By Colin Woodward
For the past four years, the Republican Party has been waging an obstructionist war against the Democrats and their leader Barack Obama. From the first, the Right has wanted Obama to fail and has done everything in its power to undermine his presidency. The conservative attacks have taken many forms. Since there was no doubt about the legitimacy of Obama’s victory at the polls in 2008 (unlike Bush’s victory in 2000), conservatives have attacked Obama’s legitimacy in other ways, chiefly by doubting the fact that he was born in the United States or that he subscribes to the Christian faith. Somehow, the Right has convinced itself that he’s a Kenyan Muslim (fun fact: the vast majority of Kenyans are Christians).
Several years ago, Senate Minority leader and Kentuckian Mitch McConnell said his party’s main priority–not job growth or protecting us from terrorism–was assuring the president would serve only one term. Since then, his party has been disturbingly disciplined in trying to bring that about. Whether that strategy has backfired is another issue.
Back in 2009, before Obama had even taken the Oath of Office, Rush Limbaugh said he wanted Obama to fail, even amid the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression (I don’t recall many mainstream Democrats hoping Bush would fail after the 9-11 attacks). Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act–made law only after a year of vociferous debate and unanimous disapproval by Republican Senators–Republicans have voted more than 30 times to repeal it. True to their principles that leave them frozen on enacting true economic reform, they have voted not once on Obama’s jobs bill.
America has not seen this kind of obstructionism since the civil rights era and before that, the antebellum period. While Republicans would deny it, it seems that whenever there is talk of “states rights” or the federal government violating “personal liberty,” the issue of race isn’t too far behind, especially in the South. What makes Obama different from past presidents is his skin color, and much of the anger on the Right has been caused not just by differences on economics or the issue of state vs. federal government, but racial animosity. Some of this animosity takes the form of vile personal attacks on the president, while in other cases it is supporting anti-immigrant legislation or undermining laws that would disproportionately help minorities. First, though, some background on the historic obstructionism we have seen since 2009.
Obstructionism in the United States is as old as the country itself. While conservatives today love to compare present-day constitutional theory with that of the Founding Fathers (who had no concept of universal health care that would pay for birth control, or conscription, or an IRS, or gay marriage, or germ theory or evolution), the most conservative people of the 1780s were men like Patrick Henry. Henry saw the Constitution as the creature of Federal government violating individual liberties. He was one of the many Anti-Federalists who were outwitted by Federalists like Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, and Madison, who saw the need for a more powerful central government (especially the power to tax, which the Continental Congress did not have during the Revolution).
In the 1780s, compromise, unlike today, was possible. It was largely because of protests by men like Patrick Henry that the triumphant Federalists conceded to their critics by amending the Constitution with a Bill of Rights. Federalists, listening to the concerns of Anti-Federalists, hoped they could protect people’s basic rights more explicitly with a Bill of Rights than without one. It was one of the first of many compromises struck between two opposing political camps in the United States.
Slavery, however, would prove the thorniest subject in American politics up to 1865. It plagued legislators trying to govern the ever-expanding territories. And as abolitionists became more vocal in the 1830s, southern politicians too became more vocal and more obstructionist. In the 1830s, southerners making fortunes from slavery’s profits imposed a “Gag Rule”: all bills concerning slavery would be tabled in Congress. In a clear violation of the First Amendment, southern states even made it a crime to distribute abolitionist literature in the slave states. Those who spoke out on their own against slavery might face a lynch mob.
One of the most influential opponents of all things Federal government in the antebellum period was the Democrat South Carolinian (and member of the Obstructionist Hall of Fame), John C. Calhoun. Elected to the vice presidency in 1828, Calhoun disliked Andrew Jackson’s policies so much that he resigned as vice president, became a senator, and then almost started a Civil War over the tariff issue. (Later, Calhoun would oppose the Mexican War, in part, because he worried it would bring too many brown people into the United States’ fold.) Concerning his presidency, Andrew Jackson said that the one thing he regretted was not hanging John C. Calhoun. However, in Calhoun’s time, compromise after compromise–brokered by men such as southerner Henry Clay– averted disaster.
