Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Origins of Gridlock: Louis Menand and the Past is Prologue

Writing in the March 4 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes a history of the American democracy, in reviewing a book by Ira Katznelson about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which Menand places our current stagnation in Congress in historical context.

One of the benefits of  looking at history is the soothing effect it can have, when we look at our current state of turmoil and stagnation in Congress--we can see how it happened and we can understand the inevitability of the tide which washed us up on this particular shore.

Among the many astonishing factoids Menand casually drops upon the head of the reader are:
1/ Apart from the Congresses of 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, the Republicans did not have a majority in either Chamber of Congress until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
2/ When Eisenhower took office in 1953, nearly $53 of the national government's $76 billion budget was spent on defense.

The South, which has always been the least well educated, most rural and most desperate part of America, strongly supported the defense spending and the reorganization and re purposing of the federal government into an eternal war machine, because so many of those military bases and so much of the  war munitions were placed in the South.

Southerners, desperate and sinking beneath the waves of the Great Depression, were all for big government spending to rescue them. They were economic liberals, while at the same time embracing their Southern apartheid.  Claude Pepper, U.S. Senator from Florida, said, "The colored race will not vote, because in doing so..they endanger the supremacy of a race to which God has committed the destiny of a continent, perhaps the world."  But he was a liberal in voting for all the big New Deal programs which had the effect of starting to redistribute the wealth from the industrialized North to the underdeveloped South. He was beaten by George Smathers, in 1950, who called him "Red Pepper,"  for his embrace of big federal government. (In those days "Red" referred to communist red, not red states.)

Smathers, it must be remembered was a favorite whoring buddy of John Kennedy of Massachusetts. The two cut a wide swath in Washington, DC, back in the day when Senators got drunk together, partied and cavorted together around Washington. They were not hoping airplanes back to their districts on Thursday and returning Monday. They had personal relationships which oiled the wheels of government, as they oiled their own personal wheels.

When John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory of economics in 1936, he argued the federal government could stimulate the economy, if it chose, by burying bottles of money in abandoned coal mines and encouraging private entrepreneurs to figure out ways to dig them up.  This idea pointed the way to federal government spending on defense and other projects. Just spread around federal dollars and the capitalistic system will distribute them and the economy will become productive.

In 1933 there were 572,000 federal employees and government spending was $4.6 billion dollars; by 1945 there were 3,800,000 federal employees and the federal budget was $92 billion. The South had traded its poverty for feeding at the federal teat, but it remained determined not to allow the federal government to forbid racism. Labor unions, which were embraced by the New Deal, were an agent of mixing of the races and the South recoiled from that. 

During the Second World War, the Nazis, looking across the ocean and seeing a racist society it could admire, in the South, tried to encourage the American South to embrace their ideas of fascism, which the fascists saw were completely aligned with the ubermensch mentality of the South. But the South remained solidly anti-fascist, if not philosophically, politically. 

When David Kenyon Webster, a white GI,  describes casting his first vote in Germany, in the midst of the Allied advance in 1944, walking two miles to vote as a soldier deployed in a combat zone, the Southern Democrats had voted against his right to do that. They opposed soldier voting categorically, even though it meant denying white soldiers the right to vote, because they knew there were 200,000 Black soldiers in arms and if all those soldiers were allowed to vote while in the Army (something they could not do if they were back home in the South) they might gain political power, and Smathers's nightmare might be realized.  Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, voting against soldier voting explained enabling Black soldiers to vote along with White soldiers violated the principles Southern soldiers were at war to defend. "Those boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy."

The undoing of the Democratic Party was a slow train wreck. When Adali Stevenson ran for President in 1952 he put an ardent segregationist, John Sparkman of Alabama on his ticket, and again in 1956 he put a Southerner on the ticket. He won very few states outside the South. Can you imagine a map of the U.S. Presidential election showing the entire South in blue and most of the North, the Mid Atlantic and West Coast in Red?

To this day, the legacy of that paradox--reactionary, racist Southerners who were "liberal" in economic terms (i.e., they wanted the federal dollars flowing from wide open spigots, bringing military installations and weapons systems plants to Sweet Home Alabama) but at the same time they hate the federal government in Washington, DC telling them what to do. They fear black helicopters and central power which could look from afar and say, "You cannot have separate black and white water fountains, swimming pools, restaurants and hotels."

And Democrats, thinking it was political necessity, were in bed with all that.

Ironically, it was Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who wrecked the Democratic Party by pushing through the Voting Rights Act. The entire Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party turned on a dime and became Republicans, joined the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, the man who had sent Sherman and Grant to ravage the South. History meant nothing to them when their racist way of life was threatened.

So here we are, all these years later, stuck with a reactionary South which lives on a federal government of eternal war, which sends enough representatives to Congress to tie the federal government up in knots, except where military spending is concerned.

What to do?  Well, for starters, kill all that sweet government crude flowing to the military.  Hit those super patriot free loading Southerners where it hurts. Close every military base, kill every defense plant in the South. 

To use Sherman's phrase:  Make Georgia howl.


  1. Mad Dog,
    That was an interesting article-I thought it noteworthy that in the 30's southern legislators killed an anti-lynching amendment in part by saying it discriminated against the south. Sounds remarkably similar to the argument being used today against the Voting Rights Act.

    I agree that Ted Cruz has indeed come through for Texas in the crazy contest-he even looks daffy-therefore I'm with you on your choice of Texas as the first state timed out of the Union for bad behavior..

    What do you think of the annoying gnat Rand Paul winning the CPAC straw poll? Only at CPAC would he be the darling-it would be nice to see him go on, like fellow CPAC winners Romney and Bush, to become the 2016 Republican nominee....

  2. Maud,

    Winning the CPAC poll is akin to being voted best Rush Limbaugh impersonator.
    Rand Paul did have a point about the unbridled use of drones, but he made it in a cheap imitation of Jimmy Stewart and that told me he is playing the same insincere Washington game all the others are playing. He's no different.
    House of Cards is looking more and more like a documentary.

    Mad Dog