The Tea Party-inspired drive to derail Obamacare is anchored in a place where opposition to the federal government is as old as the nation: the American South.
The current fight, a budget standoff that threatens the creditworthiness of the U.S, has vestiges of the secession from the union that started in South Carolina and led to the Civil War. It carries echoes of the nullification crisis over tariffs in the 1830s and the so-called massive resistance movement to oppose desegregation of public schools in the 1950s.
In each of those fights, led by Democrats who then dominated the region, Southerners said they were overrun by Northerners hostile to their culture in ways that undermined their freedom. Now, their heirs are Republicans and, while the region’s prevailing party affiliation has changed, the basic orthodoxy has remained.
“I think there are continuities, obviously, between the Tea Party today and the longer tradition of Southern politics that dates back upward of two centuries,” said Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia in Athens.
It also now includes Western states, “with strong libertarian strains,” said Mihm, who is a contributor to Bloomberg View. “It doesn’t map exactly.”
The divide also can be seen as part of the growing split between the views of Americans in urban and rural areas.
Among the 75 most rural U.S. House districts, 62 are represented by Republicans, 12 by Democrats, with one vacant seat most recently held by a Republican, according to U.S. Census data compiled by Bloomberg.
In the 11 states that made up the Confederacy in 1860, Republicans hold 58 more seats than Democrats. Since 1997, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, the 11 states have outpaced the rest of the nation in GDP growth.
“I don’t know if the South breeds conservatives, or conservatives flock to the South,” said Harold Holzer, an historian and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, “but of course there are historical parallels to the idea of obstructing federalism, repressing the minority vote, over-the-top, fire-eating rhetoric, et cetera.”
“Doesn’t anyone read history anymore, much less learn from it?” Holzer asked.
The South’s historic resistance to federal intrusion has been rekindled by passions inside the Tea Party movement whose goal is to limit the actions of government, and it has spread to the Rocky Mountain West. That helps explain the challenge facing House Speaker John Boehner, whose caucus of 232 members includes more than 60 aligned with the anti-tax movement and dozens more who fear a primary challenge from it.
Republican anger also stems from passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act with only Democratic votes.
The Debt Ceiling
“There were zero Republican votes, so they are stiffed at that level,” said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, and co-author of “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics.”
“They think it is bad public policy and 120 of these House members were elected in the last two elections,” he said.
Their tactic of using the $16.7 trillion U.S. debt ceiling and a federal budget resolution as a wedge to stop Obamacare, though, has come at a cost. A Gallup Poll released Oct. 9 found that the Republican Party is now viewed favorably by 28 percent of Americans, down from 38 percent a month ago, the lowest measure for either party since the survey research firm started asking the question in 1992.
The approach of the most ardent opposition among Republicans has also created an intraparty rift among lawmakers and traditional supporters in the business community.
“The GOP has faced these kinds of splits in the past,” said John G. Geer, chairman of the department of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Really since the presidency” of Franklin Roosevelt “and the rise of the New Deal, we have seen this kind of tension in the Republican Party. There is a wing of the party that is very much anti-government.”
“The anger here seems deeper than in the past -- so deep that key players in this debate seem to ignore the fact that the Constitution requires compromise and working together,” said Geer.
Yet the core of the Republican opposition, Mihm said, “loathe” Obamacare “to such an extent that they feel they have been tyrannized by the majority.”
Mihm said today’s fight has a parallel in the nullification movement of the 1830s when John C. Calhoun, who had resigned the vice presidency to run for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina, devised a strategy to oppose a tariff that he said hit the South unfairly. If the state legislature passed a law that refuted the federal one, the state could ignore it based on what he called a “concurrent majority.”
President Andrew Jackson eventually interceded and thwarted the nullification movement. Had it gone forward, Mihm said, it may have led to the breakup of the Union before the Civil War.
Now, he said, those who want to stop Obamacare “are trying to find another way to nullify that poses a much graver threat, but not to the law,” Mihm said, referring to a possible failure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling.
“Our debt is something we all, every one of us, are on the hook for,” he said. “And the idea that you can take that and make that a bargaining chip is very similar to the idea of the nullifiers.”
The stalemate has caused declines in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (SPX) and Treasuries this week, though they moved positive on news that a deal was percolating to resolve the fight. Yesterday, the S&P 500 gained 2.2 percent to close at 1,692.56 in New York, as House Republicans proposed a short-term extension of the nation’s debt limit.
If the U.S. fails to raise the debt limit by Oct. 17, the government will have $30 billion plus incoming revenue to pay its bills. It would start missing scheduled payments, including benefits, salaries and interest, between Oct. 22 and Oct. 31, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released yesterday, 72 percent of Democrats said not raising the debt ceiling would be a serious problem compared with 57 percent of Republicans and independents. Among those who identify as Tea Party supporters, only 44 percent said the borrowing limit should be increased.
Other similar struggles didn’t affect markets in the same way because they were rooted in arguments over racial equality and not tethered to fiscal matters.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Southerners supported the federal government in enforcing a law that required slaves who had fled to the North to be returned to their owners. After the election of Lincoln, whose campaign pledged to limit the expansion of slavery, they became more hostile toward the government and eventually joined South Carolina in trying unsuccessfully to secede from the Union.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said the current fight also has an historical antecedent in the “massive resistance” movement and “the vow to fight until the bitter end every effort to desegregate America’s public schools.”
After President Lyndon Johnson defied many of his fellow southern Democrats by supporting racial integration of schools and pushing passage of the Civil Rights Act, he acknowledged the political consequence by saying: “We have just lost the South for a generation.”
So far, the early political consequences have not been so great, said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. “For now, Republicans aren’t suffering as much damage as some observers predicted. People are angry at Republicans, but they’re also angry at Democrats, too.”
“For the hardliners, those results aren’t too bad,” he said. “But as the days tick by, more and more people will feel direct effects from the shutdown, including people in deep-red districts. Their complaints will get louder and louder, and at that point, more GOP members may feel greater pressure to resolve the situation.”
Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, said that the Republican approach linking efforts to gut Obamacare with other fiscal issues undermines the representative process “in every way.”
“That’s why in some ways this is not a fair fight because if you are here to dismantle the federal government, if that is your ideology and that is your concern -- not debt and deficit, not revenue,” he said, then “you don’t care whether we’ve got a 9 percent approval rating or not. Or to put it another way, our having a 9 percent approval rating suits your purposes.”
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