Ultimately, we cannot win any major fight on the environment, the economy, health care, or civil rights—and secure that victory—unless we have an effective, well-resourced, inclusive, and responsive government.
An effective government is not simply a government that is a referee, but it is also an architect.
The most important good we distribute in a democracy is membership; membership structures all of the other distributive decisions, including the rules of society. In that regard, barriers that would prevent members from participating, whether they are political, social, or economic, become profound.
The structure and design of government in the United States has always been intimately connected to race and identity. In part, early American opposition—to a strong central government—was designed to protect the institution of slavery, and many of the early and current fights about government were about who belongs and who is excluded. Issues of voting, immigration and taxation have been fights about race and who is American and how American bounty—including membership, as well as educational, fiscal and social infrastructures—is to be shared. Who has been deciding these questions is as important to the country as to what the answers are. The Civil War Amendment and the War itself were not just about freeing the slaves, but it was also about the role and reach of the federal government in relationship to the states. While race and belonging have been critical in understanding America’s political and economic history and structure, it has also been the life blood and point of contention for American identity, especially in the south.
In order to understand how government has functioned and continues to operate, it is important to recognize that, contrary to common belief,
we have had a three party system of government rule: the Republicans, the Democrats and the South.
The Democrats and the Republicans have vied not only for national rule but also for alignment with the South. The South has not just been about economics or politics, but very much about a collective racial identity that has been and remains deeply anti-black and grounded in white status and superiority. This position, while most extreme in southern states, has affected the entire nation and has been accommodated by both the Democrats and the Republicans.
FDR was able to build a strong national government to, in part, challenge business by being anti-civil rights. This changed the economic well-being of white America as well as helped to create a new white-less ethic identity. He was able to deeply align the South in the approach by accommodating their racial concerns. The South was the most economically depressed region of the country. But they were only willing to receive economic benefit that at the same time protected the racial stratification. The lock on the senate committee and the exclusion of the black vote also assured white political dominance the reverberated across the country. The New Deal, which was a new and deepening role of the federal government, was explicitly pro-government and anti-civil rights moving us from a long history of anti-government and anti-civil rights. The Reconstruction was a noted exception during this long period. Virtually all the New Deal legislation carried this badge. For whites, government was largely effective and responsive and inclusive, but also robustly exclusive of people color. In order for government of the New Deal to be effective,
it had to wrestle some control from the corporate elite in favor of the white masses, but also to exclude the non-white other.
This allowed for an alignment between the Democrats and the South, referred to as Dixie-crats. Capital and the elites were limited in favor of the people (read: white people) with reasonable but not excessive take from capital. This helped to create accelerated economic growth with white labor taking a greater share. This period saw both growth in the GDP as well as a decline in inequality and the explosion of white middle class.
This helped to develop a regulated economy, bringing the dominance of corporate elites into servicing people and maintaining white supremacy in the South and the continuation of Jim Crow. We moved from an anti-government to pro-federal government stance, and a continuation of anti-civil rights, or inclusion. The US was also the dominant economic and political power in the world. We were moving to what John Rawls called a democratic property owning state where capital was more in service of people and not the other way around. At the same time, we reinforced what Michael Omi and Howard Winant called a racial dictatorship. Note that one could not make sense of this arrangement by just looking at race relationships or stratification nor could one make sense of this by just looking at the economy for a focus on the relationship between labor and capital.
We entered into a period referred to as the Detroit consensus with a growing economy and a lessening of inequality.
But this situation proved unstable. Challenged both by new global politics and the Cold War, by the insurgent Civil Rights Movement, and by growing black migration out of the south, the anti-civil rights consensus began to fall. As President Johnson was under pressure from these dynamics, he began to use government and its popular positioning to correct the New Deal and move toward a more inclusive society which would be pro-government and pro-civil rights. This of course started much earlier than Johnson with President Truman, but Johnson took it to a different level which was reflected in the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
But while the government was helping to provide an entrance for Blacks and other excluded groups, it was also providing an exit for whites through private schools in the south and suburbanization in much of the country.
We were witnessing not just a realignment of government but also a restructuring of identity and the terms of membership. White ethnics traded in their ethnicity for suburbanization and whiteness. And as we experience the meaning of whiteness change we were also experiencing a change in Blacks and Latinos. Blacks moved from rural and colored to Negro to Black. The elites were largely willing to live with the arrangement. They were regulated and taxed to share more of the growth with the expanding white middle class. The Jim Crow racial stratification was being replaced by and co-existed with spatial stratification.
