The most talked-about article in Washington this week is the one by political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein blaming political polarization and gridlock on the Republican Party. They say that its breech of longstanding norms of political competition, especially routine use of the filibuster in the Senate, has gone over the line. Mann and Ornstein blame the extreme rightward tilt of the GOP for its destructive behavior.
The political scientist Jonathan Bernstein agrees that the Republicans have moved well to the right and have become more radical in pursuit of their agenda. But he argues that these are two different phenomena that are not necessarily related. Bernstein thinks the GOP has simply become dysfunctional. He points to the purging of conservatives such as Senators Robert Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana merely for being insufficiently aggressive in attacking Democrats.
The roots of political polarization go back to before the Civil War. The slaveholding society of the old South necessarily imposed upon it a very conservative view of the world, which impacts public policy to the present day.
One way in which this conservatism exhibited itself and still does is that Southerners tend to be very religious in an evangelical Christian way. The reason for this is that when slavery came under attack by Northern abolitionists, Southerners found comfort in the Bible. In it there are many passages that defend slavery and treat it as a normal part of life (e.g., Exodus 20: 20-21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3: 22).
Perhaps the clearest biblical defense of slavery is that in 1 Timothy 6: 1: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.”
A complement to biblical literalism was constitutional literalism. Southerners noted, correctly, that the Founding Fathers did not ban slavery and, indeed, accepted it as a necessary condition of the great compromise that led to creation of the United States. Several provisions of the Constitution implicitly defended slavery as an institution, and the concept of states’ rights severely limited the federal government’s ability to do anything about it.
The Southern states also adopted extremely conservative tax and spending policies due to slavery. Since much of the wealth of the South was in the form of slaves, slave owners were always concerned that they might be made to bear a heavier tax burden as a consequence. The limitation on direct taxes in the Constitution was primarily to shield slaves from federal taxation.
In the “Jim Crow” era after the Civil War, Southerners resisted efforts to improve public education because they believed that African Americans would be the primary beneficiaries.
In the “Jim Crow” era after the Civil War, Southerners resisted efforts to improve public education because they believed that African Americans would be the primary beneficiaries. They also resisted spending for better transportation because convict labor was a very cheap way of maintaining roads that justified harsh penalties for law breaking, especially by black males, who were often sentenced to long prison terms by kangaroo courts just to provide quasi-slave labor for the state.
And of course the “Bourbons” of Southern society wanted taxes kept low to maintain their wealth and lifestyle. It didn’t bother them if the public schools were dreadful because their children went to private academies.