Thursday, February 28, 2013

Anti-Presidents' Day!

Who were the worst U.S. presidents? asks Able Reader First Class Katherine Osburn in a recent comment.  One is tempted to answer this question by listing some of the poltroons, criminals, and plain old dopes who have adorned the White House in the past half century, but honesty and a wider scope of historical understanding oblige me to reply "The Doughface Presidents of the 1850s, hands down."

The term "doughface," or "Northern men with Southern principles," is used by historians to refer to pre-Civil War politicians from free states who supported slave-state politicians on issues (like territorial laws and fugitive slaves) pertaining to slavery.  The word was coined by the outre Virginia Senator John Randolph, who said that pro-slavery Northerners were so afraid of the South that "they were scared at their own dough faces."  This may have been a reference to a children's game, but no-one thought to ask Randolph, who was an eccentric crank with a short temper.  (Leonard Richards, The Slave Power, [LSU Press, 2000], 85-86)

The Doughface presidents, properly called, were the three Northern politicos who held the White House in the 1850s and actively exerted themselves to appease Southern white radicals.  They ostensibly did so to hold the Union together, but their actions contributed to the immiseration of black slaves and were also unpopular among Northern whites.  They thus placed a rather tarnished ideal above the lives and interests of a substantial part of the population.  (And while Lincoln allegedly valued the Union as much as the Doughfaces, his refusal to compromise on the issue of slavery in the territories helped ensure the Union would break up in 1860-61.)

The Three Amigos were

Millard Fillmore (New York, 1850-53): A Whig who succeeded to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor, and who not only signed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (which legally compelled Northerners to assist slavecatchers) but  zealously enforced it.  In a particularly infamous episode, Fillmore indicted for treason several men indicted for attacking slave-catchers in southern Pennsylvania.  The jury acquitted them. Paul Finkelman's biography, which I briefly reviewed here, has more details on why Fillmore isn't just an obscure nonentity.

Franklin Pierce (New Hampshire, 1853-57): Democrat who sent federal troops to Boston in 1854 to escort runaway slave Anthony Walker back to Virginia.  Pierce's action helped turn many moderate Yankees into abolitionists.  He also signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which permitted the inhabitants of those territories to admit slavery if they chose, and supported the forcible installment of a pro-slavery government in Kansas.

But the Palme d'Or for ultimate presidential asshattery goes to

James Buchanan (1857-61): Endorsed the ghastly Dred Scott versus Sanford decision.  More or less destroyed his own party (the Democrats) by bribing Northern Congressmen to vote for the Lecompton Constitution, a blatantly fraudulent and authoritarian pro-slavery constitution for the future state of Kansas, and by attacking Democrats like Stephen Douglas who refused to approve Lecompton.  Supported re-opening the African slave trade, half a century after the U.S. and many European states had outlawed it as an insupportable evil.  And, while we can't blame every U.S. president for the actions of their Cabinet secretaries, we may note that Buchanan's secretary of war was a Southerner who tried to send artillery to the Confederacy shortly before the end of JB's presidency.  Really set the gold standard for presidential awfulness.

Buchanan's two predecessors had equally discreditable post-presidencies.  Fillmore ran for the presidency again in 1856 as the candidate of the xenophobic Know-Nothing Party.  Pierce openly sympathized with the Confederacy and ran over an old woman with his carriage.  Buchanan, at least, had the good grace to do nothing in particular until he dropped dead in 1868.

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Professor Osburn suggests we establish an Anti-Presidents' Day for the worst U.S. presidents, which would be most of them.  We differ on the best date for such a commemoration; my preference would be for January 9th, Richard M. Nixon's birthday, but your mileage may vary.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Embracing Despair, or Not

In his alarming online essay “Can America Survive What Our 1% and Their Useful Idiots, the GOP and the Dems, Have Done to Us?”, Evert Cilliers answers his own question with a resounding no. In his own words, “You and I are screwed forevermore.” Cilliers argues that American workers have become impoverished “peasants” living marginal lives in the world's richest country, slaving away for a pittance while their corporate masters take home all of the profits from three decades of productivity gains. The U.S. government has been completely captured by the rich, who use their Democratic and Republican lackeys to reduce their own taxes and to assail what's left of the 99-percenters' social safety net. The only way to fix the problem, Cilliers concludes, is to revive labor unions and restore progressivism to the Democratic Party, and both changes are impossible. “The 1% have won, and the 99% are too powerless to reverse a process that has now stultified into an oppressive, predatory, corrupt status quo. We're a plutocracy, plain and simple...The fix is in. We the 99% are powerless to change it.”