This civil rights movement and globalization changed all of this as well as the role of the federal government. Roosevelt argued for supporting a growing middle class as being good for business, based on the need for a middle-class consumer base. Globalization created more competition not only for goods and businesses, but also for labor. Technology helped facilitate the movement of business first to the south, away from unionized, dense urban areas in the north, then outside the country, increasing the pressure on labor. But it would be a serious mistake to think these agreements were just a function of technology and globalization. One only has to look at Germany and Canada to see counter examples. Government’s role of designing structures for the market was also key.
As Johnson pushed forward the civil rights agenda, there was a serious realignment. As Johnson predicted, the third party South began to realign from the democratic party to the republican party. This movement was fueled by racial and other resentments that challenged the racial stratification of whites and people of color. Programs that had demanded that businesses share with workers were now being described as programs that were taking from good Americans and being given to the undeserving racial and immigrant other. A new strategy was developed called the southern strategy. As Ian Haney López points out, this was not simply on racial prejudice, but a strategy by elites to discredit the role of government helping people—or, as Rawls would say, a democratic property owning society. Instead, there was a drum beat for small government, low taxes, local control, states right, and individual responsibility. This realignment would not just an attack on civil rights but also the New Deal.
The effect would be to marginalize people of color as other and the redistribute wealth and income to the elites.
This would also undermine the middle class, accelerate inequality, and challenge the role of government for the people.
While the call was for small federal government, the government generally did not become smaller, but switched sides and passed thousands of new laws and regulations to protect the flow of capital over work (not limited to just workers of color).
What started as a southern strategy became a national strategy that brought in a new era of neo-liberalism based on racial, coded resentment and a false necessity of globalization.
This move again was not just retrenchment of civil rights but also a capturing and repurposing of government. This is not just whites being tricked into supporting elites against their self interest: it is a complicated story of a substantial number of whites being concerned about their status in relationship to people of color and deciding who belongs. This attack on government was also tied to an attack on the public. The changing demographics with growing diversity as well as the relative success of the civil rights movement was adroitly used by the elites to capture the language and the government to restructure the economy.
Now we see what has been coded, racial, and other resentment has started to become more transparent. What started as a colorblind dog whistle about makers and takers has turned into a bull horn encouraging resentment and violence. But this resentment—at least as evidenced by Donald Trump—is not always in service of the elites. He has challenged trade agreements that are very popular with corporate elites and globalization. At the same time, he continues to attack government and its role. We are clearly in a phase of anti-government and anti-civil rights. The fundamental idea that we must contest is that the notion that government is bad. The right wing has spread a gospel that government is either bad or inept. In truth, they have sabotaged government so that it’s performed poorly and then blamed that dysfunction on government itself.
We must bring about an effective, inclusive, and responsive government.
A responsive government is one that not only responds to the needs of its members, but also allows its members to constitute the state itself.
This constitution is a process defined by participation. When large numbers of people are denied membership, then the state is no longer democratic, inclusive, or responsive to its members.
It is not sufficient to have a government that is inclusive and responsive. Government must also be effective. An effective government must be adequately resourced through appropriate fiscal policies. And such a government must facilitate and support the well-being of its members. Promoting well-being entails more than ensuring the requirements for survival, and extends to that which is necessary to participate effectively both in civic society and in the economy. An effective government is not only a well-resourced government, but it is also one that has the power to enact the will of the people.
We must move towards being pro-government and pro-civil rights. This would be a government that is responsive, effective, and inclusive that structures the market and politics for all. This is not the government we have now. But we must not give up on the ideal of a government for the people, of the people, and by the people. To do this, we must confront the resentment of the other and the fear that many experience.
We must help people imagine a country that is inclusive—one where all belong.
One where the economics and the government serve people, not just the elites and not just whites. If we are successful, we can begin to reverse the toxic inequality that now defines America. We can have a middle class that is inclusive. This effort would not just change our economic and political alignment, but also who we are. This is not just an economic or political challenge, this is an important ontological or spiritual challenge. There is a strong realignment in the country like at the end of slavery or during the civil rights movement, where we are contesting what it means to be an American. The role of government is key. It is not simply Who Are WE but also Who WE BE.
john a. powell is the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and a Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley.