Friday, July 11, 2008

The Jesse Helms Legacy--Post Under Construction

THE POLITICAL BODY OF JESSE HELMS. Much as the Greeks and Trojans fought over the bodies of fallen warriors, American liberals and conservatives are battling over the meaning of recently deceased conservative Republican Jesse Helms. By and large, liberals view Jesse Helms as the last lion of segregationist politics in the South and have condemned Helms for his both his racism and his bigotry toward gay people. Conservatives have danced around Helms' attitudes racial attitudes with some offering mild condemnations (Jonah Goldberg) and others mild defenses (Jeff Jacoby). But conservatives view Helms as a pioneering practitioner of what the right now calls Reagan conservatism. For the right, what was crucial about Helms was his pioneering use of direct mail fundraising, his refusal to compromise with liberals on even the smallest issues, and his folksy of liberal institutions and personalities. From the conservative view, Helms should be viewed as an icon who inspired the highly combative political style that the right has adopted during the Bush years.

HELMS AS THE ARCHITECT OF THE CURRENT ECONOMY? Michael Lind argues in Salon that the key to understanding Jesse Helms was that demogogues like Helms functioned primarily to serve the interests of Southern business elites.

"Like other faux-homespun Southern conservatives, [Helms] employed rhetorical populism against blacks, homosexuals, liberals, professors, modern artists and "common-ists" in the service of his business backers, most noticeably North Carolina's tobacco industry.

According to Lind, conservative Southern elites maintained themselves in power by corrupting state government, deploying various kinds of surveillance systems, and promoting demagogues like Helms to oppose any attempt at reform. Segregation was a system in which southern elites suppressed the political influence of poor whites and African-Americans as a way to secure their continued exploitation of the region's natural resources and human population.

Lind further argues that Helms helped forge a political agenda for advancing the interests of large-scale business against the middle and lower-class. But the influence of Jesse Helms was not primarily economic. Helms was not a very big mover in the Reagan-era economic policies Lind alludes to. Helms didn't have nearly as much influence as Jack Kemp, David Stockman, and others on Reagan-era tax cuts, deregulation, or breaking the air traffic control union. Pro-business perspectives had been gaining momentum throughout the Carter years as a result of the proliferation of business lobbies, founding of a variety of conservative think tanks, and general atmosphere of frustration with the stagflating economy. Helms was in the pro-business camp, but he wasn't one of the main people who brought the business agenda to fruition during the first year of the Reagan administration.

HELMS AND BUSH ADMINISTRATION LAWLESSNESS. Instead, the legacy of Jesse Helms was to bring the segregationist mentality into the heart of the Republican approach to competing with the Democratic and liberal opposition. Several characteristics of segregation are relevant here. The segregationists did not view themselves as sharing a common humanity with African-Americans (or poor whites). Segregationists did not believe that African-Americans were citizens and therefore did not recognize that African-Americans had rights that "a white man might recognize." Finally, segregationists refused to be limited by any law in their dealings with racial issues. The segregationists believed that they had a right to exclude African-Americans from voting, office-holding, and juries, dispossess African-Americans of their property and freedom, beat African-Americans to a pulp when they had a whim to do so, and finally to murder African-Americans. The segregationists did not believe that the white liberals who supported civil rights as also being black and did not believe they had any rights either (as witnessed by the killing of the civil rights activists in Mississippi).

Obviously, Jesse Helms brought the racism, homophobia and other social attitudes of the segregation era into the U. S. Senate. Helms' race-bating re-election campaigns, the fact that he refered to all black people as "Fred," and his filibustering of the MLK birthday holiday are evidence of his constant racism. But Helms also carried forward the general segregationist rejection of the notion of a legitimate opposition. As a United States Senator, Jesse Helms was famous for obstructing legislation and appointments with which he disagreed. Helms never negotiated with his Democratic and liberal opponents, never compromised his positions, and fought every battle to the bitter end. The reason why Helms refused to negotiate or compromise with his Democratic and liberal opponents was that he never recognized them as having legitimate views, representing legitimate interests, or having a contribution to make. In this sense, Helms was carrying the segregationist view of African-Americans and their white liberal supporters into the Senate as his fundamental attitude for dealing with his Democratic and liberal opponents.

It was Helms' refusal to recognize liberals as having legitimate views that made his procedural obstructionism exciting to conservative activists and fired their imaginations during the 1970's and 1980's. The sense of privilege and superiority underlying Helms intransigence was far more compelling to the right than the willingness of Main Street Republicans like Bob Michel. Even Barry Goldwater was far more willing to countenance the Democrats than Helms. That's why the conservative movement became much more of a Helms movement than a Goldwater movement.

After the Republican sweep of 1994, the Republican leadership gradually adapted Jesse Helms' refusal to countenance the Democratic opposition as it's general policy. The initial attempt at confrontation was the 1995 budget battle which the Gingrich leadership lost badly. After Gingrich was pushed out and Tom DeLay became majority leader, the Republicans refused to negotiate with the Democratic leadership as a matter of principle and recruited Democratic votes one-by-one by offering pork-barrel projects for home districts. The same was true with the Bush administration which actually sought to formulate legislation in ways that would force the Democrats into opposition. That was especially the case with the bill to create the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.

The Bush administration

No comments: