Posts tagged E. J. Dionne

Aspirational History and the Color of American Citizenship

There’s a new political book out by E.J. Dionne, Norm Orenstein and Thomas E. Mann, called One Nation After Trump. Dionne and Orenstein went on Fresh Air the other day to talk about their book, their take and their hopes for a better political climate. Terry Gross asked them to speak a bit about one of the themes of their book — that part of what’s notable and different about Donald Trump and the political movement behind him, as opposed to past waves of right-wing politics, is the extent to which they have embraced ideas from the European far right.

That much is certainly true, and it’s worth noting. But what’s harder to go along with is Dionne’s effort to pivot from the influence of the European far right, into a countervailing political appeal to American patriotism. Here’s what Dionne says:

DIONNE: The idea that Bannon and Trump have imported ideas from the European far-right comes from the notion that there’s been a great historical difference between what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be a citizen in many European countries. . . . American citizenship has always been based on a commitment to ideas. It didn’t matter where you were from. It didn’t matter what the color of your skin was . . . .

–E.J. Dionne, interviewed by Terry Gross. Could The Trump Presidency Lead To An Era Of Democratic Renewal?
Fresh Air, NPR, 19 September 2017

This is just wrong. It would have been nice, and better for America and the entire world, if it had been true, but it’s flat-footedly and literally mistaken. In 1790, when Congress passed the first Naturalization Act in the U.S., the language of that act directly stated that it mattered what the color of your skin was: you had to be a free white person to qualify for naturalized American citizenship:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the states wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the constitution of the United States, which oath or affirmation such court shall administer; . . .

— An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization (March 26, 1790)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 103ff. (Source: White By Law: Naturalization Act of 1790)

Whiteness was a condition not only for naturalization, but for both the rights and obligations of citizenship more broadly, at the federal level and at the state level. Skin color prerequisites, nearly identical to the federal prerequisite, were written even more pervasively into the state constitutions and legal codes of antebellum Southern states. For example, in Alabama, the same formulas made white skin color was an explicit prerequisite for the franchise and for political office. At the federal level, to take another example, in 1792 Congress said that the color of your skin (as well as your gender and citizenship) mattered to your eligibility, and obligation, to serve in the militia:

Section 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective states, resident therein, who is or shall be of the age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia by the captain or commanding officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this act.

— An Act more effectually to provide for the National Defence by establishing an Uniform Militia throughout the United States (May 8, 1792)
United States Statutes at Large, First Congress, Second Session, 271-274. (Source: White By Law: Uniform Militia Act of 1792)

Every amendment to the Naturalization Act passed from 1790 up until 1952 repeated the free white person formula, or a close variation on it. In 1870, in the wake of Emancipation and Reconstruction, there was a debate in the Senate over whether to remove the racial prerequisite from citizenship; but in the end the Reconstruction drive to wipe out the racial-law legacy of slavery ran up against the rising nativist sentiment against Chinese immigration in the West. And in the event, the bill that they passed never struck out the racial prerequisite; it just added aliens of African nativity and … persons of African descent as a second racial category that could be admitted. For the next 80 years, a series of prerequisite cases in the federal courts — beginning with In Re Ah Yup — repeatedly affirmed that skin color absolutely mattered to a person’s eligibility for American citizenship, and then litigated over and over again the sometimes porous legal and social boundaries of just who counted as white. (For example, Chinese and Japanese immigrants did not; Mexican immigrants did. For many immigrant groups, including Arabs and South Asians, different courts made numerous, sometimes inconsistent rulings. A good, standard reference on this series of cases is Ian F. Haney-Lopez’s White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race.) Gradually Congress added more racial groups in addition to white and black, but this basic framework — of a limited number of racial categories allowed to become naturalized citizens, and everyone else ruled ineligible to citizenship — remained the core of American naturalization law until racial bars were finally repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952.

There is no question that for the first century and a half of its existence, the United States government was explicitly a racial state, and that race and skin color were explicit conditions on citizenship and political participation. This shouldn’t be surprising: before the Civil War, the United States was a slaveholding nation. After the Civil War, immigration exclusion and Jim Crow increasingly reinscribed systems of racial categorization into the law.

I hope it should go without saying that this is not any kind of argument in favor of race or skin color as a condition of citizenship. The fact that the United States had a long tradition of racially discriminatory citizenship laws isn’t any reason to think kindly of the traditional, white supremacist approach. It’s a reason to think worse of the United States government, and to be much more skeptical of traditional American patriotism. Whatever deeper values Dionne may think were present in the American system, at some other level, and however much he may think that the old racial prerequisite law was an aberration or an inconsistency, there is no way that you can reasonably pretend that It didn’t matter what the color of your skin was without substituting a sort of aspirational self-identity for the much messier historical fact.

