Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Other Right Wingers Want to Turn Back the Clock to 1900 -- What Was Life Like Back Then?

Wednesday's 230-195 vote in the GOP-controlled house against Speaker John Boehner's special funding measure to keep the government running past September 30th showed how far the far-right of the already far-right Republican Party will push a principle. They refuse to pass the bill (containing much-needed disaster relief, which is meager enough that the Democrats largely declined to vote for the bill) without deeper budget cuts written in. Boehner will have to rewrite the thing either to placate recalcitrant Democrats, intent on helping the vulnerable, or recalcitrant Republicans, intent on depriving the government of the means to help the vulnerable. One wonders what the odds are regarding his decision.

Weeks earlier, the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irene had provided an excellent opportunity to examine the real-life implications of arguments over the size of government in relation to the quality of liberty. Conservatives have always held that a government’s growth implies freedom’s decline and vice versa, but disaster relief has historically been an area where that formulation acquires the flavor of angels dancing on pinheads: when Americans are suffering and their local communities are ill-equipped to mitigate their despair, the federal government has routinely stepped in with aid. 

But this time around, the libertarian populism exemplified by the Tea Party took center stage. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) at first insisted the debt situation was so dire that disaster relief funds would have to come from elsewhere in the budget.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) insinuated that the deaths and destruction from North Carolina to Vermont were God’s way of alerting us to his will that America “rein in the spending.”

And Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), assuming the vanguard of Tea Party reactionaries, deemed a FEMA response unnecessary, remarking, “We should be like 1900… I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district.” 

There it is: the GOP fantasy laid bare. Return the United States to the way it was in 1900. In the grotesque flight of fancy occupying the minds of ultraconservative politicians and activists, 1900 was a simpler time, a time when Uncle Sam wasn’t always busy poking his nose into everyone’s affairs, a time when anyone could start a business and make a good living if he worked hard enough, a time when America respected her Christian roots and everything went like it came. But this 1900 is a myth; the disparity between it and actual history is enormous. 

In 1900, the American South was essentially run by a religious fundamentalist terrorist faction that perpetrated untold murders with impunity. Women were deprived of individual rights and therefore limited to the chattel position to which the Bible conscripts them. Children worked in factories, where they were often severely injured or worse. In short, 1900 was a time of Dickensian squalor in America. As for disaster relief in that year, Melissa Harris-Perry reminded MSNBC viewers that “somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died in the Galveston hurricane – so many bodies that people couldn’t bury them all. Barrels of whisky were handed out to dull the horror of the funeral pyres that burned across the city for weeks on end. That seemed to be the extent that the government could respond, to dull your pain with some free liquor. ‘Sorry, we can’t do more.’” 

A list of important developments in the field of rights and liberty in America since 1900 must necessarily be rather summary, but it should include women’s suffrage, child labor laws, antitrust laws and the Federal Trade Commission, the National Park Service, the Food and Drug Administration, social security, the minimum wage, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal highway system, racial integration, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, seatbelt requirements, health care privacy rights, women’s equality laws including education and employment opportunities and prohibitions of spousal abuse and marital rape, the Environmental Protection Agency, the creation of the internet, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and, recently, the extension to homosexual Americans of the right to serve in the military. 

Republicans are increasingly happy to admit that they advocate for the abolition of the Federal Reserve and a return to the gold standard, and the Republican who holds any apprehension about championing the repeal of Roe v. Wade is a rare Republican indeed. But only the staunchest archconservative would, until recently, admit to much more than that – notable exceptions including Rep. Paul and his bouncing baby boy in the Senate, both of whom apparently harbor some concern that the Civil Rights Act constituted a constriction rather than an expansion of liberty. But now it is reasonably commonplace, even among the most prominent contestants for the 2012 Presidential nomination, to espouse an opposition to the continuation of the EPAsocial securityMedicare and Medicaid and even the Department of Education

Texas Governor Rick Perry – currently the frontrunner to contest President Obama’s second term – was recently moved to remark, "I don’t think our founding fathers when they were putting the term 'general welfare' in there were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address. Not the federal government. I stand very clear on that." 

Perry is additionally convinced that the founders would have abhorred the 16th Amendment, passed in 1913, which established a progressive system of taxation, notwithstanding the injunction of no less trenchant a capitalist than Adam Smith that "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expence of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expence of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation." 

But for Perry, it is not nearly as important to base political positions on what he imagines the founders favored but what he imagines the Lord favors. The so-called “sonogram bill” he urgently rushed through the Texas legislature would enjoin doctors in the Lone Star State to treat women as insufficiently intelligent to determine for themselves what course of reproductive health to pursue by providing them with a sonogram and a lecture on the dangers of That Safe And Legal Procedure That Shall Not Be Named before the women have access to one. It would so enjoin them, that is, if it had not recently – and rightly – been blocked as unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the doctors’ freedom of speech. The whole affair suggests that the right wingers who support the measure retain a greater regard for the "old ways," so to speak, than even for the First Amendment, which they are happy to blatantly violate. "Tea Party" is therefore perhaps not as accurate a description as Water into Wine Party – why stop at erasing the last century of progress when there is an entire history of modernity to undo? The adulation of an imagined past, the prophet-delusion ring to their claims of a direct line of understanding to the intentions of the long-dead, their radical religious commitments – the whole thing is less reminiscent of venerable American conservatism than of a Christian version of Wahhabism.

The problem facing the right wing is that it is difficult to cherry-pick which features of modernity to do away with and which to retain. After all, a government incapable of protecting its citizenry from harmful toxins and poisons (that is, one without an EPA and an FDA) is precisely the type of government that is incapable of breaking the Ku Klux Klan’s stranglehold on the legal, social, economic and political affairs of the South. A government so limited that it cannot provide disaster relief (as it could not without FEMA), is precisely the type of government so limited that it cannot protect 10 year olds from the horrors of the unregulated meatpacking industry. Perhaps conservatives find it lamentable, but the expansive view of the commerce clause that came into fashion during the Great Depression (and the progressive view of government of which it is emblematic) has been the precondition for much of the freedom from horrific exploitation and terrifying danger Americans enjoy today. By dogmatically clinging to the supposition that the only type of freedom that matters is freedom from the government (since that’s who has the guns), conservatives deprive themselves of a suitably fulsome regard for freedom. They ignore the horrors to which 1900 subjected America without the government protections that have arisen in the intervening 111 years. 

Thank goodness for the progressive era, the New Deal and the Great Society, and heaven (or the founders) help us if we allow the demolition of their gains.


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