One of the regular features of our contemporary political life is conservative complaints about being victims of “government oppression.” You know what I mean: having to pay taxes to help “losers” is an outrage. Having to buy health insurance is tyranny. Not being allowed to discriminate against gay people is a denial of religious liberty. Letting employees enrolled in government-subsidized health care plans choose types of contraceptives you don’t approve of is complicity in murder. Not being able to expect the IRS to rubber-stamp your application for tax-exempt status for your political group so you can hide your donors is living under fascism, making one fear jackboots kicking down doors in the night. No wonder the most terrifying fear harbored by many of these folk is that Big Government will take away the guns they keep under their pillows!
The 50th anniversary of the violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, should have served as a graphic reminder of what real “government oppression” looks like: police dogs; fire hoses; truncheons; deputized thugs. An entire state mobilized to deny the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, in the broader aim of denying the right to vote. And all this orchestrated by conservative politicians supposedly devoted to an ideology of decentralized government power and individual rights.
Indeed, there are unsettling parallels in the rhetoric of the racist thugs of 1965 and that of today’s brave resisters of Big Government, as the president noted on Saturday:
[A]t the time of the marches, many in power condemned rather than praised them. Back then, they were called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them. Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened. Their patriotism was challenged.
And the cause of equality was slandered again and again—as “government oppression.” Here’s how George Wallace greeted the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:
Never before in the history of this nation have so many human and property rights been destroyed by a single enactment of the Congress. It is an act of tyranny. It is the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty.
With this assassin’s knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy which claimed power to rule over the lives of our forefathers under sanction of the Divine Right of kings….
It threatens our freedom of speech, of assembly, or association, and makes the exercise of these Freedoms a federal crime under certain conditions.
It affects our political rights, our right to trial by jury, our right to the full use and enjoyment of our private property, the freedom from search and seizure of our private property and possessions, the freedom from harassment by Federal police and, in short, all the rights of individuals inherent in a society of free men…
Yes, George Wallace was a constitutional conservative before his time. I don’t personally remember that speech, but I do remember watching in awe in early 1965 as Georgia segregationist Lester Maddox, weeping actual tears, blubbered, “My government’s taken my business away” as he closed his Atlanta restaurant rather than serve African-Americans. Less than two years later Maddox was governor of Georgia–another symbol of defiance to “government oppression.”
There were a few conservatives then (including 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater), and a lot more today, who sought to distinguish between opposing de jure segregation imposed by state law—the formal side of Jim Crow—and accepting de facto segregation imposed by private parties—the less formal but no less virulent side of Jim Crow. Indeed, that seems to have been the position of Rand Paul before he “restated” his position recently. But at the point of the truncheon and the “Whites Only” signs, any rationalizing distinction between sources of oppression becomes fatally blurred, and private actions affect public policies unofficially.
That’s the important point of Jelani Cobb’s comment about the connection between Selma 50 years ago and Ferguson today:
[I]t’s nearly impossible to overlook the fact that the battles in Selma were animated by a local police force empowered to uphold a racially toxic status quo on behalf of a white minority population. Ferguson’s is not a singular situation. It is an object lesson in the national policing practices that have created the largest incarcerated population in the Western world, as well as a veil of permanent racial suspicion—practices that many people believe will deliver safety in exchange for injustice. What happened in Selma is happening in Ferguson, and elsewhere, too. The great danger is not that we will discount the progress that has been made but that we have claimed it prematurely.
And given the abundant signs that defenders of the police in Ferguson view themselves as victims of the federal government, and of racial politics, and of “outside agitators,” there’s also a great danger that we lose sight of who is at the business end of the truncheon.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.