Note: The following is an excerpt from Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book, “Death of a Nation: Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party,” which will be released July 31.
The central premise of my new book – that the plantation defines not merely the origin but the entire history of the Democratic Party – will seem at the first glance, and for those unfamiliar with my previous work, far-fetched or even crazy. The old Democratic plantation system, after all, was involuntary; it was based on forcibly confining slaves. Today, however, the Democrats don’t have anyone penned up in this way, and they certainly aren’t forcing anyone to work.
This objection, however, can be answered by recalling how the antebellum Democrats regarded the old plantation. Democratic Sen. James Chesnut regarded his slaves as having it so good on his South Carolina plantation that they cost more than the work they produced. Asked if he ever had runaways he quipped, “Never! It’s pretty hard work to keep me from running away from them.”
Chesnut’s wife, the spirited Mary Boykin Chesnut, wrote in her diary in 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, “Now if slavery Is as disagreeable to Negroes as we think it, why don’t they all march over the border where they would be received with open arms?” Her point is that the slaves who want to leave can leave; the white men are all at the front and there is no one except women and children to stop them.
Her deeper implication is that in reality many slaves prefer the security of the plantation to the shock and responsibilities of freedom. The plantation, she suggests, has become not merely a prison of the body but also a prison of the mind. It holds its population in debased psychological confinement even when there is the opportunity to get up and go.
I believe this is the insight that drives the modern Democratic Party. The Democrats realized, long after slavery was ended, that they could create new types of plantations that would so degrade and imprison the minds of their inhabitants that very few would want to leave.
Still, there are massive differences between the old slave plantation and the political life of today’s Democrats. The old plantation was rural; today’s Democrats are largely urban. Slavery was a Southern institution; today’s Democrats have their base in the North and on the coasts. The plantation was sustained through an ideology of states’ rights; today’s Democrats are the party of centralized government that opposes states’ rights.
The Little Magician
If we must draw on analogies from the past, today’s Democrats seem closer to Tammany Hall and the urban machines of the North rather than to the old rural slave plantation. Didn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt nationalize those urban machines to create the model of governance for the modern Democratic Party?
Yes, but the urban machines were themselves based on the slave plantation. Historians rightly credit Martin Van Buren, nicknamed the Little Magician for his political wizardry, as the man who invented the northern Democratic machine. Yet he was the ally and successor to Democratic Party founder and Tennessee slave-owner Andrew Jackson. Based on his observations of the rural plantation – and the similarities he noted between slaves in the south and newly-arriving impoverished immigrants in the north – Van Buren adapted the Democrats’ plantation model to urban conditions.
Thus he helped create new ethnic plantations based in the cities, populated by immigrants who were dependent and exploited by the Democratic Party in the north in somewhat the same manner as the slaves were by the Democrats in the south. These urban machines ripped off the taxpayer not only to enrich corrupt machine bosses but also to buy votes in exchange for promises of employment and basic provisions. In sum, the urban machines symbolized by New York’s Tammany Hall were themselves mini welfare states, precursors to the Leviathan welfare state Democrats would later establish in the 20th century.
As Van Buren’s wizardry suggests, this is a story of how the old slave plantation was creatively modified to create the modern progressive plantation. I’m not saying the Democrats are the same as they were two centuries ago; this is a story of change as well as of continuity. Democrats like Van Buren didn’t just extend the rural plantation model from the early 19th century to the present. Rather, they transformed it to changing conditions, in response to new demographic realities created by immigrant waves, and also in response to the singular catastrophe that left the old plantation model in ruins.
The old plantation was destroyed by the Civil War. Prior to that, the plantation was the model of Democratic governance and Democratic political domination. Democrats had concocted a whole ideology – the positive good school of slavery – to uphold and defend the plantation. This Democratic apologia for slavery as an institution to be cherished and expanded was radically different from the Founders’ shared understanding of slavery as a necessary evil that should be curbed until it could be eliminated.
The Founders hoped and expected slavery to disappear. In 1782 Jefferson wrote of “a change already perceptible. … The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust … the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation.” Nothing could be further from the vision of the Democratic Party whose most “moderate” faction saw slavery as a matter of moral indifference and an institution that should be continued indefinitely.
Interestingly the Democrats’ prime apologist for slavery, George Fitzhugh, was a self-proclaimed socialist who contrasted the happy inhabitants of the Democratic plantation with what he took to be the exploited laboring class of the capitalist, Republican Northern states. Fitzhugh’s arguments seem chillingly familiar because his beloved plantation still shapes the ideology of his 21st century Democratic successors.
So does the pro-slavery ideology of Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s supreme antagonist. Douglas was a Northern Democrat, and contrary to today’s conventional wisdom that views the plantation as a purely Southern creation, Democrats both in the North and the South protected it. Douglas and Fitzhugh were also full-blown Democratic white supremacists who railed against blacks in a manner unthinkable of the founders.
