Aug 03, 2020
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. If you want to understand this moment in American politics, here's a suggestion for you: It's the must-read book of the year -- HOW THE SOUTH WON THE CIVIL WAR, by the historian Heather Cox Richardson. Yes, the Civil War brought an end to the slave order of the South and the rule of the plantation oligarchs who embodied white supremacy. But the Northern victory was short-lived. Slave states soon stripped Black people of their hard-won rights, white supremacy not only rose again to rule the South but spread West across the Mississippi to create new hierarchies of inequality. That's the story Heather Cox Richardson tells in HOW THE SOUTH WON THE CIVIL WAR, with echoes resounding every day in the current wild and fierce campaign for the presidency. Here to talk with her about America's ongoing battle between oligarchy and democracy is Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Heather Cox Richardson, thank you for joining me.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Will you take us on that long but vivid arc of how we got from Abraham Lincoln, describing the end of the Civil War as "a new birth of freedom," to Donald Trump describing America as "a land of carnage, a nightmare." From Lincoln to Donald Trump in 2016, what happened?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: If you think about the Civil War as a war between two different ideologies, two different concepts of what America is supposed to be, is it supposed to be a place where a few wealthy men direct the labor and the lives of the people below them, the women and people of color below them, the way the Confederacy argued? Is that America? Or is America what Lincoln and his ilk in the Republican Party in the North defined the democracy as during the Civil War? Is it a place where all men are equal before the law and should have equal access to resources? And of course, I use the word man there, but that's because that's the language that Lincoln used. But the principle is expandable of course. It looked by 1865 as if that latter ideology, that of the Republicans and that of the idea of equality had triumphed. And certainly, the Republicans and Northerners who had fought for the United States government in that war believed that they had redefined America to mean equality before the law. They really believed that was the case. And that they had defeated what they called the "slave power," the oligarchs who had gone ahead and taken over the system in the 1850s. After the Civil War, Easterners moved West across the Mississippi in really large numbers after 1865.
BILL MOYERS: White Southerners went too, of course, and you argue they saw the West as the final frontier ruled by elites, just as elites, with violence and intimidation, had ruled in the old South.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And in that West, they discover a land that is already susceptible to the idea of racial and gendered hierarchies, because it has its own history of them. And it's a place out there where the new American system happens to be a really fertile ground for the Confederate ideology to rise again. And that's exactly what happens with the extractive industries in the West that encouraged the heavily capitalized cattle markets, for example, or mining industries, or later oil, or even agribusiness. You have in the West a development of an economy and, later on, a society that looks very much like the pre-Civil War South. And over the course of the late 19th century, that becomes part of the American mythology, with the idea that you have the cowboy in the West who really stands against what Southerners and Northern Democrats believe is happening in Eastern society, that a newly active government is using its powers to protect African Americans and this is a redistribution of wealth from taxpayers to populations that are simply looking for a government handout. That's language that rises in 1871, and that is still obviously important in our political discourse. But in contrast to that, in the West, you get the rise of the image of the American cowboy, which is really our image of Reconstruction. In a weird way, people think of Reconstruction, obviously, they think of formerly enslaved people. But the image that has obtained in our textbooks and in our popular culture is the American cowboy, who is beginning to dominate American popular culture by 1866. And that cowboy -- a single man, because women are in the cowboy image only as wives and mothers, or as women above the saloons in their striped stockings serving liquor and other things -- is a male image of single white men. Although, again, historically a third of cowboys were people of color. It's a single white man working hard on their own, who don't want anything from the government. Again, historically inaccurate. The government puts more energy into the American plains than it does any other region of the country. But-
