Seven ways Republicans adopt slavery rhetoric

Joe Biden slipped in his "chains" claim, but the GOP routinely uses the theme of slavery to scare its white base

By Adele M. Stan
Published August 20, 2012 4:52PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The Republican indignation machine is in high gear, this time over remarks made by Vice-President Joe Biden at a campaign stop in Virginia on August 14, for racial overtones in his comments about Republican financial policies. Laughably hypocritical, the Republican response gushes forth in the wake of eight months of race-baiting by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his surrogates, several of whom favor analogies to slavery in their critiques of President Barack Obama.


Since the beginning of the Republican presidential primary, GOP candidates have played the race card, and Romney is no exception, even if his button-pushing is a bit more clever that of his competitors. Who can forget former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum telling Iowans that he didn't want to make 'blah' people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money? Or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich referring to Obama as the "food stamp president"? Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is currently airing a television ad that's an outright lie, but one useful to Romney, because it dishonestly links the black president to a trope about work requirements and welfare.

Now, Joe Biden is not exactly the smoothest white man on the planet when it comes to matters of race. One can make the case that he engaged in a bit of rhetorical race-pandering when speaking to an audience that, according to the Associated Press, included "hundreds of black people," Biden said the Republicans, by fighting regulation of the financial industry, were looking to "unchain Wall Street." Then he added: "They're going to put y'all back in chains."

Biden's opposition received those comments as a gift. Faced with the difficulty of defending his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns and a draconian Medicare reduction plan by running mate Paul Ryan, Romney and company used Biden's comment as a springboard for even more pandering to their fearful, whites-only base. It's what psychologists call "projection": accusing the object of one's resentment with one's own character traits. Ryan accused the vice-president of trying to "stoke the emotions of fear and envy." Sen. John McCain, given his prowess at selecting vice-presidential candidates, helpfully suggested that Obama dump Biden from the ticket. And Romney described President Barack Obama as a hateful, angry person who seeks to "smash America apart."

When Touré, co-host of MSNBC's "The Cycle," noted the racial subtext of Romney's comments, the right-wing blogopshere predictably went nuts.

What seemed to set Republican critics' teeth on edge about Biden's remarks was the implication of slavery in his reference to "chains." But the theme of slavery is a particularly potent one for the Republican right, where it's framed within the old Southern fear that blacks would seek retribution against whites for their centuries of bondage. That's why it's so important to Romney, and the right at large, that he paint Obama as the stereotypical "angry black man," as he did in the wake of Biden's comments.

When right-wing politicians peddle the concept of nearly every Obama proposal as a form of slavery, it all fits quite nicely, as well, with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan's guiding light. Rand famously answered all calls to shared sacrifice this way: "The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."

Here are seven examples of how Republican politicians -- including four of this year's former presidential candidates -- regularly incorporate the language of slavery in their everyday rhetoric.

1. Paul Ryan: An embryo is just like an enslaved human being. In 2010, the Wisconsin congressman and vice-presidential candidate wrote an essay for the Heritage Foundation in which he equated Roe v. Wade, the 20th-century Supreme Court decision that legalized abortIon, to the court's shameful 19th-century decision in the Dred Scott case. By the logic Ryan lays out, it seems to suggest it would have been okay for the court to have left to the states the "problem" of how to deal with runaway slaves. From the February 2010 issue of the Heritage Foundation journal, Indivisible:

Twice in the past the U.S. Supreme Court -- charged with being the guardian of rights -- has failed so drastically in making this crucial determination that it "disqualified" a whole category of human beings, with profoundly tragic results.

The first time was in the 1857 case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court held, absurdly, that Africans and their American descendants, whether slave or free, could not be citizens with a right to go to court to enforce contracts or rights or for any other reason. Why? Because "among the whole human race," the Court declared, "the enslaved African race were not intended to be included…[T]hey had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."

The second time the Court failed in a case regarding the definition of "human" was in Roe v. Wade in 1973, when the Supreme Court made virtually the identical mistake. At what point in time does a human being exist, the state of Texas asked. The Court refused to answer...

