Southern Republican Governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina are making noises about "refusing" federal dollars from President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. They are posturing in a way reminiscent of an earlier generation of Southern governors who stood for "states' rights," which was a euphemism for Jim Crow racial segregation. Given that these GOP governors preside over the nation's "black belt," Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina accurately called their obstructionist stance "a slap in the face of African Americans."
Haley Barbour, before winning the governorship of Mississippi was a high-powered Washington lobbyist and a former chair of the Republican National Committee. When he's not attending barbeques hosted by the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (C of CC) he's figuring out new ways to tax poor people while denying them government aid. Mississippi has the most regressive tax structure in the country and is ranked 50th among the states for per capita spending on social programs.
Bobby Jindal is the Indian-American rising star of the Republican Party. To prove himself to the country club set he adheres to the harshest of anti-poor ideologies. Jindal is also a right-wing Christian fundamentalist who calls for teaching "intelligent design" in public schools. His talk radio conservatism is tinged with the fanaticism of someone who comes from a "subaltern" group. Jindal's immigrant background leads him to compare his own experience to that of African Americans and conclude that the black community must be inherently dysfunctional. Jindal must distance himself from the first African-American president or he'll jeopardize his lily white political base and dash his presidential ambitions, and what better way to do so than to posture against federal aid?
And don't forget Texas Governor Rick Perry. A mad executioner like his predecessor, Perry is closing in on his 200th execution since taking office (George W. Bush only managed 152, but both governors hold national records). Perry also vetoed a measure that would prohibit executing mentally retarded people. "At a time when the country -- including Texas -- is opening its eyes to the problems that plague capital punishment," Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA said, "Governor Perry has chosen to remain blind to its flaws, further tarnishing Texas' human rights reputation." The vast majority of inmates Perry (as well as Bush) put to death were blacks and Hispanics.
And then there's Mark Sanford who rose out of Strom Thurmond's Republican Party in South Carolina with an abysmal record on all issues affecting the lives of African Americans. His policies always somehow benefit the well-healed white folks in his state while leaving behind everybody else. Governor Sanford proudly flies the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state house, a fitting tribute to the rise of the Neo-Confederacy. On that score, Sanford must be the new Jefferson Davis.
These Neo-Confederate governors are following in the tradition of President Andrew Johnson of the Reconstruction era. Johnson vetoed over twenty pieces of legislation that would have created a set of federal institutions in the former Confederacy to help guide the transition from slavery to freedom of four million former slaves. Today, the Neo-Confederacy obstructs the federal government's attempt to alleviate some of the suffering of the descendants of those slaves even while the nation endures its worst economic disaster in 70 years. These Southern governors are even refusing federal help to continue unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of people who have recently lost their jobs. Now that's pretty harsh!
But there's hope. The Department of Justice has the tools to bring Southern obstructionist governors in line as it did in the 1960s. "There's a new sheriff in town," and there are plenty of federal statutes on the books protecting the rights of poor people and minorities that Attorney General Eric Holder could enforce far more vigorously than his Republican predecessors.
The process of Southernizing the Republican Party has reached a more advanced stage after the election of the first African American President. What began in 1968 with Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" continued to mature through the Reagan years and the Newt Gingrich "revolution" until, in the 2000s, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist brought it to apotheosis. The Southern wing and its Sunbelt allies gave the Rockefeller Republicans the heave-ho leaving only a distilled rump party filled with ideologues, zealots, and "Ditto-Heads"; note the inordinate hostility aimed at Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, and Arlen Specter for voting for the stimulus bill. Vacuums in political leadership never last long.
And some of the most backward elements in our political discourse are poised to take control of one of our nation's major parties. "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice," Barry Goldwater famously said. But it might be bad politics. In 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated the Republicans had 36 Senators and 117 House seats; four years later, when FDR began his second term, the Republicans had 16 Senators and 88 House seats.
Of course, the madness is not limited to the South. The state of California is reeling after six years of a Republican governor and an obstructionist Republican minority in the legislature. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to power through a circus-like, GOP-financed "recall" election, where Gary Coleman and a porn star also ran, for the sole purpose of stroking his overblown ego. Schwarzenegger's abysmal record coupled with the crippling Republican "supermajority" needed to pass budgets means the Golden State ain't so golden anymore.
When "the Terminator" came to power the state's budget deficit was about one-fourth the size it is now and he failed to get any federal help from his "good friend" George W. Bush. He spent most of his political capital trying to privatize the public employee pension system and break the teachers' and nurses' unions. He spent a lot of time in 2008 out on the stump campaigning for John McCain and Sarah Palin. Most recently he couldn't even get members of his own party to vote for the desperately needed budget.
The devastated U.S. economy is tearing families apart and the cutbacks at the state level are coming at exactly the wrong time. The California Republican Party is every bit as backward and reactionary as its Southern counterparts. California Republicans are up in arms because a handful of GOP legislators voted to keep the state from going belly up. They were apparently willing to let the state hemorrhage $400 million halting construction projects rather than show "bipartisanship." Like their brethren in the Neo-Confederacy, California's Sunbelt Republicans would rather see the state drop off into the Pacific Ocean than take the step of raising taxes on their wealthy friends or give a helping hand to those who are suffering in these terrible economic times.
by Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).
Originally published by The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.