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The Trial of Lott

Mises Daily: Sunday, December 22, 2002 by

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Following the media campaign against Lott, many people were astonished by the Senator's willingness to jettison all political principle for the sake of saving his status as Majority Leader. Why would a conservative Republican suddenly find himself embracing the full panoply of the left-wing racial agenda and flog himself so mercilessly?

Consider what a Chinese political prisoner under Maoist Communism had to say about the role of self criticism, denunciation, and confession:

It doesn't take a prisoner long to lose his self-confidence. Over the years Mao's police have perfected their interrogation method…. Their aim is not so much to make you invest nonexistent crimes, but to make you accept your ordinary life, as you led it as rotten and sinful and worthy of punishment, since it did not accord with the police's conception of how life should be led. The basis of their success is despair, the prisoner's perception that he is utterly and hopelessly and forever at the mercy of his jailers. He has no defense, since his arrest is absolute and unquestionable proof of his guilt. [The Black Book of Communism, p. 510]

Such means are the tried and true method of assuring the supremacy of an ideology. Lott was accused of segregationism and racism for saying something kind about the presidential bid of Senator Strom Thurmond in 1948. Mostly likely, his comments reflected an affection for the attempt by the South to resist federal encroachments against the liberties and rights of the states after the Second World War. But you would never know that by listening to either Lott or his critics. As under Mao, the accused was already guilty as charged so he had only one right: to repent of his errors. If he appeared insufficiently repentant, the attacks were renewed until the accused was completely destroyed.

Even at the outset, it was clear that no effort would be made to understand the deeper issues involved about the history or political issues. There would be no tolerance for anyone who might say that Thurmond's bid reflected a just political aspiration, that his States Rights Party might have had a point to make that extended beyond race hatred. The thousand-year struggle for liberty made possible by decentralized political orders was swept away or completely recast in light of racial politics—as if the United States had not been founded as anything but a unified state, and as if this conclusion were never in question.

No, there was one goal at the outset of Lott's trial: extract a confession, an apology, and bring about what the Chinese communists called "rectification": a visible sign that one accepts the reality of one's ideological apostasy, and declares publicly that the regime is right and you are wrong. Anything short of that is regarded as a personal indictment and further evidence that you, as the enemy, must be vanquished.

Even so, perhaps it is worth examining the deeper historical and political issues. It is not true that supporting the Dixiecrats in 1948 necessarily reflected a racial bias against blacks. The real issue was not race; it was the place of freedom and federalism--concepts that are apparently not understood by the national press or by any of Lott's critics right and left--in the post-war period. Both parties were split on the direction they would take after long years of depression and war. The industrial planning of the New Deal was shocking enough, but the wartime planning of the Second World War was as bad as the fascist governments the US opposed on the battlefront.

The crucial political question concerned the direction the country would take in the future--pushing headlong into the welfare-warfare state or returning to founding principles--just as the country faced this same question in 1989 at the end of the Cold War. In 1948, the key domestic question concerned the uses of federal power for purposes of social planning and redistribution. On the international front, the Marshall Plan had already been passed, shocking many in both parties who had a principled opposition to foreign aid and international management on this scale. And Truman and his advisers were already embroiling the US in a Cold War against Russia, a government that had been a close US ally only a few years earlier.

Many Democrats had hoped that FDR would be an aberration—a man who betrayed his 1932 election promises (for a balanced budget, for limited government, for lower taxes, for peace) for personal power. A strong faction hoped for a return to the older style Democratic Party that favored free trade, decentralization, peace, and other Jeffersonian policies.

Harry Truman, meanwhile, was untested by any presidential election until 1948. It was unclear until the convention that year which part of the party would be dominant. What the limited-government faction had underestimated was the extent to which the party had come to depend on vote buying through welfare schemes for its very lifeblood, and many in the libertarian-oriented faction of the Democratic Party saw the foray into civil-rights politics as nothing more than an extension of the same scheme.

A similar split had emerged in the Republican Party, whose Congressional wing had largely resisted the New Deal and the drive to war. One faction hoped to deep-six this "negative" attitude toward consolidation—pushing for the Cold War and for retaining the New Deal--while another faction favored free enterprise, spending cuts, and small government at home and abroad. The issue came to a head in 1952 with the great battle between Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft, a battle which was won (through the basest convention trickery) by the nationalist-consolidationist faction.

