How the South's ugly racial history is haunting ObamaCare
Mississippi, considered the sickest state in the U.S., is suffering terribly under ObamaCare. Not because of the law itself, though the state's officials would have you believe that it is destroying freedom in America. Rather, because reactionary conservatives who have an iron grip on power would rather waste millions of dollars than help their state's poorest citizens — most of whom are black — get health insurance.
That's the disturbing takeaway from this amazing piece for Politico by Sarah Varney, which details how Mississippi Republicans, led by Gov. Phil Bryant, fought ObamaCare implementation hammer and tong. ObamaCare was "an invasion from the North that fractured along racial lines, stoking long-held grievances against the federal government," as Varney writes. Bryant forced the state's exchange website to be scrapped, flushing roughly $21 million in taxpayer money down the toilet. He refused the Medicaid expansion offered by ObamaCare, which blew a gigantic hole in the Mississippi budget, since those funds were needed to replace several subsidy programs that were canceled as redundant under the law.
Bryant has cost his state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years. Indeed, Mississippi will probably spend more on regular Medicaid because of the greater costs associated with declining the ObamaCare expansion. As Kevin Drum says, "they actually prefer spending more money if the alternative is spending less but helping their own poor with medical coverage."
Unfortunately, this is an old story, part of a broader pattern of discrimination that stretches back to Reconstruction. Then as now, the conservative power structure in the South prioritizes denying benefits to its most vulnerable citizens above everything else — and uses small government conservative ideology to do so. That history is worth remembering today, as the left ponders how best to extend help to the neediest Americans.
Recall that Reconstruction was a post–Civil War political movement to institute true democracy in the South. For a time, it worked: Blacks could vote, many were elected to public office, and a great many more secured education and economic uplift.
Here's how Southern conservatives were able to overthrow it.
First and foremost was white terrorism. Paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts and the KKK, supported by southern Democrats, organized a systematic campaign of arson, fraud, intimidation, and murder. The objective was to snatch black Americans' new civil and political rights, steal their wealth by instituting a form of serfdom, and thereby put them back under the boot heel of white supremacy.
However, this wouldn't have worked without the tacit consent of most whites in the North. Reconstruction, which included several amendments to the Constitution, was sustained by a federal agency and enforced with federal troops. White northerners, only slightly less racist than southerners, eventually grew tired of this effort. Perhaps the keystone policy of what would become Jim Crow was the near-total disenfranchisement of black Americans, a blatant and egregious violation of the 15th Amendment. But most white northerners, to their eternal shame, preferred to look away.
Nicholas Lemann explains how all this was conducted under a banner of conservative governance:
Most of the rest of America chose to understand black political empowerment in the South in terms that are still familiar in conservative discourse today: excessive taxation, corruption, and a power imbalance between federal and state government. These arguments were more presentable than simply saying that black people shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and they built sympathy for the white South among high-minded reformists in the North who were horrified by the big-city political machines that immigrants had created in their own backyard. Good-government reformers hated the idea of uneducated people taking over the democratic machinery and using it to distribute power and patronage, rather than in more high-minded ways. Liberal northeastern publications like The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s Weekly were reliably hostile to Reconstruction, and their readers feasted on a steady diet of horror stories about swaggering corrupt black legislators, out-of-control black-on-white violence, and the bankruptcies of state and local government. [The Washington Monthly]
Finally, race completely scrambled post–Civil War class politics. Today, blacks are virtually all Democrats. But back in the Reconstruction days they were virtually all Republicans. The reason, logically enough, was that Republicans emancipated the slaves. But the party, then as now, was also the party of orthodox capitalism. They believed that slavery was a deep threat to the free labor system, but did not support stimulative economic policy, where government spending and monetary policy (back then, free silver) are used to fight recessions.
A party coalition between high capitalists and the poorest of the working class is inherently unstable, in other words.
It all came to a head during the Crisis of 1873, a financial panic that caused a deep recession. President Ulysses S. Grant was deeply committed to Reconstruction, but his orthodox economic policy (roughly, the gold standard and balanced budgets) exacerbated the crisis and severely sapped his and his party's political strength. That political weakness was the most important factor behind the infamous Compromise of 1877, in which Republicans gained the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes, and in return sold black Republicans down the river, allowing Democrats to obliterate their civil rights throughout the South. That was the end of Reconstruction.
What can we learn today from this oft-forgotten history? The first lesson is that the rest of the United States cannot afford to look away. As the health-care tragedy in Mississippi demonstrates, the only way economic justice is coming to the South is over the howling, bug-eyed objections of Southern conservatives. Federalism, in this case, will not work when it comes to anti-poverty policy. We now know that given half a chance, conservatives will torch their own state budgets rather than see the poor get benefits.
The second lesson is that once passed, lefty policies usually stick, even in the South. Southern Democrats disenfranchised blacks, it's true, but as W.E.B. Du Bois demonstrates in Black Reconstruction, they typically preserved some progressive policies — like universal education and public health programs — though in segregated form. The original Medicaid, created in 1965, took decades to be fully implemented in the South. ObamaCare may take even longer.
The third is that the politics of Southern racism have finally shaken out. After Republicans sold out blacks in 1876, a long process of political evolution began that finally resulted in the South becoming solidly Republican. Roughly speaking, the Democratic Party now represents people on the bottom of the economic ladder, irrespective of race, while the GOP represents largely one race and the wealthy. It should be possible for the Democratic Party to be the party of FDR-style policy with none of the associated racism. Now and in the future, Democrats ought to remember and embrace their broad coalition.