BILL MOYERS: And also on land that had been taken from Mexico after the Mexican-American War, and on land that had been stolen from the Native Americans after genocide. I mean, it's this whole notion of, "I'm free to roam the land and become a self-made hero," which was the cowboys' image to those of us growing up in the '30s and '40s, was really a bastard idea.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And part of that bastard idea, though, was so interesting. Because it is, in part, the Indian Wars of the Civil War and immediate post-war years that helped to both create the image of the cowboy, but also reinforce the idea that a few white men belong above subordinate groups like the Indigenous people, like Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Like Chinese Americans, like Fiji islanders, about whom they care very much in the late 19th century. And that racial hierarchy and gendered hierarchy really gets tied into the image of the American cowboy. And popularized with this backlash against activism in the East, trying to help African Americans adjust to the new free labor economy. But that image becomes enormously important after 1880. Because in 1880, the South goes solidly Democratic. And, of course, in retrospect, we now know it's going to stay Democratic for a very, very long time, indeed. But they don't know that at the time. But what Republicans do note is that they must pick up Western votes if they're going to continue to dominate the White House and the Senate. After 1888, when we get the installment of Benjamin Harrison in the White House, he loses the popular vote by about 100,000 votes. But he's installed thanks to the Electoral College. The Republicans under Harrison between 1889 and 1890, they let in six new states in 12 months. That was the largest acquisition of new states in American history since the original 13 and it's never been matched again. They let in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, and then Idaho and Wyoming to go ahead and make sure that they would continue to control the Senate, and the Electoral College. And they're not hiding this. They actually go onto their media which is their equivalent of the Fox News channel at the time and say, by letting in these states, we're going to hold onto the Senate for all time and we're going to make sure we hold onto the White House for all time. But what that does is it begins to shift the idea of that human freedom. All of a sudden, the Republican Party, which has tried to continue to argue that it is standing in favor of equality, although that's negotiable. After 1888 and the admission of those new states, the Republican Party's got to start adopting that racially charged language in order to get the West on board. And that begins the change in American history that leads to a later union between the West and the South around this idea that really white men ought to be in charge. It's not just a Southern thing. It's a Western thing as well. And they make up a voting bloc in Congress that manages to change a lot of the legislation of the 20th century.
BILL MOYERS: You write about how the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890, in South Dakota, was an atrocity brought on by politics. And that it played into the use of politics to reimpose inequality, and the use of force for malicious purposes.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: It did. What happens is that with the admission of these new states in 1889 and 1890, the Republicans believe that they are going to do very well in the midterm election of 1890. And the big thing on the table in America in 1890 is the tariff - high walls around the American economy that protect businesses inside America, they protect them to the degree that because they face no foreign competition, different groups can collude with each other to raise prices. So in 1860, the Republicans insist that an economic downturn that's been happening is only because those tariffs aren't high enough. What happens in the election of 1890 is the Republicans think they're going to win and they lose dramatically. It turns out when these ballots are counted, a Republican Senate or a Democratic Senate hangs on the seat of South Dakota, on one Senate seat. And that Senate seat has pretty clearly been corrupted. There's a huge fight, then, in the legislature of who actually won. So there the situation sits.
BILL MOYERS: Sits there, for sure, with President Benjamin Harris needing to shore up his support in the Dakotas. So, he sends corrupt cronies out to replace experienced Indian agents and dispatches one-third of the federal Army as well.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: And with that movement of the Army into South Dakota in the largest mobilization of the US Army since the Civil War, Lakota are trying to negotiate with the Army that increasingly wants to bring them into the reservation, to the agencies to make sure that they're under control. And over the course of the next few months, that situation escalates until a Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, is killed in December of 1890. And then in terror after that, a group of Miniconjou Lakota move across the state. They actually find the Army, the Army doesn't find them. And in the process of corralling them and disarming them later on that month, the soldiers start to fire. And about 250 Lakota are massacred. So, it was a massacre that was really directly attributable to whether or not the Republican Party could control the US Senate in order to protect its tariffs that promoted big business, and protected a few oligarchs.
BILL MOYERS: When Americans moved to the wide-open spaces of the West after the Civil War, they kept alive the same vision of the world that had inspired Confederates. What was their argument?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: They certainly were not arguing at the time for a renewal of hostilities. But they did believe that America was one in which a few good hard-working white men should dominate women and people of color. And I think that's written all over the West, although we don't like to see that because we love our cowboys. But inherent in Western society, Western politics, Western economy and the Western society after the Civil War was the idea that a few wealthy men should control the industries. Or at least, did control the extractive industries of mining and cattle, and agribusiness and oil. And they should also control politics. And that the legal system should defend their interests while the workers should work for the people in charge. You know, these wealthy cattlemen, for example, were somehow the salt of the earth, hardworking little guys. That image was really in contrast to what was going on, which was the creation of a society that looked, in many ways, like the society of the pre-Civil War South. And by the late 19th and early 20th century, the rise of industrialists in the North who took a lot of their power and their ideological power from the cowboy imagery and from the support that they received in the American West. And to some degree, from Southern leaders as well.
BILL MOYERS: So, the pre-Civil War South was an oligarchy.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. I was very careful with that word. Because there are obviously a lot of words we could use for a system in which a few people take over. But the way that I was using it was with the idea that an oligarchy was a small group, usually of men in that case, who controlled the money in society and therefore came to control the political system, and also the social system.
BILL MOYERS: In order to use government policies to shore up white supremacy and prevent racial equality, right?
HEATHER RICHARDSON: And I think the echoes from that to the present are pretty clear, when you have again a small group of Americans now who define themselves that way, I think. One of the things that I found interesting is with the rise of this small elite group of large planters in the 1850s, the ways in which they came to monopolize popular culture and popular literature so that they simply didn't say, "Well, we're hard workers and we've been lucky." But they came to believe that they deserved what they had gotten. And that they were somehow better than everybody else. And you can see that through the pulpits, ministers starting to talk about how blessed they were to have these men in their congregations. You can see it through literature, the rise of novels that talk about people who own large numbers of other people as somehow paternalistic patriarchs. And you can see it through the construction of the other, the people who are enslaved, as being somehow almost sub-human. And that's a very deliberate construction in the 1850s. And I would argue, you can see something very similar in America in the 2000 aughts.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: The emphasis in popular culture on how the people who were at the top really belong there. That they somehow are the best people. That they know more than the rest of us. That if you have a billion dollars, you must somehow be really much more special than those of us who don't have a billion dollars. And I think that really shows in the way that President Trump talks about the people around him. He would appoint only the best people, who by definition, knew more than the experts did. And you look at the position that Jared Kushner has in this administration. I mean, he's a young man with really very little training in anything and he's supposed to be solving the Middle East crisis and handling coronavirus? And I don't even know what his portfolio looks like at this point. But I think that's a reflection that looks very much like that of elite Southerners in the 1850s when they simply thought by virtue of who they were, they could make things work better than anybody else could.
BILL MOYERS: And you write that as this Old South ideology moved West it influenced popular culture, especially in upholding white supremacy. There were Western movies like the classic STAGECOACH, remember? A Confederate soldier joins with the US Cavalry to defeat the "savage" Apache. And novels such as LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and GONE WITH THE WIND celebrating the union of Western and Confederate ideology.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. And isn't it fascinating--if you think about, again, Laura Ingalls Wilder's a great example. People tend to dismiss her because they see it as a children's book. And yet, it's been enormously influential, enormously influential. And she writes about a world in which Pa takes care of the women folk and dominates the native populations around him. And certainly there are passages in that book that are extraordinarily racist, not only toward Indigenous people, but toward African Americans as well. It's gotten her in trouble lately. But the theme throughout that book is of individualism. Pa is doing it on his own. Pa is not doing it on his own. The reality of her life was that Pa was managing to keep the family together based on the fact his daughters and his wife worked because Pa could never manage to make ends meet. And they're living in places that are habitable for white settlers like themselves only because of the protection of the US government. And, you know, even scenes like when- when Mary goes to college. And remember, they scrimp and save for years for Mary to go to college. And the implication in that book is that they are sending Mary to college. No. They're raising money for her train fare and her clothing. Her room and board is being paid for by the state of South Dakota. South Dakota actually, weirdly enough, had the highest rate of literacy in the country in that era. But you don't see that in those books. Because again, you have this wedding, if you will, of individualism to racism and this concept of women being taken care of by their men. It's a very popular trope in American history. But it doesn't reflect reality.