Since the Court decided there was no "consensus" on when fetuses become human persons, it struck down abortion restrictions in all 50 states that thought they had reached a "consensus." ... The Court did not say that, given the lack of consensus, the matter ought to be left to the states. It did not choose to err on the side of caution, since human lives might be at stake. Nor did it choose not to rule on the matter. These options would seem to be rational courses in light of the Court’s stated agnosticism...

2. Allen West: Obama wants to enslave everybody. The Florida congressman, facing a tough race in a newly redrawn district is throwing down on the language of bondage. During a July rally in Port St. Lucie, West said, according to a report from WPTV:

[Obama] does not want you to have the self-esteem of getting up and earning and having that title of American. He'd rather you be his slave.

3. Rand Paul: Healthcare reform supporters are slavery promoters. This statement from Kentucky's junior senator, who will have a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention this month, caught the eye of Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm in May 2011:

"With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me," Paul said recently in a Senate subcommittee hearing.

"It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses," Paul said, adding that there is "an implied use of force."

4. Michele Bachmann: Healthcare reform and the national debt are forms of slavery. Last year, ThinkProgress noted these

two examples of slavery rhetoric, served up by the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, who was then running for the GOP presidential nomination:

– Health Reform: In a 2009 speech in Colorado, Bachmann railed against healthcare reform. "What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass." Claiming that many Americans already pay half their income to taxes, she said, "This is slavery…It’s nothing more than slavery."

– National Debt: In January, Bachmann offered her now infamous take on American colonial history in which she declared that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Bachmann then framed her speech as an argument against the "slavery" of the national debt. "It is a slavery, it is a slavery that is a bondage to debt and a bondage to decline," she said. "It is a subservience of a sovereign people to a failed, self-selected elite."

5. Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann: Slavery was good for the black family. In the heat of the Republican presidential primary season, both Bachmann and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum signed a pledge crafted by the FAMiLY Leader, a religious-right Iowa group, that contained this statement:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American president.

A subsequent uproar prompted the group to remove the offensive slavery statement from the pledge, which was primarily an anti-porn vow, with a lot of gay-bashing thrown in.

Responding to reporters' questions, Bachmann spokesperson Alice Stewart issued this statement, which didn't exactly make things better:

In no uncertain terms, Congresswoman Bachmann believe[s] that slavery was horrible and economic enslavement is also horrible.

As Mother Jones' Tim Murphy wrote: "'Economic slavery' sounds like it could be a pretty horrible thing, but given that she's probably talking about capital gains taxes, it seems a bit far-fetched."

6. Herman Cain: U.S. tax code = slavery. In November, the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart offered a partial transcript of a Herman Cain For President ad, in which the former Godfather's Pizza CEO and Americans for Prosperity contractor touted his "9-9-9" tax plan:

Our tax code is the 21st-century version of slavery. The IRS has become the overseer of the American people.

In a Herman Cain administration, April 15th will no longer be a day to be dreaded. My 9-9-9 economic growth and jobs plan is a major step towards tearing the chains off the backs of the American people...

We'll all be able to say, 'Free at last! Free at last!'.....

7. Rick Perry: The government is Pharaoh, and citizens, the slaves. In the spring of 2011, while the Texas governor was pondering a run for the presidency, he gave an interview to right-wing preacher James Robison. As reported by Mother Jones:

"I think we're going through those difficult economic times for a purpose, to bring us back to those Biblical principles of ... not spending all of our money, not asking for Pharaoh to give everything to everybody and to take care of folks, because at the end of the day, it's slavery. And we become slaves to government."

* * *

I'd call for a moratorium on all the slavery metaphors, from all quarters, but what's the point? It's campaign season -- for a presidential campaign that, for all of the critical decisions facing the nation, will ultimately turn on questions of cultural identity, because Republicans want it that way. After all, what have they got? Medicare voucher, anyone?

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. Follow her on Twitter:

Adele M. Stan

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent.

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