America’s Unending Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy

America’s Unending Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy

The Oligarchs’ Revenge

The making of the modern right.


The average person may be forgiven for thinking that the South actually won the Civil War. Despite a brief experiment in interracial democracy during the Reconstruction years, for much of its history the region has upheld a regime of brutal racial subordination. In the late 19th century, after the overthrow of Reconstruction, many of its state governments disenfranchised Black men, instituted racial segregation, condoned racial terrorism and violence, and kept a majority of Black and white Southerners economically bound through sharecropping, debt peonage, convict lease labor, and tenancy. By the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt called the South the nation’s No. 1 economic problem, resistant to unionization and social policies. Even today it leads in indices for poverty and weak educational systems. The Jim Crow South was upended by the civil rights revolution. Yet even in defeat, its language of oligarchy and its opposition to progressive political and economic policies through an appeal to racism has been adopted by the modern Republican Party.

This is the argument presented in Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, How the South Won the Civil War. Throughout American history, she contends, the forces of oligarchy and democracy have been involved in a mortal struggle for the nation’s future, and she wants to show how the visions of oligarchy have often won out—how, in other words, we got from the era of emancipation and Confederate defeat to the presidency of Donald Trump. A history professor at Boston College, Richardson has written numerous books on the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as on the Republican Party, and she draws from her considerable scholarly oeuvre for this slim and accessible volume. Known for her newsletter Letters From an American, which seeks to explain current political events through a historical lens, she deftly demonstrates her skill writing for a public audience in How the South Won the Civil War. Arguing that the slaveholders’ idea of an oligarchic America triumphed with the growth of the second American oligarchy in the latter half of the 20th century, Richardson shows how the rise of movement conservatism, as personified by Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign, came to embody this vision of an oligarchic America. The new oligarchy’s triumph—one that combined economic domination with racial inequality—lay in a political alliance between the South and the West, Richardson argues, and in the Republican presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and finally Trump. Her interpretive scheme is simple yet also compelling and clear. The title of the book, of course, is not meant literally, but Richardson does show that while the South lost the Civil War, it eventually, in many respects, won the peace.

According to Richardson, the unending struggle between American democracy and oligarchy began with the birth of the nation. Many historians of early America have argued that the ideology of the American Revolution was democratic republicanism, born during the English Civil War in the 17th century and then embraced by the colonies. As the quintessential radical of the Age of Revolution, Thomas Paine, proclaimed, “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” But not all historians agree that this republicanism was the sole ideology then in circulation in North America. As Edmund Morgan observes in American Slavery, American Freedom, the seeming paradox of American republicanism was the simultaneous emergence of slavery and freedom in the colonial world. From the outset, the American idea of freedom was exclusive: It was for property-owning men only and was based on the enslavement of people of African descent. The Virginian founding fathers solved the problem of inequality by simply enslaving a racially outcast working poor and at the same time elevating the status of all white men, slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike.

For Richardson, the American paradox is a bit different: Slavery and democracy were opposing forces rather than constitutive of each other. She traces the birth of oligarchy, democracy’s enemy, to the ship that brought about 20 enslaved Africans to the British North American mainland in 1619. From then until today, she argues, the history of the United States has been a history of the conflict between democracy and oligarchy. For Morgan, American democracy was based on slavery; for Richardson, though she relies on Morgan’s book, American oligarchy has always rested on combining elite domination with racial and economic inequality. Ever since the arrival of that ship, she maintains, the American republic has allowed its elites to conflate “class and race,” thereby giving them “the language to take over the government and undermine democracy.”

At many points in American history, oligarchy—from the slaveholding elite to the robber barons of the Gilded Age—has had the upper hand. But repeatedly, ordinary Americans, especially those who were disenfranchised, like women and African Americans, have pushed back, leading to the triumph of democracy with slavery’s abolition, women’s suffrage, and the enactment of the New Deal and civil rights legislation. By offering an account of the forces of both democratic progress and oligarchic reaction, Richardson provides historical detail to Corey Robin’s argument in The Reactionary Mind, which traced the antidemocratic origins of American conservatism while offering insight into the democratic forces that resisted it. While Robin situates American conservatism in the longue durée of a Western reactionary philosophical tradition, Richardson locates it in a quintessentially Southern political tradition of oligarchy: anti-statism combined with virulent racism and misogyny. For Robin, too, the proslavery ideology exemplified American conservatism. But for Richardson, after the Civil War, the West and eventually the Republican Party helped reinvent the South’s language of oligarchy with an appeal to individualism that overlays a reactionary commitment to racial hierarchy and opposition to a welfare state.

Key to Richardson’s argument is the Civil War. For her, the struggle between the free North and the slaveholding South was essentially a struggle between people and property, as exemplified in the antislavery free labor ideology of the original Republican Party, which valorized workers over capitalists. The egalitarian impulse that informed the party of Lincoln, she says, was countered by the elitism of the slaveholding oligarchy, as personified by South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond in his “Mudsill speech.”

Hammond advocated an alliance of Northern capitalists and Southern slaveholders—what abolitionists called an unholy pact between “the lords of the loom,” or the textile mill owners of New England, and “the lords of the lash,” the Southern slaveholding planters, against the working stiffs, or “mudsills,” of their respective societies. Small wonder that electoral banners in the North would announce “Small-fisted farmers, mudsills of society, greasy mechanics for A. Lincoln.”

When understood as a conflict between oligarchs and democrats, the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction represent the victory not just of democracy but also of the working classes over the slaveholding oligarchy. It also marked, as Richardson notes, a victory for big government. As a result of the war, the federal government implemented a progressive income tax, land-grant colleges, the Homestead Act and money for railroads (which came at the expense of Native populations), and federal protection for Black rights in the postwar South. In response to this new egalitarian federal government, the opposition of Southern elites to Reconstruction was often couched—almost always disingenuously—in the language of local governance and opposition to corruption and taxation. Southerners opposing African American citizenship invoked the image of a corrupt federal government usurping their rights to promote Black equality. Racism became a way to protect the political and economic prerogatives of a Southern oligarchy no longer in control of the national government and, in many cases, state and local governments as well. The language of race became a potent weapon wielded against efforts to address inequality, which would supposedly benefit people of color and dependent women at the cost of white men.

According to Richardson, this political formula developed by Southern racists got a big boost with the conquest of the West and the subjugation of the Plains Indians. As federal troops retreated from enforcing Black rights in the South, they let slip the dogs of war in the West, which held the key, she writes, to the national triumph of white supremacy. John C. Calhoun, a proslavery senator from South Carolina, had long dreamed of a South-West alliance as the basis for national political dominance by a white elite, one that would marginalize the antislavery Northeast. Calhoun even put aside his objections, grounded in the notion of states’ rights, to internal improvements (the 19th century term for federal infrastructure projects) in order to woo the West. Richardson does not mention Calhoun’s dream of a South-West alliance, but she does describe a postwar settlement that strongly resembled it. While feeding off federal largesse, land and water improvements, and the might of the US Army to displace and kill Native populations, the West became fertile ground for the myth of American individualism, represented by the white cowboy single-handedly taming the frontier and its “savage” population.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously viewed the Western frontier as a laboratory for American democracy. The region, however, was built on Indian dispossession and slavery, Mexican peonage, Chinese exclusion, and the abuse of immigrant labor in extractive mining industries and in the construction of railroads, which led to spectacularly violent labor conflicts, such as those along Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene River in 1892. As Richardson writes, the Civil War and its aftermath in the West “reinforced a society in which the oligarchic ideas of the defeated South would thrive.”

The West, Richardson contends, also used the myth of the cowboy to put a gloss on its own brutal and exploitative history. In popular literature and culture, the cowboy captivated the American imagination. But the actual history of the West aligned it closely with the Jim Crow South. As Richardson writes, “The resurrection of antebellum southern ideology through the rise of the western individualist rewrote American history.” By the turn of the century, the national victory of white supremacy was complete, with Western politicians helping Southerners defeat federal bills against lynching and to ensure fair elections in the South.

No one personified the myth of Western individualism and the realities of American imperialism better than Teddy Roosevelt, who gained fame as a Rough Rider in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. As president, he took on the plutocrats, but as Richardson shows, his Square Deal also favored white men at the cost of nonwhite men and women both at home and abroad, where his military adventurism was put to service in the acquisition of a formal American empire. As Richardson notes, “He kept America from turning into an oligarchy…but he did so in the same way the Founders had: by creating an ideological underclass.”

Roosevelt, however, was not just replicating the Virginian founders’ contradictions. A conservationist and a naturalist, he also supported women’s suffrage and drove Southern segregationists into fits of rage by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House. If anything, Roosevelt represented the unique paradoxes of the Progressive Era: salutary democratic and economic reforms accompanied by nativism and imperialism. It is difficult to square (pun intended) Roosevelt as the individualistic Western cowboy with the president who championed the government’s regulation of the economy.

His successor, Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born president since the Civil War, was also a vaunted progressive reformer. Yet he introduced racial segregation to the nation’s capital, and in 1925, one year after his death, a newly resurrected Ku Klux Klan would march triumphantly down the streets of Washington, D.C. The suppression of dissent during the first Red Scare by his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer (who gives William Barr a run for his money as the worst attorney general in US history), reveals the racial and political intolerance that defined Wilsonian liberalism. Wilson’s allegedly liberal internationalism and commitment to democratic self-rule were also not meant for the colonies, as he made clear to nationalists from Asia and Africa after World War I. If, as Richardson writes, American oligarchs have traditionally used the language of race to stymie the rise of a modern welfare state in the United States, then her book also reminds us that racism and racial inequality have proved central to many figures speaking in the name of democracy as well. Roosevelt’s and especially Wilson’s strains of progressivism upheld white supremacy.