When Lincoln in his House Divided speech alleged a four-man conspiracy to nationalize slavery, he named just one Southern Democrat, Roger Taney of Maryland, and three Northern Democrats: Stephen Douglas of Illinois, former President Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, and the current president, James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. A few years earlier, Buchanan said that at a time when slavery was besieged throughout the country, slaveholders “have no other allies … except the Democracy of the North,” meaning the Northern Democratic Party.
“The great support of slavery in the South,” said Whig senator and later Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward, “has been its alliance with the Democratic Party of the North.” These are the same Northern Democrats that tried to thwart Lincoln during the war. Their goal was to force him to reconcile with the Confederacy and to restore slavery. Lincoln termed them the “fire in the rear,” more dangerous to the nation than even the Confederacy. Eventually, through Lincoln’s efforts, the ruin of the plantation in 1865 became also the ruin of the national Democratic Party.
So the Democrats had to reconstruct themselves after the war. This reconstruction – very different from the Reconstruction attempted by Republicans to integrate blacks into the economic and political life of the country – involved not an abandonment of the plantation but its reinvention, both in the North and in the South.
The new Big House
The Democratic urban machine, of course, outlasted the war and continued to hold immigrants in its iron clasp. But for the postbellum Democratic Party of the late 19th and early 20th century, sharecropping replaced slavery and segregation and racial terrorism enforced Democratic control in the South not just of blacks but also poor whites.
Progressive Democrats led by Woodrow Wilson then sought to rebuild a new type of plantation for the 20th century. They were quite familiar with the old plantation, being just a single generation removed from it. Contrary to many pundits who camouflage this fact, progressives are the ones who invented white nationalism and white supremacy in their modern and most virulent forms for the purpose of keeping poor whites in thrall to the Democratic Party. Progressives, in other words, were America’s original hate group, and their opponents, the conservative Republicans, were the original “black lives matter” movement.
The other signal contribution of progressivism was to introduce the idea of the centralized state as the Big House, with racial terrorism and eugenics as their macabre mechanisms for controlling the population of their new plantation and maintaining quality control for its labor. Through progressivism, Wilson inaugurated, one might say, the “birth of a nation” that departed radically from the American founding, one now represented by the ominous symbol of the night-riding Ku Klux Klan, serving as the domestic terrorist arm of the Democratic Party.
Yet it was not Wilson but his progressive successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in the 1930s and 1940s institutionalized progressivism in the operations of government and thus created the foundation for the modern Democratic Party. FDR began by replacing the Democratic urban machines with the labor union movement and local Democratic Party bosses with a national boss, namely himself. He introduced the idea of a national plantation – Tammany on the Potomac – with a progressive “brain trust” and progressive administrators as its overseers.
FDR and his team also gave the plantation a fascist facelift – deliberately introducing elements of Mussolini’s Italian fascism into the New Deal – while at the same time drawing on models of Nazi conformity, what the Nazis termed Gleichschaltung. (Hitler, for his part, created his own plantation drawing on schemes that he self-consciously lifted from the Democratic Party and from American progressives.) Some of the fascist elements first introduced by FDR, both in policy and in strategy, are also evident in today’s Democratic Party.
Moreover, as Democratic presidents did in the antebellum period, FDR relied on Northern Democrats to play the role they played before the Civil War, namely to ally with Southern Democrats to protect the infrastructure of racism that continued to sustain FDR’s national Democratic plantation. Thus while FDR didn’t share Hitler’s form of racism he was not above making a Faustian pact with the worst racists in America, blocking anti-lynching legislation and excluding blacks from New Deal programs, to get his progressive agenda passed. FDR and the Democrats’ shameful complicity with fascism and white supremacy are virtually ignored by progressive historians, and virtually no textbook even mentions them.
By the 1930s, we can see in FDR’s version of the plantation the familiar outlines that define the Democratic Party today. Today’s Democrats have the same attachment to the centralized state, the new Big House, and they display the same fascist streak when, for example, they use the instruments of the state against their political opponents. But we cannot stop with FDR; our story would be incomplete without showing how Lyndon Johnson again modified the plantation in the 1960s, and how Bill Clinton and Barack Obama further expanded it in recent decades.
Democrats and the KKK
LBJ was lifelong bigot who has somehow in progressive historiography been transformed into a convert to the cause of civil rights. From the recently-released JFK Files, we have good reason to suppose LBJ was once a Ku Klux Klan member. An internal FBI memo refers to “documented proof” that LBJ was in the Texas Klan during his early political career.
This is hardly surprising, and if true, he would join Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black as high-level Democrats who were also Klansmen. Yet we are asked to believe that this leopard magically changed his spots. Apparently a long list of other Democratic bigots, including West Virginia Klansman and Dixiecrat Robert Byrd who became Obama and Hillary’s mentor, the “conscience of the Senate,” were also converts to the cause of black equality and advancement.