Triangulation was taking place all around. Truman had hoped to outflank the nationalist and anti-communist faction of the GOP with his Cold War rhetoric, while the militarists within the GOP hoped that an embrace of the welfare-warfare state would win enough votes to break the stranglehold that the Democrats held over the White House. Neither of the dominant branches of either party saw much electoral advantage in calling for radical cuts in government or returning to a foreign policy of peace and free trade. The vote-buying and industrial subsidies of the previous twenty years had reduced the Jeffersonians in both parties to an extent that few but the most pessimistic observers had anticipated.

J. Strom Thurmond's faction of the Democratic Party bolted after it became clear who would dominate the party. It founded an optional party that it hoped could compete, which of course it could not (as most every third party discovers within a system constructed by the dominant two). Today it is said that Thurmond's party pandered to the racist elements in the South, but it is more correct to say that the dominant factions of the major parties were pandering to the always-present desire on the part of pressure groups for special favors from the federal government.

Thurmond's party announced its first principle in the platform of the States Rights Party:

  • We believe that the protection of the American people against the onward march of totalitarian government requires a faithful observance of Article X of the American Bill of Rights which provides that: 'the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.        
  • A long train of abuses and usurpations of power by unfaithful leaders who are alien to the Democratic parties of the states here represented has become intolerable to those who believe in the preservation of constitutional government and individual liberty in America.        
  • The Executive Department of the government is promoting the gradual but certain growth of a totalitarian state by domination and control of a political minded Supreme Court. (Citing, e.g., "national domination and control of submerged oil-bearing lands in California.")        
  • By asserting paramount Federal rights in these instances a totalitarian concert has been promulgated which threatens the integrity of the states and the basic rights of their citizens.        
  • We believe that the Constitution of the United States is the greatest charter of human liberty ever conceived by the mind of man. We oppose all efforts to invade or destroy the rights vouchsafed by it to every citizen of this republic. We stand for social and economic justice, which we believe can be vouchsafed to all citizens only by a strict adherence to our Constitution and the avoidance of any invasion or destruction of the constitutional rights of the states and individuals. We oppose the totalitarian, centralized, bureaucratic government and the police state called for by the platforms of the Democratic and Republican conventions.        
  • We stand for the checks and balances provided by the three departments of our Government. We oppose the usurpation of the legislative function by the executive and  judicial departments. We unreservedly condemn the effort to establish nation-wide a police state in this republic that would destroy the last vestige of liberty enjoyed by a citizen.        
  • We favor home rule, local self-government, and a minimum interference with individual rights.

The above points, which are more prominent in the platform than anything concerning race, are eminently defensible by any libertarian or conservative. But in the current climate, a taboo exists against expressing any regret for the astonishing centralization of power in American politics since World War II. Question that, and you will have few friends and legions of opportunistic enemies. We are supposed to accept this reality, which stands on its head every hope of the founding fathers.  

It is nonetheless true that federalism of the sort mentioned in this platform is the essential genius of the American republican system of government—its great contribution to the modern political experience, as Lord Acton noted. In American law, federalism is guaranteed by the enumerated powers in the Constitution, which restrict the federal government to only a few functions while leaving the rest to the states and the people, as the 10th amendment says.

In the American lexicon, federalism is the same as the Jeffersonian phrase "states rights," which means that the states as legal entities have rights over the federal government. "The true theory of our Constitution," wrote Jefferson, "is surely the wisest and best--that the states are independent as to everything within themselves, and united as to everything respecting foreign nations."

As James Madison said, summing up the American structure of government: "The powers delegated…to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite." FDR himself affirmed his dedication to this idea in 1930: "As a matter of fact and law, the governing rights of the states are all of those which have not been surrendered to the national government by the Constitution or its amendments."

In this way, America was different from Prussia or any other nation-state of the old world that had a unitary state apparatus that exercised sole sovereignty. In American federalism, we saw the embodiment of divided sovereignty, political tolerance, and decentralization—the expression of the liberal conviction that society can manage itself and needs no central plan. As for government, its power should be close to the people and shared only by consent. As Montesquieu wrote: "this form of government is a convention by which several small states agree to become members of a large one, which they intend to form…. As this government is composed of small republics, it enjoys the internal happiness of each."  

