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We Can't Blame the South Alone for Anti-Tax Austerity Politics – Jacobin magazine



We Can’t Blame the South Alone for Anti-Tax Austerity Politics

The South of slavery and Jim Crow is often cast as the major historical reason for the US’s stunted welfare state. But the most fanatical resistance to taxation and redistribution came from the Northern ruling class.

Newspaper editor Horace Greeley in the early 1860s. In 1872, Greeley, long associated with the antislavery cause, turned against Reconstruction and led a breakaway faction of so-called “Liberal” Republicans who condemned what they saw as the overweening statism of the Reconstruction experiment. (US National Archives and Records Administration)

The obstacles the Biden administration now faces in its efforts to pass a radically scaled down version of its “Build Back Better” bill have reignited an old debate in US political history: Why have tax increases and robust social investment proved so difficult to implement in this country? In recent years, a number of historians, including Ariel Ron and Robin Einhorn, have sought to answer the question by pointing to the legacy of American slavery. They argue that widespread hostility to taxation and government spending grow out of a long-standing American commitment to white supremacy and that the connection was forged in the slave South.

Ron, in a recent piece for Slate, drew a straight line between the proslavery politics of Southerners such as John C. Calhoun in the decades prior to the Civil War and the obstructionist tactics of today’s Republican Party. Concerned above all with protecting the institution of slavery from interference by national authorities, Ron argues, Calhoun and other Southerners became staunch opponents of federal activism. A government that had the capacity to build infrastructure and shape the economy, they feared, might also emancipate the slaves. Republicans in Congress today, Ron suggests, are operating from the same antidemocratic priorities and commitment to racial hierarchy. Not coincidentally, their electoral heartland is composed of the former states of the Confederacy, and they are similarly working to protect white elite power from redistributive government action. As Ron puts it, “Calhoun died in 1850, the Confederacy in 1865. Yet the politics of austerity endure.”

Einhorn has advanced a similar diagnosis. Rather than looking for the roots of American austerity politics in places like Pennsylvania or Massachusetts — in events like the Boston Tea Party — she argues, “we should be digging in Virginia and South Carolina.” Slaveholders saw little need for robust public spending on infrastructure or education. They perpetually worried about the prospects of nonslaveholding majorities wielding the power to tax their human property and thus did their best to cut down the government’s revenue-raising authority. To this day, she writes, the weakness of the American state’s fiscal powers is “part of the poisonous legacy we have inherited from the slaveholders who forged much of our political tradition.”

These accounts are part of a larger scholarly fashion for tracing today’s ills back to the South. In this view, the ghost of Calhoun continues to loom long after Appomattox, and the venom of slavery is inescapably passed down decades after Emancipation.

Tea Party Yankees

This interpretation is not without merit. The rearguard objections of scholars such as Sean Wilentz and Gordon Wood notwithstanding, slaveholders indeed had foundational influence on the legal and political institutions of the United States at the country’s inception. Slaveholders’ fears of an overweening federal government are in part responsible for the particularly decentralized and rigid political order of the United States. Commentators are not wrong to point out that these structures had resilient effects.

But there are major problems with what has become a monocausal and flattened interpretation of US history. Yes, Southern politicians helped make progressive taxation and robust government spending complicated to enact, but proslavery ideology was not the only and certainly not the most important source of anti-tax politics in the United States. Such claims skip over some of the most important episodes in the political development of the United States — including the enthusiastic embrace of laissez-faire among Northern elites after the Civil War as well as staunch support in the South for the creation of the progressive federal income tax — the government’s most important source of revenue in the twentieth century.

In other words, New York Times and Slate readers hardly need to venture all the way to Dixie to uncover deep-seated American strains of antidemocratic and anti-tax politics. To understand our current politics of austerity, we are better served to explore not the defeated ideology of slaveholders but the triumphant politics of liberal elites in the Northeast.

Indeed, the ink had barely dried on the Confederacy’s surrender when affluent New Yorkers and New Englanders — manufacturers, merchants, and financiers — began to campaign against the political power of the poor in the industrial North. In the aftermath of the war, urban workers became ever more adept at using the machinery of government to raise taxes, increase municipal budgets, and alleviate poverty — developments that, in reaction, triggered one of the foremost anti-taxation, counter-majoritarian, “small government” movements in American history. As historian Alex Keyssar has documented, the campaign was endorsed by the country’s leading intellectuals and public figures, often Ivy League–educated, who openly voiced deep hostility to tax hikes stemming from universal suffrage. Many of these men had fought against slavery, but they nevertheless decried the extension of the franchise to non-propertied citizens and their ability to redistribute private wealth via taxes.