Yet where are their conversion stories? One might expect that when someone undergoes a wrenching transformation from being a white supremacist to an enemy of white supremacy, they would have quite a story to tell. Whittaker Chambers certainly did, when he made the traumatic transformation from Communist to anti-Communist. Chambers records his intellectual volte face in his autobiographical magnum opus “Witness.” Yet there are no such Democratic conversion stories.
This is the dog that didn’t bark, the clue that tells us that people like LBJ and Robert Byrd never underwent any big transformation. There was no dark night of the soul, no road to Damascus. They merely transitioned from an earlier incarnation of the Democratic plantation to a newer one. LBJ, for instance, remained the priapic plantation boss he was when he started his career. His transformation was purely tactical; he pushed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act not so much to combat an upsurge of white racism but rather in response to the need for a new approach in the wake of rapidly-declining white racism.
White racism and white supremacy declined dramatically in the aftermath of World War II – Hitler did more to undermine it than even the civil rights movement which benefited from the discrediting of fascist doctrines of Nordic supremacy – and this meant LBJ could no longer count on a solid South of white racist Democrats. There were quite simply fewer and fewer of them.
Attracted by the message of free markets, anticommunism, patriotism and upward mobility, nonracist whites in the South had started to move rapidly toward the Republican Party. The Democrats were losing their base of white racist voters and LBJ saw that this represented perhaps the greatest catastrophe for the Democratic Party since the Civil War shut down the old Democratic plantation. Something drastic needed to be done.
LBJ’s – and Obama’s – new plantation
If the Democrats intended to retain their majority, LBJ saw they needed to get more black votes. This was quite a change for a Democratic Party whose history was largely based on exploiting black labor and suppressing the black vote. But LBJ saw the opportunity to create a new type of plantation in which blacks could be exploited in a different way. On this plantation they had a different casting role, not as exploited workers who did not vote but rather as exploited voters who did not work. In other words, LBJ recognized the importance of turning blacks into a constituency which Democrats had never before done in their party’s history.
The landmark immigration law of the mid-1960s, which opened the door to 25 million new immigrants mostly from Asia, Africa and South America, created the foundation for the Obama Plantation, one that encompasses not only blacks but also Latinos and other minorities. Today’s Democratic plantation has come a long way from its roots in the rural antebellum South. It’s much bigger now and includes African-Americans, Hispanics, native Americans and to some extent even Asian-Americans. Today’s Democratic plantation is grimly visible in the urban black ghettos, the Latino barrios, the native American reservations.
Obama presided over the Democrats’ move toward a multicultural plantation, complete with a sustaining ideology of identity politics that reconciles each ethnic group to its political captivity, seeking to create the modern equivalent of the contented slave. Of course today’s enslaved, while free in principle to leave the plantation, in practice rarely do so. This can be explained through psychologist Martin Seligman’s concept of “learned helplessness.” The Democrats have created learned helplessness among their captive constituencies, and this keeps them bound by invisible cords to the plantation lifestyle.
There is one important difference between the old Democratic plantation and the new one. The old one was based on forced black labor; the new one is based on the dependent black, Latino or native American voter. This voter ideally does not work but rather lives off welfare and government provision, which become of course his motives to sustain the providing party in power. Democrats use coalitions of dependent ethnic minorities in order to generate an electoral majority, thus placing progressive Democrats in charge of the Big House. From there they loot the national treasury in the same shameless fashion that the old Tammany bosses looted city hall.
Progressive Democrats benefit themselves and live high on the hog – just like the Clintons and Obamas who went from nothing to multimillionaires, from minor overseers to plantation big bosses – all the while declaring their motives as the tireless pursuit of social justice. These Democrats proclaim themselves the benevolent supervision of needy, impoverished minorities whom in fact they keep needy and impoverished. These minorities, deprived of the skills for education and advancement, rely on the Democrats to provide for them, thus keeping themselves in dependent subordination and keeping the progressives in power.
Yet despite this difference, the new plantation bears a striking resemblance to its ancient predecessor. In his classic work “The Peculiar Institution,” historian Kenneth Stampp identified the five distinctive features of the old slave plantation: dilapidated housing, which the slave-owners termed slave quarters; broken families, the product of slave rules that abolished the institution of marriage and permitted the sale of family members at the master’s whim; a high degree of violence to police the plantation, necessary of course because slavery was based on captive labor; no opportunity for decent education or advancement, notwithstanding the Democrats’ insistence on slavery as a “school of civilization”; and finally the plantation’s emotional characteristics of hopelessness, despair and nihilism.
We can verify the existence of Democratic plantations today by finding these exact five features in inner-city Oakland or Detroit; in the Latino barrios of California and south Texas; and on native American reservations like the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Other features of the plantation – a leisure class of people who devoted themselves to leisure, gambling and duels provoked by petty slights – can also be found in today’s ghettos and barrios. In this respect the inhabitants of these places resemble not so much the old slaves as the old slave-owners.
This article is excerpted from Dinesh D’Souza’s new book “Death of a Nation,” out July 31 from St. Martin’s Press. His movie of the same title will be out nationwide Aug. 3.