In early June, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in south Arkansas presented its annual Chautauqua program. The theme this year was The Impending Crisis: Prelude to War. The Civil War began 150 years ago, so we are again remembering the issues that politics failed to resolve. The slave issue, and other constitutional and economic issues related to the preservation of slavery, had to be settled on battlefields in which 600,000 Americans gave their lives over a four-year period.
Last year, the theme pertained to the 1920s, and President Coolidge was reincarnated by scholar Jim Cooke. At that time I wrote “Calvin Coolidge: A Patron Saint for the TEA Party.” This year, in addition to Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, the museum’s program offered another personality, played by university professor Dr. Joseph Stukes, who also fits the characteristics for a TEA Party patron saint: South Carolina Sen. John C. Calhoun.
The bizarre and complicated coalition of the Fox-Republican-TEA Party seems united in its determination to undo the progressive social and economic reforms that characterized much of the 20th century. It sincerely wants to return the nation to the plutocracy of the Gilded Age (1876-1900) – a time of rule by and for the very rich. This is a coalition of radical-reactionaries who want to turn the clock back. They appear to want to go so far as to fundamentally change our constitutional system and replace it with a confederation system, in which the national government will be weaker than the states.
Calhoun was the leading voice of many of their methods: states’ rights, nullification, secession, the refusal to compromise, and the defense of slavery. With the exception of the specific praise of slavery, all of these issues are key positions of the current TEA Party movement. With massive sponsorship from the billionaire Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity political organ, TEA Party-supported governors and legislators have replaced the slavery issue with an agenda to undermine the middle class in general and the working class, unions, and public servants in particular.
Prior to 1828, as a congressman, secretary of war, and vice-president, Mr. Calhoun had been a strong nationalist who supported a protective tariff and internal improvements of railroads, highways, and canals. He wanted to promote American industry and national expansion.
The potential of Calhoun was enormous, but he was consumed by the fate of “the South, the poor South.” It was the issue of slavery and the rising abolitionist movement that caused him to lose sight of what was best for the U.S. as a whole. The South had determined to remain strictly agricultural with a slave labor base, so Calhoun rejected his previous nationalist convictions.
Even as vice-president Calhoun told President John Quincy Adams that slavery “was good – a positive good.” He wouldn’t accept that the South was on “the wrong side of history.” In 1832, he became the first and only vice-president until Spiro Agnew to resign from office. He entered the Senate and devoted the rest of his life to the South’s right to live in the past. (Note: Spiro Agnew was Nixon’s VP who was charged with receiving bribes from when he was Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland, extending into the vice presidency. On the condition that he resign as Vice President, he was allowed to plea no contest to a single charge of not reporting nearly $30,000 of income in 1967 and receive no jail time.)
In early 2009 our nation was entering the second year of the Great Recession and was still responding to the near-economic meltdown of September 2008. Saving or creating jobs should have been our primary objective. Needless to say, the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, which were primarily responsible for the huge federal deficits throughout the Bush-Cheney Era, would definitely have to go.
Incredibly, those disastrous tax cuts are still in place! The mythological belief that if the rich get richer they will allow some of their wealth to trickle down to the masses in the form of jobs is still being flim-flammed. This is in spite of the voodoo economics of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush proving that no matter how many times they try it, it’s inconceivable that it will ever work. Like John C. Calhoun’s compulsive defense of slavery, those in the Fox-Republican-TEA Party obsessively defend tax cuts for the rich as being the only acceptable way to create jobs.
Obviously, a major stimulus bill is what was in order. Repairs and expansion of our highway-river-rail-energy infrastructure (like the internal improvements that Calhoun originally supported) were long overdue, and our national parks have long been neglected. This was the time to address these problems AND put people to work. Unfortunately, the extremely rich plutocracy was ready to stop whatever they could from being done. They were not going to let Pres. Barack Obama become a second Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
David and Charles Koch and other “Wizards of Was” got organized quickly. I call them the “Wizards of Was” because they work behind the scenes to return to the past when there were no income taxes, no collective-bargaining, no minimum wage, et al. Consequently, the badly compromised stimulus bill was only enough to create some jobs, save some others, and stop the bleeding. It wasn’t enough to ignite a recovery. Economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said the stimulus bill needed to be one and a half times what it was. More likely it should have been twice or triple that. The Fox-Republican-TEA Party continues to oppose any jobs programs and hopes to use the lack of job growth to make gains in the 2012 elections. (By the way, it worked!)
Today, American labor and public servants have been labeled “evil – a negative evil,” and they are being blamed for our economic miseries. However, in the last decade, those who managed to remain employed saw their incomes increase an average of only 1 %! Put another way, based on the value of the dollar then and now, they make about $300 more now than they did ten years ago. And remember, these are the lucky ones who did not become unemployed or underemployed.
Meanwhile, during that same time, their cost of living continued to increase. My own homeowner’s insurance more than doubled (100 % plus). Gasoline prices increased 64 % – and that doesn’t include the current 2011 gas hike caused by oil profiteers. For many, the huge jump in gas prices in 2008 began a tradition of summer staycations instead of vacations.
There are many apparently legal but unethical tactics used by Big Business and other employers to further exploit and weaken their middle class workers. A contract worker may be offered a contract that adds days, weeks, and/or daily hours to the contract pay period for the same salary as before. It certainly breeds hopelessness, discontent, distrust, and fear in the workplace, but in hard times any job is better than no job.
The idea and the ultimate goal seems to be to assure the continued existence of a large number of unemployed laborers who are willing to work for as few benefits as possible. The greater number of unemployed, the less those who are employed need to be paid or made happy. Employers can remind their employees that there are many others who want their jobs.
Among of the worst responses to the Great Recession have been layoffs and wage freezes of state employees imposed by the state governments. War seems to have been declared against public servants, and in some states many teachers, policemen, and firefighters are losing their hard-won rights of collective-bargaining. Some of the most reprehensible governors have been Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Texas’ Rick Perry, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Maine’s Paul LePage, and Florida’s Rick Scott. Nevertheless, even Pres. Obama froze the wages of federal employees, and he’s expected to know better. The unemployed and underpaid employees spend less, deepen the recession, decrease state revenues, and increase future job losses. Nobody seems to care.
George W. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, Rep. Paul Ryan proposed to end Medicare, Rick Perry suggested Texas secede if health insurance reform was passed, and Idaho and others are claiming states’ rights to nullify the Affordable Healthcare Act by de-funding it. Seeing Calhoun’s influence today, it’s no wonder that Andrew Jackson said in 1837 that one of the things he most regretted was that he “never hanged John C. Calhoun.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published July 27, 2011, in the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column.