Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Stupid Files: "Dear Jim, I win" edition

"No liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves."

Former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC)

Here we are, a third of the way through Confederate Treason Appreciation Month and I was beginning to despair that anyone would say something that I could riff off of. You can imagine my joy when I checked the news yesterday morning to see that Heritage Foundation chief honcho, former senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), had said something so gobsmackingly stupid about the Civil War that it's caused me to restart the Stupid Files.

Jim DeMint is not a stupid man. He's a mean-spirited, scorched-earth extremist, but he's not stupid. Therefore, it stands to reason that there must be some greater context that makes the above statement make some sense. There is context, but it just makes him sound dumb and naive, like he's been getting all his history from David Barton. Last week, DeMint appeared on Vocal Point with Jerry Newcombe of Truth in Action Ministries. I'm not familiar with the show, but Right Wing Watch has been good enough to provide an audio clip and transcript of his conversation. Here's the context:
DeMint: This progressive, the whole idea of being progressive is to progress away from those ideas that made this country great. What we're trying to conserve as conservative are those things that work. They work today, they work for young people, they work for minorities and we can change this country and change its course very quickly if we just remember what works.
Newcombe: What if somebody, let's say you're talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, "that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later."
Everyone knows we liberals all hate the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and all the values that America stands for, so it stands to reason that we'd jump at the chance to rather incoherently spear them.
DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. It was like the conscience of the American people. 
That's why the Constitution guaranteed slavery and even gave the southern states extra votes in the House for holding slaves. I love the Constitution, but it did not free the slaves.
Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property...
It's nice that he acknowledges that the early republic has its flaws.
...but the Constitution kept calling us back to "all men are created equal" and we have "inalienable rights" in the minds of God.
Both of those phrases are from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. Maybe he really is getting his history from David Barton. Also, I'm not aware that Thomas Jefferson ever claimed to know the mind of God.
But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people; it did not come from the federal government.
Fair enough. The federal government is an abstract concept defined by a foundational document (the Constitution) and a large body of literature (laws and court precedents) that for its practical application. As such, it has no thoughts of its own and can create no movements. I'm sure I'm being pedantic here, but DeMint either does not understand, or is counting on his audience not understanding (bingo!), that the government is made up of people. The abolition movement was made up of people, mostly Northerners, who aimed at using the government, especially the federal government, to free the slaves.
It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong.
See above.
People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. 
Wiberforce? William Wilberforce was an English abolitionist. Yes, his writings on the topic were influential, but he died in 1833 and his efforts were directed at slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire.
So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
Yes, Abraham Lincoln was able to end slavery by the sheer force of his love for God. A lesser man might have used the government to raise the largest army ever seen on the continent and incurred unprecedented debt, all while ballooning the size and power of the federal government and reducing the authority of the states. A lesser man might have used the power of that growing government to impose new taxes, including a tax on income to pay for its expansion. A lesser man might have used an executive order or "proclamation" (which all good Republicans know is nearly treasonous to use for anything other than Mother's Day proclamations), enforced by the might of the state, to dispossess tens of thousands of Southerners of their property without compensation.

No liberal is going to lose an honest debate that big government freed the slaves. No amount of warm feelings in people's hearts could have freed the slaves without the overwhelming power of the state to enforce their goals. The government that the United States had in 1860—the government that the abolitionists chose as their tool—was not big enough to accomplish the task. It had to be made bigger, much bigger. Lincoln, "the very first Republican," was also the very first big government liberal. He did more to expand the size and influence of the government than any single individual in American history, with the possible exception of FDR. It's almost inconceivable that FDR could have expanded the government without the precedent of Lincoln and his Republican cousin Teddy Roosevelt before him. Lincoln set the path for big government.

I said DeMint is not a stupid man. So why did he go off on this dumb Bartonian tangent? Simple. DeMint is a demagogue. He doesn't really do politics with all its give and take, negotiation and compromise. He fires up the mob and points them at their target. In the Senate, he tried to establish himself as the chief spokesman of the Tea Party. But, he's not that dynamic of a personality and there was too much competition in Congress. So he went a little behind the scenes and took over the role of directing the most influential conservative think tank in the country. At the Heritage Foundation, the mob he addresses isn't voters with badly spelled signs; his mob is the elite who pull the levers of power.

The job of a demagogue is to pander and direct. The demagogue tells the mob that everything they believe is right and true and eternal. Then he tells them what conclusions and policies they should support based on their possession of the Truth. DeMint went on a religious show and told the listeners that the greatest injustice in American history, slavery, was defeated by the faith of people just like them. Following that pandering he told them that big-government liberals want to take that credit away from them.

The silly and awkward narrative he used to make those points isn't meant to be taken by itself. If it is, it's laughably wrong. But, his intended audience isn't meant to take it by itself. His narrative fits into a much larger context than the expanded quote I fisked above. The liberals-want-to-steal-your-credit message feeds into the paranoid siege mentality that is so central to movement conservatism. It also echoes a populist message that Lincoln himself mocked, that is the fear that "they" are looking down on "us." In setting big government up in opposition to faith, DeMint reinforces the message heard all across the right that secularism is a (non-Christian) religion and using government to solve problems deprives God of his rightful position in the scheme of things.

Hierarchy and deference to rightful authority are key elements at the very core of conservative thought. DeMint crafted his story to impress on the minds of the faithful that supporting the anti-government agenda of the libertarian/capitalist wing of the Republican Party is a religious duty. Those of us who don't like Kool-Ade might find his rhetoric laughable; he doesn't care what we think. I'm sure his message went over just fine with the faithful. How well it went over with the leaders of the faithful and other conservative elites is another question. Will mocking his apparent ignorance cause them to close ranks or to distance themselves from him? I hope for the latter, but I expect the former.

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