Despite Congress’ ability to broker bargain after bargain, it was Abraham Lincoln’s election that sent the South into unprecedented hysterics. Lincoln, a Republican, was–very much like Obama–an essentially moderate figure who was made to look extremist by his political opponents. Lincoln was very willing to compromise, but on one issue, he would not yield. He would block all attempts to allow slavery to become legal in the territories.
Southerners read this, incorrectly, as abolitionism (despite the fact that Lincoln had no intention with interfering with slavery where it already was legally protected). Most southern whites thought it better to secede and start a new country rather than give in on the slavery issue. Lincoln was the first southern-born president to never have owned slaves. And he was the first president from anywhere to stand up to the South on the slavery issue.
Southern Democratic obstructionism would survive the Civil War era, as white former Confederates sought to undo the gains African Americans, with their white Republican allies, made during the Civil War and Reconstruction. But between the end of Reconstruction and the 1930s, there was something of a lull in concerted southern political action at the national level.
It was not until Roosevelt’s presidency that southern obstructionism revived, when politicians and the Supreme Court blocked some of FDR’s reforms, especially those concerning race. In the Senate, in particular–led by men such as Richard Russell, Harry Byrd, and Russell Long–“Dixie” had the power to kill bills that southern whites thought were not in their best interests. Among one bill that died in the 1930s was anti-lynching legislation, which southern senators especially refused to pass. FDR ultimately failed to back the bill because he feared it would kill support for the New Deal in the South.
It was during the “Second Reconstruction” of the 1950s and 60s that white southern politicians tried to block civil rights legislation at every step. When Democrat LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he admitted that he probably lost the South for a generation. Indeed, it was in the mid-60s that white southerners began embracing the Republican Party, formerly the “Party of Lincoln” and strong on civil rights matters (or at least, historically better than the Democrats). Today, however, it is the Republicans, not the Democrats, that are the party of obstructionism.
Now, Congress has become gridlocked by Republicans blocking every piece of Democratic legislation they come across. Many Republicans defend gridlock as a drama in which the American people avoid being crushed by an evil federal power. And that certainly is part of it. But it doesn’t parse very well with the same conservatives wanting the federal government to have tighter borders or institute greater military spending. Republicans aren’t anti-big-government as long as they are the ones with control over it.
One must question the ideological motives of people who say Obamacare violates their liberty, but Arizona immigration laws do not. These same Republicans are instituting polices that are effectively disfranchising voters who do not have state-issued licenses, and they know the people most affected are black and Latino. In Texas, you can present a gun permit as valid ID, but not a student card. Apparently for conservatives, only higher taxes are evil.
American obstructionism is at its strongest when there is heightened racial fear in this country. In the antebellum period, southern whites feared a race war happening were northern abolitionists to get their way. Southern white politicians in the 20th century worried the end of Jim Crow would ruin a “way of life” founded on segregation and keeping blacks “in their place.” Under Obama, you hear apocalyptic predictions nonsense. In Texas a few years ago (and perhaps still today), there has been loose talk about secession. Verbally challenged governor Rick Perry said during his presidential campaign that the Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geitner would have been beaten in Texas for printing money (another fun fact: Geitner’s policies have nothing to do with simply printing more money. The government and the Fed have to be careful about spiraling inflation, though deflation is worse. See Gov. Perry, that’s why you can’t be president: this stuff is hard!).
In a great example of someone cutting off his nose to spite his face, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has vowed not to implement Obamacare in his poor and minority-heavy state, where medical coverage is most needed. Jindal’s actions are good theatre. Louisiana will undoubtedly go for Romney, provided Mitt doesn’t say something bad about LSU football. And since Jindal is a lame duck, he will probably carry obstructionism until his term is over–or Obama deploys the 101st Airborne in Baton Rouge to enforce the Affordable Care Act, whichever comes first. However, I predict that states like Louisiana will eventually stop the political posturing and take Federal Medicare expansion money once it is offered. otherwise, states will be on the hook to cover expanded health care costs.
There is a mixed-race president in the White House, which, when combined with the economic crisis (still bad, but stabilized through government intervention), has created a volatile political environment. One need not search far on the internet for disgusting, racist screeds against the president with the “Muslim sounding name.” It would be foolish to discount the role white supremacy is playing in the congressional drama now going on.
Whether or not President Obama wins election this year, one thing is certain: Republican obstructionism, while silent during the Bush years, will not stop until Obama is out of office.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.