America loves a good comeback story, but only at the movies. In the theater of history, promises to build back better have often followed in the wake of war and crisis — but the nation’s ruling class has always ensured that they’ve rung hollow.
Modern times are no exception. During the coronavirus pandemic, the country paid homage to the extraordinary sacrifices of its nurses, teachers, and factory workers, but it has proceeded to rebuild in the interests of big business and wealthy elites. The fate of the Build Back Better Act currently hangs in the balance, but even if it does pass, the bill will be a shadow of its former self, having already been stripped of paid family leave, expanded Medicare eligibility and benefits, tuition-free community college, a tax on billionaires, and more.
The nation’s pitiful response to the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic calls to mind the recovery from the financial crisis and recession of 2008–9, which imposed austerity and debt on working people while bailing out financial institutions. While Republican intransigence presented formidable obstacles for the Obama administration, possibilities for genuine change were hamstrung from the beginning by Barack Obama’s unwavering faith in a neoliberal orthodoxy that has been ascendant since the 1970s.
However, the roots of austerity politics in the United States are older and run much deeper than neoliberalism itself. To understand the origins of American austerity, we must start not with the 1970s but with the 1870s, when Reconstruction was kneecapped in favor of an emerging system of industrial capitalism.
After the Civil War, Radical Republicans sought to use their power in Congress to safeguard civil rights and institute social reforms. Meanwhile, the abolition of slavery had invigorated movements for shorter working hours and women’s suffrage. In response, a nascent industrial bourgeoisie and their ideological minions sounded the alarm to defend private property and restrain government intervention. They embraced the tenets of social Darwinism, pushed for a premature end to Reconstruction, and crushed the insurgent labor movement during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
The defeat of Reconstruction was the nation’s first failure to build back better, and it set the stage for the failures that followed. American austerity politics found their first full expression during this period, pivoting on an ideological turn to classical liberalism within the Republican Party. The events of the 1870s created a pattern of missed opportunities and reactionary blowback that has since been repeated time and again.
The Rise and Fall of the Radical Republicans
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the future of the United States was truly an open question. Social movements that organized before the war around abolition, labor, and women’s suffrage — which composed what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “abolition democracy” — were all gathering momentum, and were well-positioned to make enormous advances at this critical postwar juncture.
During the war, slaves had gained their freedom after fleeing Southern plantations and joining the Union Army in droves. Their actions helped raise the stakes of the Civil War from a conflict to preserve the nation to a revolution for black emancipation. The abolition of slavery then opened new opportunities for a burgeoning labor movement: after the war, a flurry of workplace agitation led to the formation of the National Labor Union, which demanded a shortening of the workday to eight hours. Meanwhile, the women’s movement, which had also grown alongside abolitionism, was poised to renew its demands for suffrage.
The wing of the party known as the Radical Republicans — whose ranks included Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and Benjamin Butler — were the most steadfast opponents of slavery and the strongest advocates of aggressive measures during Reconstruction. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Radical Republicans supported using the federal government, via the Freedmen’s Bureau, to protect voting rights, enforce legal equality, provide aid for the sick and hungry, and establish public schools across the South.
But the abolition democracy was not the only social force on the march. The Republican Party initially formed in 1856 as a mishmash of political forces, unified only by the slogan “free soil, free labor, free men,” a vision it counterposed against slavery. Before the war, industrial capitalists (unlike merchants and bankers) had generally supported the Republican struggle to prevent the South’s “slave power” from expanding into the American West. However, in the postwar years, industrialists took the lead in transforming the party to suit their class interests.
The Civil War had accelerated the development of industrial capitalism, and it also necessitated the expansion of the federal government. The Republican Party’s political ascendency thus made it a coveted prize for the capitalist class as it sought to assert and defend its interests though control over the nation-state. These class interests were threatened by a militant labor movement in the North and a push for land redistribution in the South, both of which found support among Radical Republicans. A collision between these irreconcilable forces would be played out within the postwar Republican Party.
Radical Republicans initially undertook Reconstruction with great zeal, directing the South’s economic transformation from slavery to “free labor” while securing voting rights and legal equality for black people. Their support for the Freedmen’s Bureau was instrumental in creating the South’s first state-supported system of universal public education. Some even favored a redistribution of land to the formerly enslaved.
Of course, their efforts were limited by an immediate racist backlash and white supremacist terror. But reactionary efforts by the Andrew Johnson administration and deposed Southern elites backfired politically across the nation, allowing the Republicans to score huge electoral victories in 1866 and 1868.
An 1867 speech by Senator Benjamin Wade from Ohio hinted at how the Republican Party might have continued to move in a truly radical direction. Speaking in Lawrence, Kansas, a major battleground in the war against slavery, Senator Wade suggested that a struggle between labor and capital was on the political horizon now that abolition had been achieved. The New York Times went apoplectic over the fact that a leading Senate Republican had publicly observed that “property is not equally divided” and called for a “more equal distribution of capital.” Karl Marx, penning his preface to the German edition of Capital that summer, took note of these hopeful developments in America:
They do not signify that tomorrow a miracle will happen. They show that, within the ruling classes themselves, a foreboding is dawning, that the present society is no solid crystal, but an organism capable of change, and is constantly changing.
With the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, Wade was just a single vote shy in the Senate from becoming president: the Johnson administration had no vice president, and Wade was president pro tempore of the Senate, putting him next in line. When seven Republican senators broke ranks with their party to keep Johnson in office, many speculated that their dislike of Wade’s radicalism was the decisive factor. One newspaper quipped, “Andrew Johnson is innocent because Ben Wade is guilty of being his successor.”