BILL MOYERS: So, when a group of slave holders embraced the idea that they and they alone should control America's economic and political system, the Americans fought back, won the Civil War, and rededicated the country to equality. But when it happened a second time, when very rich men of property mobilized to take over America again, they largely succeeded by convincing voters that equality for people of color and women and minorities destroyed the liberty of white men. That's almost the drum beat in the background of American politics today.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: One of the things about that ideology that a few wealthy men should rule, it's not new to America. It's been around for a very long time. And what's really radical is the idea that in fact, all of us should have the right to self-government. And the fact that we're still fighting about it in America today suggests to me that those two fundamentally different concepts of the role of the American government at least are still absolutely the question of what America really is about. For all the frightening things that are happening in America right now, it's also exciting to get to redefend the concept of human self-determination, which is really what we've been doing all along on this continent.
BILL MOYERS: But as you write, the ideology of the Old South and its new Western allies found a powerful reactionary force to reimagine it. Let's go to the very opening scene of your book. It's July, 1964. The Cow Palace outside San Francisco, packed with cheering Republicans who've just nominated Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona as their candidate for the presidency. They came roaring to their feet when he declares, quote-
BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice in no virtue.
BILL MOYERS: 56 years later, that scene still plays out in my head. Explain why you chose that moment to begin a story that spans America from the Civil War to now.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Barry Goldwater at that point was known sort of as a cowboy character. And that moment when the state of South Carolina, the state that was responsible for taking the Confederacy out of the Union. When those delegates stand up, they were the ones to put Barry Goldwater over the top, as their delegate yelled when he announced the delegation's votes, it's that moment when you recognize that there is a new force in American politics. And it's the force of reaction against the liberal consensus that was widely shared by Democrats and Republicans both, that in fact, the government should be of the people, by the people and for the people. And that's the moment when you had that reactionary voice saying, "No, that's not what America should look like." And it's that theory that in fact a few people should run the system and make decisions for the rest of us that has taken over America since '64. It came across as a racial argument. But of course, his skin was in the game for the end of business regulation.
BILL MOYERS: Regulation, right.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: That's what he really cared about. It's interesting the degree to which they harnessed the tradition of American racism and sexism as well, to their project of destroying business regulation.
BILL MOYERS: Goldwater's big bone was government, but that was all mixed up with opposing Civil Rights and keeping segregation, discrimination. This fear of government that Goldwater was stoking at that moment was the same fear that Southern demagogues had stoked to keep Blacks in their place, it was government that was at stake here. It was what you can do with government.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, and I think you just hit the nail on the head there with the idea that all of this is about the proper use of government. Is the idea of the United States government to protect property, so that people can accumulate more and more of it, and thereby get the power and the education and the connections to go ahead and direct society in a way that's good for all us, which is their theory. Or is the role of government, in fact, to protect equality before the law, and to make sure that all men, in fact, and all, you know, all people are created equal and have equal access to resources and to opportunity? And those two questions are really the central questions of America.
BILL MOYERS: Ronald Reagan gave the conservative movement its present-day mantra
RONALD REAGAN: The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
BILL MOYERS: Now just imagine using that mantra today when the pandemic is rampant. And somebody knocks on your door and says, "My name is Fauci, and I'm here to help you." And they say, "But you're from the government. We don't want you."