This remained partly true during the New Deal years, too. In 1932 most African Americans who could vote became part of a massive partisan realignment, moving with liberals into the Democratic Party and leaving the Republican Party to become more than ever the party of hidebound conservatism and big business. But even Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ran up against the shoals of racism and obdurate Southern Democratic opposition to the extension of its benefits to most African American workers in the domestic, agricultural, and service industries.

The New Deal and World War II inaugurated the American Century. After the fight against the Nazis and fascism, racism became unfashionable in academia and popular culture. The federal government developed color-blind social policies, from the GI Bill to Social Security, and encouraged the unionization of the labor force, all of which created a prosperous middle class and economy. But residential redlining and the racial stratification of the labor market, not to mention Jim Crow in the South, all persisted. Even as the avatar of American liberalism and social democracy, FDR failed when it came to race, his record blemished by, among other things, the internment of Japanese Americans during the war.

Richardson’s book gathers steam in the postwar years with the rise of the modern GOP, when the lines between democracy and oligarchy become clearer once again, with Republicans increasingly abandoning racial liberalism and Democrats beginning to disavow white supremacy. Movement conservatism, from McCarthyism to the rise of the John Birch Society and William Buckley’s National Review, waged an unrelenting ideological campaign to undo the New Deal. Die-hard Southern segregationists gained intellectual respectability, their defense of Jim Crow couched in the anti-big-government, anti-socialist, anti-tax rhetoric of conservatism. Once at the fringes of the Republican Party, these men would replace established conservatives as well as the remnants of the Northern liberal Rockefeller Republicans to create a truly right-wing party. This reactionary strain had long been present, but it became ascendant with the presidential candidacy of Goldwater, who represented a toxic mix of opposition to civil rights, women’s rights, and labor rights and an aggressive championing of American unilateralism in world affairs.

Most of these Republicans were opponents of democracy in the manner of proslavery ideologues like Hammond. The new conservatism produced Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Pat Buchanan, and the modern GOP’s Southern strategy. As the Democratic Party became identified with civil rights for Black people and equal rights for women, Republicans swerved right, opposing all progressive social policies as government handouts and taxes on the rich as a secret scheme to redistribute wealth from hard-working white men to unworthy Blacks and women. Reagan’s cowboy image—coupled with his decision to launch his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists had been viciously murdered—symbolized the fruition of the South-West alliance. Or as Richardson writes, “Thanks to the American West, the ideology of the Confederacy had regained a foothold in national politics.” Having grown up in India, I can vouch that thanks to Reagan’s misadventures in Grenada and Central America, his cowboy persona became a global symbol of blundering Yankee imperialism, an image of an American hubris that would even glibly take credit for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist policies in the Soviet Union after trying to reignite the Cold War.

In measured tones, Richardson documents the deep venality and anti-democratic nature of the modern Republican Party, including Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, the stolen presidential election of 2000, the dismantling of civil and voting rights, the culture wars attacking theexpansion of rights for disenfranchised groups, Mitch McConnell’s slash-and-burn tactics against Barack Obama’s administration, and finally Trump’s “American carnage,” a crucial theme in a dark inaugural speech that foretold the course of his grim presidency. Like the Southern slaveholders of yore, who dreaded abolitionism, socialism, communism, feminism, and all the -isms of modernity, our modern oligarchs and their GOP enablers use the same bugbears and racist dog whistles to prevent the United States from developing a strong welfare state.

Richardson tells her story well, but while she delves into domestic politics with a sure hand, she strangely neglects the Cold War (except in its use as a scare tactic for domestic purposes), US foreign policy, and the national security state. What role does foreign affairs, surely an important part of the postwar story, play in the rise of the current oligarchy? Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex; the Vietnam War; the covert and sometimes overt undermining of democracy in Latin America, Africa, and Asia; and the imperialist adventurism in the Middle East are all missing from her account. The violent policing and mass incarceration of African Americans—a topic of great urgency today—and the prison-industrial complex are also not discussed in any great depth. Perhaps it is because these subjects, in her view, don’t fit neatly into the oligarchy-democracy binary.

The combination of American empire, racism, and state violence has reinvigorated oligarchic tendencies in the United States to create a crisis of unchecked proportions. The world today looks on aghast as the American republic, with a criminally incompetent and kleptocratic oligarchy hell-bent on undermining democracy, self-combusts in the midst of a global crisis. Within the Democratic Party, attempts by the left to formulate a multiracial social democracy might yet realize the unfulfilled promises of the New Deal and the Great Society. The forces demanding democratic change are also out on the streets, protesting against police brutality and racial inequality while oligarchy rides high under Trump. Even though Richardson’s book was completed before the pandemic and the mass protests sweeping the country, her study is a useful history of the deterioration of the party of Lincoln into a revanchist, right-wing, white supremacist political organization.

Richardson is fond of saying that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. The taking down of prominent Confederate statues and symbols in 2020 might mark the beginning of the end of the slaveholding South’s oligarchic vision for the future of the American republic. If the current American oligarchy, with its commitment to antidemocratic values and economic elitism, reminds one of the South’s slaveholding aristocracy, it is about time that we consign it, like the Confederacy, to the dustbin of history.

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