Wade was then passed over for the vice presidential nomination in 1868, and he lost his Senate seat in that year’s election. The political winds within the Republican Party were changing direction, and fast.
Liberalism and the Betrayal of Reconstruction
Looking out for the interests of capital and the tenets of laissez-faire, and sensing the threat posed by popular movements for social equality, an influential faction of Republicans ensured that Ben Wade and his radical ilk would be marginalized within their party. Drawing a contrast with the Radicals, they stressed their adherence to a more old-fashioned and conservative version of “classical” liberalism — individualistic liberty, limited government, and the sanctity of private property. Liberal Republicans thus distinguished themselves from the radicals by espousing a truncated notion of equality and individual rights. Many found an intellectual hero in Herbert Spencer, the original exponent of social Darwinism.
Liberal Republicans presented themselves as a reform movement concerned with political corruption, coming down hardest against the Reconstruction state governments in the South. Northeastern newspapers became the main forum for espousing complaints about taxes and debt, fueling an assumption that governments involving blacks and poor whites were inevitably corrupt. Northern liberals had generally not been receptive to the complaints of white Southern elites about Reconstruction when those complaints were clearly tied to Southerners’ ambitions to turn back the clock and restore the antebellum social order. But those complaints found a sympathetic ear when couched in a language about government spending, deficits, and beleaguered taxpayers.
For the first time, but certainly not the last, ruling-class ideology and racist dog whistles became deeply enmeshed in political debates about taxation and “big government.” Once the liberal wing of the Republican Party backed away from Reconstruction, it would open the door to white supremacist coups across the Southern states during the 1870s.
South Carolina provided the most tragic example of how calls for austerity rationalized the Republican Party’s retreat from Reconstruction and paved the way for Jim Crow. In May 1871, its ex-Confederate elite held a Tax-Payers’ Convention to denounce supposed instances of corruption, fraud, and waste in the state government, which then had a black majority in its state legislature. They complained that taxation on their landed property overburdened them with the costs of rebuilding infrastructure, constructing public schools, and supporting the needy. They did not use explicitly racist language but rather spoke as “concerned taxpayers,” inventing a political identity that continues to be invoked in the defense of ruling-class interests against multiracial, working-class democracy.
The South Carolina Tax-Payers’ Convention coincided with a major upheaval that sent shockwaves through the international ruling classes in the spring of 1871: the Paris Commune. As Heather Cox Richardson has shown, the specter of workers banding together to confiscate and redistribute property in Paris drew immediate, panic-stricken comparisons with South Carolina in newspapers across the country. Headlines sensationalized the gory details of violence and destruction in Paris while ominously warning that American cities would be next.
The movement of Liberal Republicans coalesced around the 1872 elections, with New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley heading the presidential ticket. They actively courted an alliance with Southern elites, dangling the promise of “home rule” and an end to Reconstruction.
Although Greeley and the Liberal Republicans ultimately failed in their efforts to unseat President Ulysses S. Grant in the election of 1872, the ideological shift to liberalism within the party was only a matter of time.
The financial panic of 1873, and the long economic depression that followed, exacerbated social inequality and intensified class conflict across the United States. Capitalists had accumulated massive fortunes and consolidated class power, initiating what Mark Twain satirized as the Gilded Age. Meanwhile, when police brutalized protesters in Tompkins Square Park as they demanded relief from unemployment, the New York Times cheered the “Defeat of the Communists.” The environment of escalating conflict frightened and galvanized the bourgeoisie, and the Republican Party was poised to become the primary vehicle for protecting their collective interests.
Although elite white Southerners led the charge, the rollback of Reconstruction was only possible because of the political-ideological turn in the Republican Party. Even before the Compromise of 1877 officially ended federal occupation, waning support for Reconstruction had enabled white supremacist coups in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, where hundreds were murdered in a ghastly campaign of political terror between 1873 and 1876.
The events of 1877 laid bare how the focus of state power had been redirected from the reconstruction of the South to the repression of a militant labor movement: as federal troops were withdrawn from Southern states, where they had been tasked with defending black votes and lives, they would be called on to violently repress the Great Railroad Strike that spread across America that summer, involving some one hundred thousand workers. The recently inaugurated Republican president, Rutherford B. Hayes, deployed three thousand federal troops under the direction of the War Department to crush the strikes from city to city, leaving more than a hundred workers dead.
The political tragedy of the 1870s has since been repeated countless times in American history. Like the liberals of yesteryear, neoliberals, when faced with the prospect of truly radical change, turn reactionary, parroting the phrases and ideas of the Right (often racially coded ones) about “fiscal discipline,” “taxpayer burden,” and “handouts.” As Senator Joe Manchin recently put it when explaining his opposition to the Build Back Better Act, “I cannot accept our economy, or basically our society, moving toward an entitlement mentality.”
Still, while history may repeat, it is not fate. In Karl Marx’s words, society is a constantly changing organism, not a solid crystal.
The best hope for vanquishing austerity politics and fulfilling an overdue reconstruction of American society is embodied, now as it was then, in popular social movements. After the Civil War, abolitionism, the labor movement, and women’s suffrage ultimately failed to coalesce into something like a nineteenth-century Rainbow Coalition, but they did open unprecedented possibilities for expanding the scope of democracy and economic equality. Today, while the Build Back Better Act will either pass as a cut-rate knockoff of its original form or go down in flames altogether, it remains imperative for social movements to expand the horizon of possibility beyond anything politicians can imagine.