The only Good Government is No Government

To-day at The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty:

Guest Column | by Charles Johnson

Is the Problem Really Too Little Trust in Government?

Posted August 23, 2010

There is one point where I can unequivocally agree with E.J. Dionne’s column “Can We Reverse the Tide on Government Distrust” (Washington Post, May 6, 2010) – when he tells us that So far, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity to demonstrate … how it is changing the way government works. How is its approach to … regulations different from what was done before? … How are its priorities different?

How indeed?

Two years in, if there’s any noticeable difference between Bush’s policies of corporate privilege, endless warfare, bailouts, executive power, and bureaucratic expansion, and Obama’s policies of corporate privilege, endless warfare, bailouts, executive power, and bureaucratic expansion, I’d like to know where to find it. The difference between me and E.J. Dionne is that Dionne is apparently surprised by this outcome — why hasn’t Obama done better? At issue is what used to be called Good Government – the problem of ensuring that a centralized managerial State, with expansive powers to intervene in all matters economic, social, or hygienic, will be run cleanly, and competently, by qualified experts. Dionne insists that financial market meltdowns, oil spills, and coal-mine disasters reveal the catastrophic results of a few years of Bush-era government neglect. Those of us who remember the Bush administration may have a hard time accepting the claim that it was an era in which government was not doing enough; and we see these headline-grabbing catastrophes as only the tail end of a decades-long crisis – a bipartisan, politically created crisis of institutional incentives and industry best practice-ism, created, nurtured, and protected by government itself.

. . .

Dionne may present his article as a commentary on recent news, but the headlines are only carelessly chosen illustrations for a message that seems copied out of a children’s civics textbook circa 1948. Elected government’s task is to stand up for the many against the few, to make sure that corporations are properly supervised, and to protect those with weaker bargaining positions … against the harm that those in stronger bargaining positions might inflict. Our problem is simply that we do not trust the political means enough. According to Dionne, if we are ever to solve these politically created crises, we need to know that government in a free society is not a distant force but, rather, something that all of us influence and shape.

To be sure, government is not very distant from the downtown offices of the Washington Post.[1] For the rest of us, though, access is somewhat more limited, and not “all of us” have the same influence in shaping government policy. That is done by political insiders and economic incumbents: As scholars like Gabriel Kolko and Butler Shafer have repeatedly shown, government regulatory bodies from the FTC to the MSHA to the SEC have consistently been captured by the incumbents in the industries they are supposed to regulate, systematically rigging government regulations in such a way as to build up cartels, exclude competition, and protect businessmen from liability for harmful practices.

Even with the record of regulatory capture and industry-driven policy, Dionne, like many Progressives, simply insists that politicians need even more trust and fewer restraints on action to give them the independence to do the right thing. You might call this kind of Progressivism a theory of trickle-down politics: When government devotes the overwhelming majority of its power and resources to foolish or destructive programs directed by concentrated interests – subsidies, bailouts, anticompetitive regulations, or an ever-growing military-industrial “National Security” complex – the proposed solution is to give that same government even more strength and greater resources to dispose of, on the hope that some of the surplus will eventually make it through the net of insider control to reach programs that offer a pittance to the little guy.

Individualists know that when you reward the institutions that created crisis, you are going to get more crises. Greater regulatory powers will only make government more attractive to industry incumbents; the more politics is involved in industry, the more that political pull pays off for the industrialists. The root causes of the crises we’ve faced in recent years are not problems of competence or corruption. They are problems of cartelization and capture. The solution is not more trust in government; it’s to realize there are things the political means just cannot accomplish, which should instead be addressed through decentralized, peaceful social cooperation. . . .

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman Online (23 August 2010): Is the Problem Really Too Little Trust in Government?

The article also includes some brief recapitulations of the Money Monopoly, the Land and Natural Resource monopolies, and the recent history of BP, Massey Energy, and the MSHA. You can read the whole thing at The Freeman Online to-day.

Thanks to Sheldon Richman, again, for making this possible, and for his invaluable aid as an editor. My only complaint is that I think The Freeman really should have chosen a better author photo for me than the one they have at the top of the story. In that one the camera adds about 20 years, and a lot of corporate liberalism.

  1. [1][Less than a mile from the Executive Branch! Check it out on Google Maps! –R.G.]