Shorter version: Embrace despair, and drink yourself to death, because you are a peasant forevermore and your children will all be slaves.

I find this type of essay fascinating, but also useless. As my sister might say, when I follow this line of doom-saying myself, “What are you going to do about that?”  What indeed?  Que faire?

To answer that question, I think we first need to look at two important reasons why Americans have allowed their government to enrich the 1% and engineer such alarming economic inequality. First of all, since the 1960s voting Americans – the people who actually vote the “useful idiots” into office – have tended to emphasize social issues rather than economic equality when they go to the polls. Thomas Frank, in What's The Matter With Kansas?, argued that this was the key to the Republicans' capture of the same poor white voters their economic policies tended to screw. However, it is also true of progressives. We acknowledge that the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent corrodes our democracy, but we are much more incensed by attacks on individual rights, such as the right of gay people to marry, the right of poor and minority citizens to vote, the right of women to control their own bodies, and the right of immigrant children to go to school. All of these rights remain under active threat in 2013, and I would not suggest we sideline them in favor of focusing on economic inequality, even if they do tend to distract us from the huge wealth and income gaps in this country. President Obama's supporters aren't pathetic dupes; many of us recognize he has been overly friendly to the malefactors of great wealth, but we give him credit for the social positions he has taken and give other Democratic lawmakers credit for defending us against Dominionist Republicans who want to enact The Handmaid's Tale. There are worse monsters than investment bankers in our country.

Incidentally, the social issues just mentioned were on very few Americans' radar in the 1950s, the golden age of American economic redistributionism. Gay Americans were considered mentally ill and probable national security risks; they were expected to stay in the closet and marry someone of the opposite sex, however repugnant they found the prospect. Immigration was nearly as restrictive in the 1950s as in the 1920s, and Eisenhower deported about one million Mexicans during his presidency. Voter suppression and Jim Crow were the laws of the land in the South. Birth control was illegal or heavily controlled in some states, abortion was illegal in all of them (even though middle-class women with discreet doctors often used it as birth control), and women were expected to stay home and raise babies; most were unable even to take out a loan or start a business without their husbands' permission. It was also an era of strong labor unions, political party membership, bowling leagues, and civic participation, a consequence, I suspect, of a stronger sense of American fraternal solidarity. But that fraternal unity was only really among white men, and it rested on the marginalization of women, gay people, racial minorities, immigrants, and in fact of most of the population. Also, there was a perceived need for Americans to hang together against the Red Menace, the evil Soviet super-villain that threatened to conquer the world and make everyone wear ugly suits. That, too, is part of the past. In the 2010s we have less fraternity and a lot less economic equality, but we do have more social equality and most of us have more liberty.

Returning to the 21st century, we should note that some of the most important Republican battles against economic equality (and they are primarily driven by Republicans) are being fought in state legislatures, which American progressives have tended to ignore during the last 30 years while the Democrats struggled to control the White House and Congress. Cilliers is guilty of the same problem: he excoriates President Obama and wishes for progressive new U.S. Senators to lead us out of our current dilemma, without focusing on the conservative takeover of the states. State governments have a huge impact on regional economies, and the Republicans who control most of them are determined to use that power against their perceived enemies – basically, anyone who isn't white and male and wealthy. GOP governors and legislatures cut aid to public and higher education, refuse federal infrastructure money that might benefit Democratic cities, pass right-to-work laws, break public unions, shift the tax burden to regressive sales taxes and fees, and draw Congressional district boundaries that will probably ensure GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives until 2022, if not 2032. I like Senator Elizabeth Warren very much, and think she could be a perfectly good president, but control of the presidency won't do much for progressives if the rest of the U.S. government is gridlocked by the Tea Party and the states have reduced public spending to 18th-century levels. Progressives need to worry more about what's going on at the state level, hard as it may be to focus on Lansing or Tallahassee rather than DC.