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I love the way you put it earlier when you said, "This is all a question of what the government should do." Coming out of World War II, we had a real resurgence of the idea that the government really had a responsibility to promote equality before the law, and to guarantee equal access to resources. And that was a principle that was shared across America, I think, from Republicans and Democrats both. I mean, obviously you saw it with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the New Deal. But you also saw it with Truman, of course. And then you also saw it Eisenhower and Eisenhower's Middle Way. And the idea was that this American democracy stood against the fascism that had drawn us into World War II. And that FDR was so articulate about fighting back against. You know, when he talks about Italy again and again, FDR talks about how, you know, American democracy's messy, for sure, but look, Mussolini was supposed to make the trains run on time and instead, his people are dying and they're starving to death. And we, us messy members of a democracy, are the ones feeding them. And he says this again and again. And coming out of that war, I think Americans really stood for that. But even before that, there's certainly a group of reactionaries who look at the New Deal and at the Middle Way and they say, "We don't believe that the government should interfere in our businesses. We should have the liberty, the freedom to run our businesses as we see fit." And they, in fact, really believe that the New Deal is going to be erased. They really thought it was a temporary measure, and that Americans would turn against that. But, of course, Americans loved the New Deal. It had gotten us out of out of the Depression and it had won World War II. So they didn't have any intention of walking away from that.
BILL MOYERS: But Goldwater and Reagan were riding away from it. And both, as you know, loved casting themselves as cowboys, white hats and all. They wrapped themselves in the mythology of the cowboy as hero; a lone white man carving a new world for white people from a hostile environment.So how did we get from Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon, a Californian in 1968, invoking the Southern strategy of stirring up the resentments and fears and hatreds of white Southerners. And Ronald Reagan who opened his campaign in 1980 in Neshoba County, Mississippi, just a few miles from where three Civil Rights volunteers had been murdered. And then George W. Bush buying a Stetson and a Texas ranch to prove he was a Westerner. Finally, to Donald Trump, the rich guy from Queens, not a part of the Southern culture or complex, who used the same racial fears, the same threats and promises that had been used in '64, '68, and '80.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Well, finally by 1951, you have that famous book by William F. Buckley Jr. called GOD AND MAN AT YALE in which he says, "Listen, we got a problem. If we keep on trying to argue against the New Deal on the merits, we keep losing. So, we should stop trying to argue it on the merits. Because when we talked about what was best for most people, people voted for the New Deal." So, he suggests that we needed to start from a baseline, saying that the government should only protect what he calls "free enterprise." That is, there shouldn't be regulation. And it should protect Christianity. You could wiggle around the edges. But you needed to have those two things. Well, that doesn't really get much traction. And, of course, William F. Buckley Jr. is the son of an oil man. And he is bankrolled by some pretty serious money there. It's a vision of a very few wealthy men. And it really doesn't get traction until after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954, when a unanimous Supreme Court, where this chief justice is a Republican and a former governor of California-
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about Earl Warren.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. He says the government needs to stand behind the desegregation of public schools. And with that, a door is open to resurrect the idea of the Reconstruction years. That any kind of government action in trying to level the playing field for African Americans in American society is a redistribution of wealth. And in 1955, we get the formation of NATIONAL REVIEW, of course, with the hiring of James Kirkpatrick, who's a Southern editor. Who hammers again and again and again on the idea that in fact, if you let government be an active government, to go ahead and intervene in things like regulating the economy, or in this case, promoting desegregation, what you are going to get is an attack on liberty, by which they mean tax dollars, your, in coded words, "White tax dollars" are going to go to African Americans. Who, in their eyes, had not earned that sort of entree into public schools. Which is gonna cost tax dollars among other things there were- needed to be troops to have that happen. Well, that idea, that somehow an activist government, a New Deal government, an Eisenhower government was a redistribution of wealth from hard working white people to first African Americans, and then that group of other is going to be expanded to eventually include, in the 1970s, feminist women. But that argument is really established in the 1950s. And the people who adhere to it initially are not traditional Republicans. And they're certainly not Democrats. They self-identify as a group called movement conservatives. And they are not true conservatives. They are radical extremists. And they know it. They, a few group of capital C conservatives, are going to stand against capital L liberals. By which