09/20/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

Massive Resistance Redux, Republicans and Obamacare

It is surely an irony of our political moment that as we marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and by extension the high-water mark of the civil rights movement, we are witnessing the return of the strategy of "massive resistance" -- this time not against black civil rights as such but against a black president and his agenda.

Massive resistance was a program announced by Virginia Senator and political king-maker Harry Byrd in 1956. He coined the phrase to describe a package of laws designed to evade the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board decision declaring segregated schools unconstitutional. Among the bills was one that would cut off state funding to any Virginia school that attempted to integrate. The bills were dutifully passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1958.

The phrase, however, quickly began to circulate more widely and was applied to the many and myriad ways Southerners tried to thwart the progress of civil rights. Schools were an early and obvious target of massive resistance, but so was housing and voting. Southerners tried to ignore federal laws, they tried to evade federal court orders, and with depressing regularity they resorted to intimidation and violence.

Fast forward 50 years and we are now watching a new strategy of massive resistance unfold, this time directed at the Affordable Care Act. Having lost their case against Obamacare in the Supreme Court, and having been trounced decisively in the 2012 election, conservatives are now apoplectic and have vowed to do whatever it takes -- whatever that might mean -- to make sure Obamacare never takes effect.

Republican governors, like South Carolina's Nikki Haley, are promising to use a variety of shenanigans to make sure the program isn't implemented in their state. I tip my cap to Florida's Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature which has passed a law banning anyone from discussing Obamacare in any of the state's health centers. A new gag rule -- a time-honored strategy used by conservatives in the hope that the thing they don't like will simply go away if we forbid people from talking about it.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party zealots who now control the House of Representatives have decided to hold all of the nation's business hostage to their desire to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act. The 40-odd votes they have taken to this effect have simply been bizarre (and delusional) wastes of time. Now Tea Party darlings are threatening to force a government shut-down and allow the United States to default on its debts unless they get what they want.

There is more than mere analogy in this comparison between massive resistance then and now. In fact, there is a remarkable historical continuity.

Most obviously, many of the same places where massive resistance to Obamacare is fiercest were also those places that fought hardest against black civil rights. Which is to say: the South and parts of the West. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater might not have been personally invested in maintaining Southern segregation, but as the Republican party's presidential candidate in 1964 he made his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of that year a centerpiece of his campaign. And in those same places, opposition to Obamacare is this generation's racist backlash. Directed this time at a black president's signature piece of domestic legislation -- which itself borrowed many of its ideas from Republican proposals -- it is racism all the same.

But at the risk of playing pop-psychologist, I think there is something deeper at work in the recurring phenomenon of massive resistance. Those who vowed to stand in the schoolhouse door to preserve segregation 50 years ago saw civil rights not only as a rebuke to their white way of life, but as an indictment of their understanding of the past as well -- of how the present they wanted to preserve had come to be in the first place. If Southerners had to admit that Southern segregation amounted to nothing more than legalized, racialized brutality, then they might have to re-examine all the other myths they told themselves about their heritage.

So it is for those who now threaten to close the government unless the Affordable Care Act is killed, and in two directions. For the Free Market Fundamentalists who believe that all social problems should be left to the private sector, Obamacare forces them to acknowledge that the private health insurance system has failed to control costs and to cover millions of people. For those who will not reckon in any way with the facts of American economic inequality, the Affordable Care Act enrages them because it addresses problems they refuse to see in the first place.

Years ago the Israeli psychiatrist Ziv Rex quipped that the Germans would never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, and a similar dynamic has driven the hysteria of massive resistance then and now. How else to explain comments like those by Pennsylvania Republican Governor Tom Corbett about the lazy unemployed people dragging down his state? Poverty and poor health outcomes are acute in many of the places where massive resistance to the Affordable Care Act is most virulent -- 60 percent of America's poor children live in states governed by Republicans right now. Rather than acknowledge that their world-view might need revising, massive resistors blame the victims instead.

Of course the system of racial segregation that Southerners defended with such angry energy could only have been created because the white South never really had to confront the realities and consequences of slavery after the Civil War. In the 1890s, Atlanta Constitution editor and "New South" booster Henry Grady was grateful that "human slavery was swept forever from American soil," but he went on to tell his audience that "The south has nothing for which to apologize. The south has nothing to take back." 4 million enslaved Africans might have disagreed. Massive resistance has flourished where historical amnesia is most rampant.

Steven Conn is a professor of history at Ohio State University. He most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).