THE BLOG
11/17/2014 05:58 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The Parties of No

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In 1874, Republicans suffered one of the greatest electoral reversals in American history, losing 170 seats and their commanding House majority to the Democratic opposition. Although not apparent at first blush, the recent Republican victory has a great deal in common with this Democratic landslide 140 years earlier. And if history is any guide, the upcoming Congressional realignment will again have dire consequences for the nation's poorest citizens.

Although the conservatives of the post-Civil War era went under the banner of the Democratic Party, their policies and strategies were similar to today's Republicans. Both exploited ailing economies and unpopular administrations in the White House to advance their programs of obstruction and fiscal retrenchment.

Above all else, what unites 19th-century Democrats and 21st-century Republicans is their dogged opposition to federal spending, especially on social services for the nation's neediest. Today's Party of No has attempted to block the Obama administration on a number of these measures -- from food stamps and welfare to unemployment benefits and health care -- even at the risk of a national credit default.

Yet long before today's Republicans made obstruction their raison d'etre, Gilded Age Democrats turned "No" into a political rallying cry, and, in the process, rolled back some of the era's most important social reforms.

One of their first targets was the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency established in 1865 to aid the nation's recently emancipated slaves. In providing rations, medical care, education and employment opportunities to freed African Americans, the Bureau was one of the great progressive institutions of the era, despite a chronic shortage in funding.

Democrats, however, protested vigorously with arguments that, to this day, remain central to the conservative critique of federal intervention on behalf of blacks. Nineteenth-century Democrats stressed that self-help, not dependence on the federal government, was the only path forward for African Americans, and that such so-called charity would injure the "character" and "prospects" of a newly emancipated class of citizens. They insisted that public spending on a single group was not only unfair, but financially unsustainable as well. One newspaper captured several of these concerns by dubbing the Bureau a "department of pauperism." In 1872 Congress abruptly shut down the Bureau, and with that, millions of freed slaves lost one of their only allies in the struggle against violent racism in the South.

One hundred and forty years has done relatively little to shift the conservative position on taxation. Reducing the tax burden on the rich is a Republican mainstay, even as income inequality soars to Gilded Age-esque extremes. Meanwhile, Tea Party-affiliated politicians like Ted Cruz promote a flat tax, which would put disproportionately greater strain on lower earners.

Although they lacked the Reaganite vocabulary of trickle-down economics, 19th-century conservatives similarly pushed for lowering taxes on the rich. After the Civil War, Southern conservatives shifted the burden onto the poorest citizens, namely freed slaves. Whereas taxes on landed property were astonishingly low (.1 percent in Mississippi, for example), blacks often had to pay poll or "head" taxes that could amount to a substantial portion of their yearly income. The result was a system in which wealthy landholders could end up paying less overall in taxes than the hired hands who worked their land.

On the issue of voting rights, today's Republicans have more in common with Gilded Age Democrats than any current political party should. As many have pointed out, the voter ID laws backed by Republican policymakers disproportionately affect poor people, minorities, and college students, key constituents in the Democratic base. Conservative efforts in this regard may not mark the return of Jim Crow, as some have suggested, but they certainly undermine key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Like today's Republicans, yesterday's Democrats recognized the electoral gains to be made in keeping certain voters from the polls. Thus they waged a national campaign against black male voting rights, which had been secured in 1870 by the 15th Amendment. In particular, they exploited the Amendment's vagueness by introducing literacy, property and educational tests to severely limit black suffrage and thereby inaugurate the age of Jim Crow by the turn of the century.

To be clear, Republicans today differ from their conservative predecessors in certain crucial respects. No serious Republican leaders currently advocate the systematic disfranchisement of an entire race, nor would they condone the sort of racial violence that conservatives deployed in post-Civil War America.

Nonetheless, the parallels are disconcerting. Once again a bitter American electorate has empowered a party without an apparent political vision beyond repeals and rollbacks. And once again that party pursues the regressive goal of lowering taxes on the rich while dismantling federal programs for the poor.

When Americans gave up on the possibility of progressive reform in the 1870s, they ushered in an age of rapidly growing racial and economic inequality. We can only hope the repercussions won't be so serious this time around.