No, the system of federalism and states rights does not lead to perfection in every way. But it provides a check on corruption and despotism from the center, and the political tolerance of federalism permits flexibility and competition between legal regimes, which provides a check on petty despotisms. It is this very flexibility that would have best handled the issue of race relations in the period after World War II. It was an enormous error to scrap foundational American principles for the political expediency of the moment, and we've paid a big price in freedom for having done so.

As for segregation, the platform of the States Rights Party did endorse it, but it also endorsed "the constitutional right to choose one's associates" (free association, once a pillar of liberal theory) as well as the right to "accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one's living in any lawful way." When was the last time a party platform so unreservedly embraced liberty as a principle of the labor market? These principles have been overthrown by the regime, and now what was once taken for granted as part of the fabric of liberty is neither discussed nor understood.

In 1948, most Southerners, however, understood that the federal government wanted to do more than end legally sponsored segregation at the state level, which was on its way out in any case. They understood that the federal government wanted to take charge of their schools and communities, not only ending legal segregation but also managing their lives by prohibiting voluntary choice in the exercise of private property rights. They worried about the effects of a new social planning attempt, complete with mandatory and subsidized demographic upheavals. This is what they predicted and this is what occurred.

So intense was the campaign for centralization that in 1950, journalist John T. Flynn wrote of the "War on the South," which he described as an attempt to use racial conflict to shore up support for the New Deal planning state. And let's not forget, too, that the South was put through a cruel "Reconstruction" after the Civil War; 83 years earlier, the right of self government was taken from the South and military governments were installed. All people everywhere resent imperial government intrusion, but Southerners could speak with experience on the question. That memory was still alive in 1948, and the threat that another round was coming was everywhere perceived.

Instead of allowing segregation to fade away, the federal government usurped state functions and created a very ugly backlash in the South, pitting blacks against whites and visa versa. This has resulted in unnecessary racial conflict and the consolidation of federal power. This has not been helpful to American race relations, and it has taken away essential freedoms and property rights from all Americans.

Today we see every manner of socialistic meddling imposed on the states, not just in the South but in all states and against all businesses and communities and schools. The assumption is that DC managers know best how to bring about social cooperation, and that people cannot be trusted in their daily lives to treat each other humanely. Instead, we are told, they need inhumane bureaucracies to tell communities how to run their schools, businesspeople who to hire and who not to fire, cities how much public housing to build and how much to distribute by way of welfare dollars.

Would the country have been better off had the Dixiecrats won in 1948? Of course this is conjectural history, and Lott was wrong to imply that we can know the answer with certainty. If Thurmond's party behaved the way the Democrats and Republicans typically behave—betraying election promises in favor of building the welfare-warfare state—the party might not have made any difference at all.

However, we can say that the country would have been far better off by preserving freedom and federalism rather than empowering a managerial, therapeutic state that today intrudes itself into every aspect of public and private life, often in the name of quelling racial conflict but in fact only creating more.

In every state, there is racial conflict, and we should hope and pray and work for an end to it and the laws that inflame it. But it does not compare to the suspicion and anger that dominates race relations in Washington, DC, a place where the racial divide is obvious to anyone with eyes to see. In Washington, the home of the people who claim they know what is best for everyone in the country, crime and poverty are higher, and the races can't manage the everyday civilities that Southerners take for granted.

Lott might have apologized for any misunderstanding his remarks created, owing to the lack of historical understanding of our nation's press corps and punditry class. Moreover, there is no evidence that Lott had any clue about these underlying issues. Like the jailed dissident in Mao's China, he embraced his guilt and pleaded for mercy. But no one should have to apologize for being a defender of freedom and federalism, and an opponent of the Leviathan state, which uses any excuse, including race, to trample on the essential rights of all.

In the end, of course Lott's resignation satisfied no one. Having now tasted blood, the proponents of centralization are demanding a wholesale purge of anyone in politics who has expressed sympathy for the old constitutional order and the liberties Americans once took for granted.  

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute and editor of the most highly trafficked libertarian news and commentary site, Lewrockwell.com. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive and send him MAIL.