Rhetorical Similarity Between Antebellum Confederates and Modern Conservatives?

“America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others,” writes Jamelle Bouie in the NYT Magazine as part of the 1619 Project.

He traces current political beliefs in the Republican Party back to Vice President and prominent South Carolinian John C. Calhoun (youtube videos), a promoter of states rights as more important than federal rights, voting as a privilege rather than a right, limiting democracy through rule by white minorities and a concept called nullification: “the theory that any state subject to federal law was entitled to invalidate it.” Calhoun called slavery a “positive good,”

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, in The Washington Post found striking similarity between Old South Confederates and contemporary conservatives who argue explicitly or implicitly that whites are superior to blacks, much more restrictive immigration laws are needed to stop the cultural dilution or pollution of Latinos, Africans and Asians; and institutions must protect Christians from the sinister agendas of Muslims.

Both contemporary conservatives and antebellum confederates describe themselves as underdogs — “David against Goliath” — though they had dominant power in government. They claimed, falsely that far more powerful adversaries such as abolitionists or, in modern times, progressives dominated society. They felt “they were not the oppressors. They were the oppressed. They were driven to feelings of isolation and shame purely on the basis of freely held ideas, the right of every thinking man. Rep. Alexander Sims (D-S.C.) claimed that America’s real problem was the way Southerners were made to suffer under “the sneers and fanatic ebullitions of ignorant and wicked pretenders to philanthropy.” John Wilkes Booth “lamented that he no longer felt comfortable expressing “my thoughts or sentiments” on slavery freely in good company.”

“They are the little people struggling against prevailing winds…they’re just trying to think freely and are being tormented.”

Fairbanks cites conservative Sam Harris, who vehemently defends and promotes Charles Murray, a political scientist who argues that white people test higher than black people on “every known test of cognitive ability” and that these “differences in capacity” predict white people’s predominance.

Most South Carolinians were enslaved Africans, and Calhoun believed they had to be prevented from voting. The historian Manisha Sinha noted in “The Counterrevolution of Slavery” that South Carolina “was the first Southern state where a majority of the white population held slaves.”

Southern senators blocked anti-lynching, pro-labor and civil rights legislation supported by the majority by using the filibuster. They asserted “massive resistance” to integration of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Review’s William F. Buckley, father of the conservative movement, said whites were entitled to do this because “it is the advanced race.”

When Republicans took back control of the House in 2011, they sought to invalidate the 2008 election of Obama by opposing nearly everything he proposed, on principles they later abandoned when Donald Trump came to power, such as concern for the deficit and over-reaching presidential power. Trump asserted, absurdly, that he won the popular vote if three million people hadn’t voted illegally.

The last generation of segregationist senators — among them, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina — held on through the early 2000s, Bouie observed. Republicans tried other forms of thwarting majority votes by gerrymandering legislative districts, and placing restrictions on voting. as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky tried a new form of nullification when he blocked Obama’s Supreme Count nominee and continues to refuse to bring popular legislation to a vote. 

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