they mean virtually everybody else in America, Republicans and Democrats both. Because they make no distinction between the liberal consensus of FDR and Eisenhower and Chinese communism. To them, those are the same kind of redistributions of wealth. So that movement conservative argument that gets its roots in the 1950s and then is picked up by Nixon- I think he gets backed into a full-hearted embrace of movement conservatism because of the problems he's facing in 1970, with the Vietnam War and Kent State. But by Reagan, you have Reagan fully defending that vision. And you remember, Reagan's initial ideas of cutting taxes were not popular. And it was not clear that that was actually going to happen. He has to put George H. W. Bush into his administration as vice president. And he had called that system "voodoo economics." But it's really after he's shot that he manages to get the popular momentum in Congress to pass his first tax cut. And then he tries to cement the ability to hold those tax cuts through including Evangelicals into the political system on the Republican side, beginning really dramatically in 1986. But, also, by packing the court. So, you can see from there on, this vision snowballing. And then in the 1990s, of course, you get Newt Gingrich becoming the Speaker of the House, and really deliberately purging the Republican Party of traditional Republicans, those he calls, RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only. By the time you get to Trump, that language is there. That whole set up is there. But Trump himself is an interesting character. Because if you remember, he was the most moderate of the Republican candidates when he was running. So he had the racism and the sexism down. But a lot of people who might have liked or might even have not liked the racism and the sexism loved the idea he was gonna make taxes fairer. He was gonna create a better health care system. He was gonna make wealthier people pay more. He was gonna promote infrastructure. All those things that went by the board. He's put movement conservatism on steroids. And his platform in 2016 was stunning. It was William F. Buckley Jr.'s wish list, or Goldwater's wish list. And a narrative that, by the way, has taken off, and been extraordinarily strong since the rise of Reagan.
He was elected in 1980. And you have that cowboy individualism gone wild with the STAR WARS series, which is the movie of 1977. That imagery, that one guy is going to do it on his own without the help of the government is a lovely image. It's a mythological image. It's one that Americans love, but it's not reality. In fact, that image has enabled oligarchs like those really taking the reins of power under Ronald Reagan, to skew our laws in such a way that wealth has moved upward, opportunity has been taken away from the vast majority of us. The lives of most Americans, a majority of Americans, has gotten significantly worse, not better. And now under Donald Trump with the coronavirus, but also with the extraordinary dis-junction in the economy. Now, of course, we're looking at the recession because of the coronavirus. But even before that, with the booming stock market, and the reality that most Americans didn't have $400 in the bank to meet an emergency. I think people are really coming to realize there is this extraordinary gap between that image and reality. And beginning more to want to root their politics in reality, both to fight the coronavirus and to fight the economic recession. But also to give credit to the essential workers of color, and to the women who are keeping this country running. I thought it was really interesting that one of the tropes from American individualism is, of course, that moms are home, right? Taking care of the kids. Over the weekend in Portland, moms went out and made a wall, a wall of moms to stand between the protesters and the federal troops.
BILL MOYERS: You say that the movement of women into politics rejects the construction of a society in which a few elite white men control the destinies of the rest of the country. And you find hope in that. But I wrote after your last sentence, "Yes, but white oligarchs and their mercenaries still have the power."
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes, they do. And I often don't sleep at night. But people ask me what gets me up every morning, and why do I continue to be optimistic. And I am because I believe in American democracy. I believe in the concept of human self-determination with almost a religious faith. And if I lose that faith, I feel like I will have broken that faith not only with the people around me today, but with all those people who came before us, and fought in wars, and who gave up their time and their money and their energy and did everything that they could to make sure that American democracy would survive. So, we're in a very frightening time. But there are a lot of us, I think, who believe in this great American experiment, and will give it our all to make sure it doesn't end on our watch.
BILL MOYERS: Heather Cox Richardson, thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughts, and for all the work that has inspired so many of us.
HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: Yes. Well, thank you very much.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. Read an excerpt from HOW THE SOUTH WON THE CIVIL WAR, a must-read book for understanding how we got to this moment. And, be sure to check out Bill's podcast with Heather Cox Richardson, exploring how her daily LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN found a large and loyal following on Facebook and our website. You'll find all this and more at Billmoyers.com.
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