The hostility of these urban elites to “universal manhood franchise,” though not free of racism and ethnic prejudice, had little to do with the legacy of slavery or with white supremacy per se. It was instead grounded in their analysis of the new massive inequalities generated by industrial capitalism. In a choice between political democracy and an economic system that produced unprecedented disparities, these men stood firmly with the latter. Writing in exclusive organs such as the North American Review and Atlantic Monthly, they lamented the “severance of political power from intelligence and property” and the rise of a “political system in which power was . . . lodged in the hands of the proletariat.” Driven by their overblown fears of a “communistic attack on property” via taxation and labor rights, they called for the universal right to vote be reversed.

The most prominent effort to eliminate voting rights of the propertyless took place in New York state in 1875, when the bipartisan “Tilden Commission” proposed a constitutional amendment to curb “the excesses of democracy.” Faced with an increase in spending, taxes, and municipal debt, as Sven Beckert has shown, the commission proposed to move control of city governments to boards of finance that would be elected exclusively by property holders. The commissioners asserted that “the choice of the local guardians and trustees of the financial concerns of cities should be lodged with taxpayers.” Business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the New York Stock Exchange rushed to advocate for this proposal and were soon joined by organs such as the New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, and the Nation. Despite the support of these powerful institutions, working-class New Yorkers and the labor movement were able to defeat the measure, which would have disenfranchised large portions of the electorate. Elites then turned to other, more mundane methods to “purify the ballot box” — registration laws, literacy tests, prolonged residency requirements. In ways that anticipated the encasing of the market in our own neoliberal age, they insidiously worked to insulate government policy from democratic control. In this context, it was Northern publicists who often lectured to their white brethren in the Reconstruction South (who, of course, needed little advice) that “wise, capable, provident, and frugal rule” could never be compatible with universal suffrage.

Taxing the Rich

As historian Amy Stanley has explained, antidemocratic and anti-tax convictions among the affluent stemmed not from their stubborn commitment to slavery but, perhaps surprisingly, from its abolition. Advancing their own version of liberty in a post-emancipation society, elite Northerners came to see any form of government assistance or support for the poor as nurturing a form of dependence, reminiscent of the subservience of slaves in bondage, that had no place in a free society. Any type of public support threatened to remove the stigma associated with economic reliance and destroy the dependent’s “habit of industry.”

Whereas earlier rank-and-file conceptions in the age of Lincoln associated free labor with broad access to property and opportunity, these self-styled elite “reformers” now defined it narrowly as one’s choice to buy and sell one’s labor in the marketplace. They defined freedom of contract as the antithesis of bondage and the epitome of liberty. Laissez-faire was thus the brainchild not of enslavers but of slavery’s bourgeois opponents. It led these social groups not only to embrace social Darwinism — the application of Charles Darwin’s ideas of natural selection to society — but, ironically, to greater support for police forces and punitive government action against the poor. These policies were implemented not only in the cities of the North, where vagrancy laws criminalized poverty, but also in the postwar South, where federal authorities denied public relief to former slaves if deemed fit to labor and compelled them to sign exploitative contracts with their former masters.

Given the immense industrial fortunes that were accumulated in places such as New York and Boston in those decades, it is not surprising that support for a progressive income tax began to emerge on the country’s agrarian periphery, in the West and the South. As scholars such as Monica Prasad and Elizabeth Sanders have demonstrated, the political drive for an income tax drew support from radical farmers’ movements of the late nineteenth century — the Grange Movement, the Greenback Party, and the Southern and Northern Alliances. The Populist Party enjoyed strong support everywhere but the Northeast. It included an income tax in its 1892 Omaha Platform, alongside other demands designed to regulate corporations and combat inequality. Industrial interests warned that income taxes would lead to the growth of an “inquisitorial” government and set the country on the road to socialism. These early efforts to pass a federal income tax began a twenty-year struggle.

In 1893, Southern and Midwestern Democrats in the House introduced a federal income measure that was soon declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The justices from the Northeast voted against the tax; justices from the South voted in favor of it. In 1913, a constitutional amendment enabling income tax finally passed, with the Southern states, alongside other agrarian states, leading the way. As Einhorn herself has meticulously documented, opponents of the income tax in the South deployed the “Lost Cause” of the South argument in their attempts to crush the amendment. Harking back to the antebellum years, they warned voters that an empowered federal government might step in to challenge Jim Crow.

