The Bourbon Democrats rise again?

April 20, 2012

The parallels between today’s conservative-dominated Republican Party and southern “Bourbon” Democrats in the post-Civil War era are striking and ominous.

The Bourbons — as conservative Democrats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known — were prosperous property owners in the South who set out to end Reconstruction and bring back the good old days of domination by upper-class whites. The Post’s Charles Lane alluded to them in his April 17 column, “A ‘white man’s party’?

Historian Harvey H. Jackson III captured the objectives of the Bourbons in a 2004 article:

“Among their many goals was to keep Bourbon money in Bourbon pockets. They limited the state’s taxing power, abolished boards and offices (including the board of education), allowed the state debt to be settled in ways not fully understood today, and prohibited state support for projects such as river improvement and railroad construction.” Any of that sound familiar?

Continuing: “The Bourbon [Democratic-written] constitution of 1875 was a victory for prosperous . . . Alabamians who did not want to pay taxes to improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves and who did not want to finance commercial development that did not benefit them directly.” What contemporary political party comes to mind?

The Encyclopedia of Alabama, developed by the Alabama Humanities Foundation and Auburn University, puts it that “low taxes (particularly on property), weak government, and white supremacy — the core concerns of the Bourbons — became of the law of the land.”

The term Bourbon was most likely associated with the reactionary Bourbon Dynasty of France that attempted to undo the effects of the French Revolution. “In Alabama and the South,” the encyclopedia says, “Bourbon Democrats worked to undo what was done by the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

Conservative Republicans undoubtedly will take umbrage at any suggestion they belong in the same camp as post-Civil War conservative Democrats who proudly favored white supremacy and life before Appomattox.

So, let’s see. Are today’s conservatives big champions of states’ rights, a smaller and weaker federal government, less taxes, and more individual liberty? Yes, they will agree. But those goals, they would insist, are not racial in nature; they reflect a philosophy and set of values.

Yet even House Republican leader Eric Cantor acknowledges the existence of a “darker side” in this country. Asked this week by Politico’s Mike Allen if he has felt anti-Semitism from his GOP colleagues, Cantor, the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, first said no.

Then Cantor said, “I think that all of us know that in this country, we’ve not always gotten it right in terms of racial matters, religious matters, whatever. . . . To sit here and say in America that we’ve got it all right now, I think that pretty much all of us can say we’ve still got work to do.”

Indeed.

What’s more, the net effect of goals espoused by today’s conservatives is to achieve some of the outcomes sought by Bourbon Democrats. President Obama described their philosophy in a speech last month:

“If you’re out of work, can’t find a job, tough luck; you’re on your own. If you don’t have health care, that’s your problem; you’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up out of your own — with your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots; you’re on your own,” he told a crowd in Burlington, Vt. “They believe . . . that’s how America has advanced. That’s the cramped, narrow conception they have of liberty.”

Conservatives today, of course, reject that characterization.

But conservative Democrats of the late 19th and early 20th century and today’s Republican conservatives would probably agree that:

l America is better off when the federal government leaves people to fend for themselves;

l Markets that are free from government regulation and taxes will produce prosperity;

l There are rungs on the ladder of opportunity, but many at the bottom are too lazy to climb;

l The wealthy, to whom much has been given, have no stake in anybody else’s success;

l A business’s obligation is to those who own it;

l We will not as a people go up or down together; in the end, each is on his or her own.

Yes, there are differences between the United States at the turn of the 20th century and today. But there are similarities too.

Protecting the interests of the propertied and the politically powerful may be a legacy handed down from yesterday’s conservative Bourbon Democrats to today’s conservative Republicans.

kingc@washpost.com

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