Small-Government Politics Requires White Racism

by | Dec 20, 2022 | Politics | 3 comments

Thomas Jefferson could not believe a Black person wrote the poem. A Boston poet, Phillis Wheatley, had composed a lyrical tribute to George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, creating a sensation in the Patriot ranks. She was an enslaved African American woman, a fact that did not keep Washington (a slaveholder) from politely acknowledging her work.

Nonsense, said Jefferson. Blacks were an inferior race incapable of composing such beautiful words as Wheatley had lovingly set down on her page. This, in short, reflected Thomas Jefferson’s view of a race that he enslaved to the tune of 300 human beings: He was a racist, and a particularly virulent one even by the standards of slaveholding Virginians. His bigotry was not just a personal failing, but a central component of the political tradition that he would go on to father.

Jeffersonian ideology has a long history in American politics. The dictum that “that government is best which governs least” in fact flowed from the pen of Henry David Thoreau–and in fact it continued into anarchism–but it is often misattributed to Jefferson because the third president’s influence upon our politics has been so great. Jefferson’s brand of libertarianism differed in important ways from the style preferred by today’s Republicans; he wanted to catalyze human cooperation not empower entrepreneurs. But the basic sensibility, a semi-paranoid hostility to government power, has endured for centuries.

Just as Jefferson was in some ways a malignant personality, his vision for government is far from being a benign governing creed. The party he founded, called the Republicans but unrelated to today’s GOP, was premised firstly on a defense slave agriculture against Alexander Hamilton’s developmental program. From the Jacksonian era until the 1960s, Southern white supremacists carried the torch of limited government within a Democratic Party that gradually became hostile to the Dixiecrats’ racism. What happened next is remarkable only in the speed with which it transpired; the racist wing of the Democratic Party migrated with the force of an elephant herd into a party led by Richard Nixon that welcomed them with the “Southern Strategy.”

There is a great deal of continuity in American history. From the consistency with which Jefferson’s precepts have accompanied regressive race politics, we can infer two things. America may always have a party of white supremacy. As Justice Breyer observed, American racism is like a virus: It mutates into new forms as it inhabits new environments, but its fundamental substance persists. A constituency for white rule seems to be a fixed component of the American political landscape. And political operatives, so often cynical, have appealed to this cache of voters on the basest grounds.

But opportunism alone does not explain why the marriage of libertarianism and hate has held together for so long. In fact, in the United States of America, minimal government requires white racism. Beyond the highbrow world of intellectuals like Jefferson, support for limited government is sharply circumscribed. Thus, the only way to build a majority for small government is to convince white working people that activist government will enable the advance of Black people in America. Government, in effect, must be seen as an ally of the Other. Only when political elites have defined government action as inherently antithetical to the interests of white control will a majority for shrinking government take shape.

This is an old strategy, and politicians throughout or history have made use of it. It is not necessarily an effort to hoodwink whites into “voting against their self-interes,” because racism is in the interests of racists. By, for example, keeping the economy rooted in plantation agriculture or starving the welfare state, a large slice of white America can enrich itself fulsomely. Bigots from Jefferson to Trump have whitened small government. The hue will never change.


  1. Wayne Schaeffer

    OK; given your premise that ‘racism is in the interest of racists’…please, DO enlighten us as to YOUR interpretation of what we all KNOW is the provable history of the Democrat Party–a party which–from its very beginnings–has been ROOTED in racism! Virtually awash in it, in fact, given that it is the Democrat Party which (largely) fostered and created the KKK, fostered, encouraged, and supported Jim Crow laws, and provably fought AGAINST efforts to desegregate!

    Were it not for the Republican Party’s support, blacks would have never seen slavery abolished, never been granted the rights, privileges, and protection of American citizenship, and they would have never have been allowed to vote. Those efforts were accomplished thru the votes of REPUBLICANS, and resulted in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the constitution–the very document which Thomas Jefferson so intimately participated in creating! Go ahead—do a Google search, and analyze which party voted for and against those amendments. You will find that, were it not for Republican support, those Amendments would have never happened, because the Democrat Party—then, just as they are now—is a party rooted in racism!

    In addition, it is worth noting that the Civil Rights Acts—of 1866 and 1964—only happened because of REPUBLICAN votes, and Republican pressure on the President and the Congress! Once again, it is provable that the Democrat Party is the single entity which stood in the way of racial progress and equality. The Democrat Party has not changed, but—predictably–every election cycle their leaders obsequiously attempt to ingratiate themselves with minority groups, in a pathetic attempt to buy their vote, and then—after the election, and after the minorities have served their ‘purpose’—the Democrat Party simply ignores them.

    Your attempt to vilify Jefferson is a lame attempt to re-frame the culture and the times of America from over 200 years ago into the framework of 21st century America—an America with an entirely different construct of morals, values, and perspectives. But, in doing so, you also entirely ignore the very framework of the Democrat Party—a party which has fundamentally never changed its own values, morality, and racist perspectives! The ‘snake’ and the stink of racism comes from within your own party!

  2. Wray

    “Only when political elites have defined government action as inherently antithetical to the interests of white control will a majority for shrinking government take shape.
    This is an old strategy, and politicians throughout or history have made use of it. It is not necessarily an effort to hoodwink whites into “voting against their self-interest,” because racism is in the interests of racists.” What keen insight. Thank you for this!

  3. Gregory Weeks

    How true this is….Fredrick Douglas said it best….”In what skin will the old snake come forth.” The “snake” of racism morphs as necessary to maintain the status quo of white privilege.

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