But these tactics failed. Of the first nine states to ratify the amendment, seven had been slave states (Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Maryland, Georgia, and Texas). This was hardly an unambiguous victory for “democracy” in a segregated South, but it demonstrates that Calhoun’s anti-statist theories mattered less than the severe impoverishment of the region in those decades. It also shows that Southern oligarchs did not speak for the region as a whole. “Southern” traditions were as varied and contradictory as those of the North.

The long-term implications of the amendment were profound. Efforts in the 1920s to replace the income tax with regressive sales taxes failed. As a result, when the United States embarked upon the creation of the New Deal state, it was financed heavily by an income tax, whose base was gradually broadened to include a wider population of taxpayers, even as its progressivity remained intact. As economist Thomas Piketty has pointed out, the top federal income tax in the United States averaged 81 percent between 1932 and 1980, far surpassing the rates of continental European countries such as France and Germany. These decades of high redistributive tax policy, while far from perfect, belie notions of the United States as irredeemably anti-statist in ways that had been dictated by the founding generations.

In light of a long and dynamic history filled with reversals and ironies, it is doubtful that hostility to taxation and government spending in American politics can be pegged on any particular period or region. The impact of the slave South on the development of American institutions has been profound, of course, as has been the resilience of racism. But, as historians have demonstrated, these legacies evolved in complicated ways over time.

When politicians today whittle down social spending, and as they preach for fiscal responsibility and against a culture of “entitlements,” they draw on a rich vocabulary that owes as much, if not more, to the liberal Northeast than to “the South,” to industrial capitalism than to plantation slavery. To displace our challenges to the supposed lasting influence of the Confederacy does a disservice to our public debate, blinding us to how political alignments, not historical legacies or immutable ideological commitments, drive policy.

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Politics chat: U.S. bans travelers from 8 African countries to slow COVID-19 variant – NPR



With the emergence of the Omicron variant, the U.S. limits travel from eight African nations. Congress has a big to-do list next month, and Democrats are pushing to pass the “Build Back Better” bill.


Most travelers from eight countries in southern Africa will be barred from entering the U.S. starting tomorrow. The Biden administration announced the new restrictions shortly after the World Health Organization’s designation of omicron as a variant of concern. Joining me now is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Kelsey.

SNELL: As a candidate in March 2020, Joe Biden was very critical of then-President Trump’s China travel ban. Why move so quickly to put this new one in place?

LIASSON: Well, the rule on travel bans is you got to do them sooner rather than later. I think Joe Biden understands that getting the coronavirus under control is his job No. 1. It was the most important campaign promise that he made. And without getting the virus under control, he can’t get the economy back and a whole lot of other things that he wants to do. But as you just heard about the omicron virus, it’s not clear how easily it spreads. It’s not clear yet whether the vaccines are effective against it – effective in terms of stopping people from getting really sick from it, not necessarily from just testing positive. But the administration has continued to push vaccinations. And as you just heard, the U.S. still has a very low vaccination rate compared to other developing countries. And they need to get that vaccination rate up. I should say that the U.K., European countries are doing the same kind of travel ban as the president announced. And Israel actually has banned travel from everywhere for the next two weeks, not just from those African countries.

SNELL: So the White House is trying to be seen as doing something here. And the president also announced that the U.S. would release 50 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to address inflation – which, by the way, has about 605 million barrels in it. Some energy analysts say this won’t affect the cost of gas that much, maybe 5 to 15 cents. So why are they doing this right now?

LIASSON: The president is doing this in the hopes that putting more oil on the market will cause the price to go down. But most economists will tell you that there’s really not much a president can do to affect the price of gas. And gas prices are kind of the leading indicator of inflation. They’re the thing that hits people every day when they go to the pump. And inflation is a very powerful weapon in the hands of the opposition party, and the president is getting blamed for the economy. The buck stops at the White House. And he has both houses of Congress. And the Republicans have been very organized at – and it’s been easy to send the message that inflation is here and that it’s Joe Biden’s fault. You see those little stickers on gas pumps all over the country with pictures of Biden pointing to the price saying, I did that.

SNELL: Yeah.

LIASSON: So it’s important that the president be seen as understanding how inflation affects people’s daily lives and trying to do something about it.

SNELL: Well, it’s almost December. And in Washington, that means it’s time for Congress to rush to clean up all of the loose ends they left hanging all year long. And it’s going to be a really busy month. Remind us of what needs to get done before the end of the year.

LIASSON: Yeah, a really busy month. First, you’ve got to pass temporary funding for the government because funding for the government expires on Friday. They have to do that in order to avoid a government shutdown. Congress also will need to raise the debt ceiling, so the U.S. doesn’t default on its debts. The Republican minority leader in the Senate has made it very clear that Democrats will have to do that by themselves. Republicans will not vote to avoid default. Then there’s the National Defense Authorization Act. That’s a must-pass bill. In the past, it’s gotten bipartisan support. They – that usually gets done by the end of the year. One big incentive for lawmakers to get all of this stuff done is that they really want to go home for the holidays.

SNELL: They often do want to go home for the holidays.



SNELL: That’s right. But there’s also the Build Back Better bill. Senate Democrats say they want to get that done by the – by Christmas. They say that getting it done is part of making sure that the party has a real political strategy for survival. So what are the prospects of them actually meeting their deadline?

LIASSON: Well, who knows? But what we do know is that it passed the House, but progressive Democrats in the House didn’t get what they wanted when the House voted on this measure. They were hoping to get some kind of an ironclad assurance from Senator Joe Manchin that he would vote for it. Instead, all they got was this vague framework that Manchin didn’t really commit to. And he has said recently again that he’s in no rush. He wants to wait. He thinks it’s better to pass the bill next year. He wants to see whether inflation gets better or for worse – or worse. So the – we know that the bill will probably change in the Senate. Maybe it’ll get smaller. Certain things will drop out of it to satisfy Manchin and get his vote. What we don’t know is how long that will take.

SNELL: That’s NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Kelsey.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Europe’s woes offer a stark reminder that pandemic politics is ultimately an expectations game – Toronto Star



History is once again convulsing Europe. As COVID cases surge, the continent is gripped by crisis after crisis, triggering an ugly collision of public health issues and social conflict. Meanwhile, the leadership of Belarus, along with Vladimir Putin, have manufactured a destabilizing humanitarian crisis at the continent’s eastern border.

Canadians can count ourselves fortunate to see a slight ebb in our “fourth wave” rather than the exponential rise seen elsewhere, not to mention the absence of such threats from autocrats.

Nevertheless, experts keep reminding us that the virus isn’t going anywhere — there will be spikes throughout the winter and the holiday season. And as in Europe, these spikes will bring political and social crises with them.

Sudden lockdowns and vaccine mandates have created major issues in Europe. Mass protests are occurring across the continent. Hooligans provoked violent clashes with police in Rotterdam, and the far-right dominated coverage at other large gatherings.

The Austrian chancellor blamed vaccine skepticism as he moved to implement a total vaccine mandate, the first western country to do so. The German health minister offered a warning that eventually “everyone will be vaccinated, recovered or dead.”

The concept of herd immunity has gone full circle to become political dynamite, as leaders in current hot spots grapple with the issue in different ways. France’s government, seeing roughly 30,000 cases a day, has acted similarly to ours — requiring proof of vaccination at many spaces, while shying away from drawing a tougher line.

In Britain, restrictions are virtually non-existent as cases soar over 40,000 a day. While a top health adviser to the government has framed this as a step in reaching herd immunity, one might also pose that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in no position to implement controversial measures as questions swirl around his leadership.

At home, we need not see this all as a harbinger of doom, but instead must remember managing COVID is largely a game of expectations. And those expectations must be firmly grounded in reality. Pollyannaish thinking will only result in a greater political price later on.

Lockdowns, in the minds of many Canadians, would represent a political failure. Our vaccine uptake has been strong, but questions remain over how politicians can or will act if we see significant surges in cases.

Vaccination mandates are already a source of aggravation for Conservatives, raising the topic again and again — and in so doing, creating space for the People’s Party of Canada and other fringe advocates. Keeping a grip on this issue will be no easy task for the Tories.

Incumbents like Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford are once again in the precarious position of managing another holiday season — and with it, another consequential wave of the virus.

To shut down the economy again would be risky for any leader, undoubtedly compounding the anxiety brought on by market indicators, inflation, supply chains and labour shortages.

In September, Doug Ford called vaccine passes our “best chance” at avoiding another lockdown, and it seems unlikely the premier — who is facing an election in June — would risk irking Ontarians again with mass restrictions.

