Throughout its history the U.S. has had two very different ruling elites, motivated by very different definitions of liberty. Let’s call them the New England Yankees vs. the Old South Planters. Their radically different definitions of “liberty” still divide liberals and conservatives today.
Wealthy elites are not all alike, and the differences between them are crucial. As the New England Yankee elite saw it, people with money and power must temper their predatory instincts with a code of conduct that has been called noblesse oblige. In this view, the liberty of the monied elite is restrained by a moral duty to use wealth and power at least partly for the betterment of society. (“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” said President John Kennedy in 1961.) Individuals are expected to balance their personal freedom and desires against the greater good of the larger society. Everyone is part of a community and therefore must pay taxes, educate the youth, care for the sick and provide for the needy.
In the Yankee view, the community (acting through government) should make available to everyone the freedom that comes from a stable and prosperous life. As President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1944, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” This Yankee view of ordered liberty lies at the root of liberal values today.
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Opposite the Yankee view of liberty, we have the Old South Planter’s view. As we learn from Colin Woodard’s American Nations, the plantation elite of the old South were the sons and grandsons of the colonizers of Barbados, which they turned into “the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.” The plantation culture they created from South Carolina across to Texas “was a near carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity…. From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror,” Woodward writes.
Following Michael Lind’s important little book, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics, Sara Robinson explored this subject in 2012. Robinson summarized the Old South Planter’s view of liberty:
In the old South…. The higher your status, the more authority you had, and the more “liberty” you could exercise – which meant, in practical terms, that you had the right to take more “liberties” with the lives, rights and property of other people…. In this model, that’s what liberty is. If you don’t have the freedom to rape, beat, torture, kill, enslave, or exploit your underlings (including your wife and children) with impunity … then you can’t really call yourself a free man.
The history of elite political dynamics in the United States can be viewed as a struggle for dominance between these two views of liberty – liberty limited by obligations to community vs. the liberty to exploit humans and nature for personal gain with minimal or no restraint.
Starting in the 1950s, the Old South view of liberty took hold with movement conservatives, who then set out to take control of the Republican Party and, through voter suppression, gain permanent political dominance.
According to George Lakoff, a linguist now retired from the University of California at Berkeley, movement conservatives believe that,
The basic idea in terms of economics is that democracy gives people the liberty to seek their self interest and their own well-being without worrying or being responsible for the well-being or interest of anybody else. Therefore they say everybody has individual responsibility, not social responsibility, therefore you’re on your own. If you make it that’s wonderful. That’s what the market is about. If you don’t make it, that’s your problem.
In her indispensable history, Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean documents “the radical right’s stealth plan for America” – a plan hatched in Virginia in the 1950s to return the U.S. to the Old South view of liberty, or, as we might say today, to “Make America Great Again.” As we learn from Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by the 1970s, a small cadre of hard-right super-rich conservatives was building the political and cultural machinery to take control.
In her illuminating new book, How the South Won the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson details how, after the Civil War, the philosophy of the Old South slavers spread Westward, snuffing out the idea that the government should protect the nation’s most vulnerable citizens and regulate the economy. “Convinced they alone should rule,” the philosophical descendants of the Old South elite “set out to destroy democracy,” Richardson writes.
The Old South view of “liberty” became personified in the image of the violent, independent, quick-draw cowboy. Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all campaigned for president wearing Stetson cowboy hats. Now, once again, we find ourselves in the grip of the Old South plantation mentality extended nationwide. Cowboys don’t wear “sissy” masks to protect their neighbors from a novel coronavirus, and so the deadly virus spreads.
The elite conservative view of liberty helps explain modern Republican hostility toward public education, publicly funded science, climate change, the natural world, one-person-one-vote democracy, universal health care, racial, gender and economic equality, accountability for war crimes and police violence, and government itself.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If progressives mobilize to get big money out of politics and aggressively protect and enforce “one person, one vote, no exceptions,” the true progressive will of the people can prevail.