Finally, American workers, if their resistance to exploitation and falling real wages seems “pathetic,” have reached that point in part because they identify more with their individual jobs than with their social class (because we don't have social classes in America, after all [note sarcasm]), and have been willing to listen to the demand that they “do more with less” because they consider that job part of their core identity. Our national cult of individualism also discourages Americans from associating economic misfortune with malfeasance by the rich; when someone suffers a demotion or loses a job, they try to figure out what they, as individuals, have done wrong, because if they assume individual responsibility for their misfortune they can perhaps fix it themselves. And, as Mssr. Cilliers notes, Americans have been able to counteract stagnant wages, for several decades at least, by relying on women's earnings after they entered (or, rather, re-entered) the workplace in the 1970s and '80s, and by using the old standby of credit, particularly home-equity loans. These standbys are no longer useful, because housing prices have collapsed and most American women work if they can. But empowering workers to address economic misfortune on their own remains useful, if only because our social safety net can only cover so much and because most of us prefer to work. American workers have generally stopped regarding their jobs as a lifetime commitment, as IBM and AT&T salarymen regarded their in the 1950s, and all of us need to ready ourselves to switch jobs if our employers make conditions intolerable. This means we all need to update or improve our educations, build our savings, keep an eye open for better employment elsewhere, and not behave like serfs. Many American workers are doing all of these things already, but it would be helpful to receive more federal, state, and not-for-profit aid. We may be less able or willing collectively to pressure our bosses, but we can still vote with our feet.

One more thing: the idea that the GOP and Democrats are ready to dismantle what's left of the American social safety net on behalf of their wealthy masters is only half right. In 2005 Democrats proved they were willing, even as a badly demoralized minority party, to take on a popular president to protect Social Security, and they won. Dubya did not mess with them on this issue again. Medicaid has actually undergone significant expansion since 1996, and there are powerful forces militating against its elimination; Wal-Mart, as Cilliers knows, tells many of its underpaid employees to sign up for Medicaid, and the nation's nursing homes would have to dump tens of thousands of enfeebled geezers on their families if Medicaid were eliminated (and I think the geezers' children, most of whom are older Americans themselves, already know this). We will see how proposals to raise the Medicare age fare in the current round of budget negotiations, but I suspect they won't go far. On most economic issues there isn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties, but there's at least a half-dollar's worth of difference on the matter of keystone entitlement programs.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Better Know a President!

In honor of President's Day, here are links to several blog pieces I've written about each of the first five American presidents:

George Washington: His precedent of retiring after two terms, and creating thereby the "post-presidency," is discussed here; this entry mentions a microbrew created with Washington's own recipe. My favorite online link regarding Washington is here, but be warned: it is very Unsafe For Work or for children.

John Adams: This entry reviews the John Adams miniseries that played on HBO a few years ago.  It's less inaccurate than other films about the Revolutionary era, but I probably won't be using it in class.


Thomas Jefferson: A regular on this site, he was the subject of a short piece on the Beringian hypothesis of Native American origins, another on the first American diplomatic contact with Vietnam, a short primary-source-based reply to the Tea Partiers, and an essay replying to a blog entry by the inimitable Paul Bibeau.


James Madison: One of the more obscure early American presidents, unless one is in advertising, lives in Wisconsin, is a fan of the movie Splash, or likes to read the Federalist Papers for fun.  Here are my thoughts on Madison's true legacy.

James Monroe: Despite being named for a famous Doctrine, Monroe has not previously piqued my interest on this weblog.  I did note in a Twitter post a couple of years ago one of the more interesting pieces of trivia I discovered while researching a book chapter on Monroe: in the mid-1790s, when Monroe served as U.S. minister to France, his daughter Eliza attended school with Hortense Beauharnais, Napoleon Bonaparte's stepdaughter.  This probably gave the two men some familiarity with one another when they met a decade later to discuss the Louisiana Purchase.  Wikipedia, which knows more than me, points out that one of Hortense's portraits now hangs in James Monroe's plantation home in Virginia.

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More to come on this subject, probably.