As Ontario sees around 600 new cases a day, Ford must get out in front of this issue and demonstrate that he is working proactively to mitigate both public health risks and public dismay.

Just this week, the premier took steps in this direction, with his government announcing its plan to rollout the vaccine to children ages 5-11, and maintaining control over the proof of vaccination system by extending certain emergency orders until March.

Sustaining this arm’s-length-but-authoritative approach, while continually putting his government and himself front and centre of vaccination efforts, is the right approach for Ford and his peers.

Chaos in Europe has shown that drastic actions without adequate forewarning will activate deep divisions and further jeopardize public health, at a time when there are already more than enough fires to put out.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt

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Who wants to know? Tracking the daily politics of Parliament's question period –



Over the course of three question periods this week, opposition MPs put 109 questions to the government. So what did they ask about and what does that tell us about each party’s preoccupations and how they use question period?

A Parliament can last as long as four years and field thousands of questions, so the first 109 queries probably don’t constitute a representative sample. The issues that were current this week may fade from relevance. New issues will arise. But you can still make some observations about how everyone is approaching the most-watched 45 minutes of every sitting day.

Seventy-four of those 109 questions were asked by Conservatives, the Official Opposition with 119 seats. Just a handful of topics accounted for most of those questions.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Conservatives asked 24 questions about inflation, 17 questions about American tariffs on softwood lumber, 11 questions about labour shortages and six questions about COVID-19.

That distribution of questions can be traced back to the fact that the Conservatives tend to like to give special focus to one topic each day. So inflation was the topic du jour on Wednesday (accounting for 17 questions that day), softwood lumber was their preoccupation on Thursday (13 questions). Following confirmation of a new coronavirus variant in southern Africa, COVID-19 got most of the attention on Friday.

Of the Bloc Quebecois’s 19 questions, five each were devoted to federal funding for health care, climate change and gun control — which has become a major concern in Montreal since a 16-year-old was recently shot and killed.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Of the NDP’s 15 questions, six concerned climate change.

The Greens — who do not have enough members to constitute an official party in the House of Commons — got one question. Elizabeth May used it to ask about climate policy.

A lot of these questions are on-brand for the MPs asking them. The Conservatives have tended to focus on so-called “pocketbook” issues. The BQ takes every opportunity to dwell on federal-provincial tensions — in this case, over health care funding.

(Liberal MPs also get to ask three questions each day. But since questions from the governing party’s backbenchers tend to be less than challenging — ministers typically are asked to stand and expound on the government’s greatness — I’m excluding them from this analysis.)

Are MPs asking the right questions?

But here’s a harder question to answer. When broken down by subject matter, do these 109 questions offer an accurate reflection of either the public’s greatest concerns or the most important issues facing this country?

In a way, that might be an unfair question to ask.

If question period was ever solely about soliciting information and explanation, those days are long past. But the 45 minutes set aside for “oral questions” each day are still about holding the government to account and pitting opposing views against each other.

Question period has other uses, of course. It generates soundbites for newscasts and clips that can be pushed on social media. MPs want to rile up their own supporters and show constituents that they’re being represented. Opposition parties naturally direct their questions to where they think the government is most vulnerable.

The Conservatives justifiably think the government is vulnerable on inflation. New Democrats think they can score points over fossil fuel subsidies. Question period can’t be separated from the larger media-political ecosystem in which it exists.

Which is not to say that question period shouldn’t ever be judged by how well it reflects the public’s concerns. All of the issues raised in QP this week were certainly relevant. But it might seem odd that the flooding in British Columbia was not a focus (the disaster was the subject of an emergency debate in the House on Wednesday night).

A house in Princeton, B.C. is emptied out by volunteers on Wednesday, November 24, 2021 in the aftermath of major flooding. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

American journalist James Fallows, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter, has noted that the questions presidents get asked at citizen town halls are very different from the questions asked at news conferences with the Washington press corps.

Members of the public tend to ask about the “what” of governance, Fallows says, while journalists tend to ask about “how” and “who.”

That doesn’t mean reporters are wrong to ask the questions they ask. There’s a place for both town halls and news conferences — and for question period. Each forum serves a purpose and each can complement the others.

But journalists probably could benefit from imagining the sorts of questions their audiences would ask. The same is probably true of parliamentarians.

Parliament Hill is too often derided as a “bubble.” Most of what happens in the bubble has value and purpose. But the institution of Parliament also benefits most when it is most relevant.

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