriously, because the views he expressed in his column were entirely believable coming from a conservative. In other words, his joke (if indeed that’s what it was) was taken seriously because it sounds like something a conservative might seriously say.
That’s because of the nature of conservatism, which by definition concerns itself with preserving existing conditions, or restoring previous conditions. Thus, whether we’re talking about women’s suffrage, civil rights, workplace safety, etc., the opposition to each of these movements was conservative in its dedication to preserving existing conditions and/or returning to "the good old days" — usually in the interest of preserving their privilege in the status quo, regaining it through regression, or resisting change they deemed a threat to their privilege.
In that sense, the tea partiers resemble the movements of old that stood against what Boaz, from a libertarian perspective, cites as advances that have made us freer than we were in the past, depending on what you mean by "us."
I’ve probably been guilty of similar thoughtless and ahistorical exhortations of our glorious libertarian past. And I’m entirely in sympathy with Hornberger’s preference for a world without an alphabet soup of federal agencies, transfer programs, drug laws, and so on. But I think this historical perspective is wrong. No doubt one of the reasons that libertarians haven’t persuaded as many people as we’d like is that a lot of Americans don’t think we’re on the road to serfdom, don’t feel that we’ve lost all our freedoms. And in particular, if we want to attract people who are not straight white men to the libertarian cause, we’d better stop talking as if we think the straight white male perspective is the only one that matters. For the past 70 years or so conservatives have opposed the demands for equal respect and equal rights by Jews, blacks, women, and gay people. Libertarians have not opposed those appeals for freedom, but too often we (or our forebears) paid too little attention to them. And one of the ways we do that is by saying "Americans used to be free, but now we’re not"—which is a historical argument that doesn’t ring true to an awful lot of Jewish, black, female, and gay Americans.
Today’s tea party imitators are a nearly perfect picture of a privileged class – specifically, the class the founders no doubt "originally intended" to enjoy the privileges of citizenship.
The news media’s incessant focus on the Tea Party is creating a badly distorted picture of what most Americans think and is warping our policy debates. The New York Times and CBS News thus performed a public service last week with a careful study of just who is in the Tea Party movement.
Their findings suggest that the Tea Party is essentially the reappearance of an old anti-government far right that has always been with us and accounts for about one-fifth of the country. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters "tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." They are also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. This is the populism of the privileged.
And the poll suggested something that white Americans are reluctant to discuss: Part of the anger at President Obama among Tea Partiers does appear to be driven by racial concerns.
…The poll asked: "In recent years, do you think too much has been made of the problems facing black people, too little has been made, or is it about right?" Twenty-eight percent of all Americans — and just 19 percent of those who are not Tea Party loyalists — answered "too much." But among Tea Party supporters, the figure is 52 percent, almost three times the proportion of the rest of the country. A quarter of Tea Partiers say that the Obama administration’s policies favor blacks over whites, compared with only 11 percent in the country as a whole.
If they could turn back time, and literally take the country back to a time when "Americans used to be free," would that mean less freedom for those of us who don’t fit the old definition of "American"? Why should we even want to test it? It is possible to return to "the good old days" (once we determine when they were) and, as my online debate opponent said "make them good for everybody"?
It’s an old argument, but one that conservatives haven’t effectively answered – at least not in a way that wouldn’t horrify many people. How do you return to the "good old days" and make them good for everybody? Because they weren’t. Or is that what actually made them good?
First, there’s not much evidence from today’s nostalgic conservatives that they would want to. Indeed, the rhetoric and imagery of the tea parties, which have for better or worse become the dominant face and voice of conservatism today, suggests quite the opposite.
From the frequent appearance of the confederate battle flag (at least once emblazoned with the clarifying slogan "Bring back we the people!") to the emphatic references to "our America," there’s an underlying complaint that something has been lost – or rather, something has been taken, even stolen, from them. "Their country," their primacy, their "place" has been usurped, and they have been crowded out by the rest of us.
As Pat Buchanan wrote, "their" America and their place in it have been lost.
In their lifetimes, they have seen their Christian faith purged from schools their taxes paid for, and mocked in movies and on TV. They have seen their factories shuttered in the thousands and their jobs outsourced in the millions to Mexico and China. They have seen trillions of tax dollars go for Great Society programs, but have seen no Great Society, only rising crime, illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates.
They watch on cable TV as illegal aliens walk into their country, are rewarded with free educations and health care and take jobs at lower pay than American families can live on – then carry Mexican flags in American cities and demand U.S. citizenship.
They see Wall Street banks bailed out as they sweat their next paycheck, then read that bank profits are soaring, and the big bonuses for the brilliant bankers are back. Neither they nor their kids ever benefited from affirmative action, unlike Barack and Michelle Obama.
This is stage 2 of LBJ’s nightmare: the silver lining. Yes, the civil rights law turned the south from deep blue to deep red. That killed us for 40 years. But, over those same 40 years, demographic changes in the American population (considerably assisted by LBJ’s liberal immigration policy) ensured that the party of the white male would be unable to put together an electoral majority beyond 2000 or thereabouts.
That is why the racists are losing their minds. They say that they have lost their country. They are right.
But we welcome them to ours. Just leave the hate behind.
Again, being white, male, Christian, and heterosexual doesn’t come with the privileges it used to. That this loss is blamed on minorities comes as no surprise. To blame it, instead, upon the lawmakers whose policies actually helped close those factories, and whose economic policy made the outsourcing of their jobs possible, would cause an even greater crisis of identity. Because, for the most part those two groups – the tea baggers and the lawmakers whose policies got us where we are today, are almost mirror images of each other. And that might just be too much to face up to.
After all, the "freedom" extolled by the writers Boaz and Devilstower reference, was available only to some who fit a certain criteria – white, male, property owners, at minimum – and then at the expense of virtually everyone else. Their enjoyment of those freedoms – merely mere rights and privileges of citizenship –depended on everyone else not having them.
Much of the rest of our history has been, on the part of progressives, a process of correcting that imbalance, and expanding those freedoms to more and more Americans. Thus, if they could turn back time "good old days," and the way things used to be way back when, it would almost certainly leave most of the rest of us – who don’t fit the tea party demographic – much worse off than we are now.
And, whether they know it or not, the same goes for them.