Virginia Tech® home

A Reflection on Equality, Justice and U.S. Governance



Authors as Published

Our remit here at the Institute is wide as, in its charter, the University charged us with the challenge of examining United States policy-making and governance broadly understood. This has prompted us to be interested in America’s domestic and international policies and actions and has compelled us to inquire into the well-springs of those choices. As we have done so, I have become ever more convinced that governance decisions at all scales in the United States are rooted in the complexities of America’s historical evolution as a people, in its innate social heterogeneity and in the too rarely articulated demands made by democratic self-governance on human behavior. I have concluded that one must pay attention to the character and contours of these factors and how they shape our country’s collective policy and governance choices to follow our nation’s policy-making. Indeed, these underlying generative forces illustrate that policies are rarely, if ever, simply technical matters, our current neoliberal pretense to the contrary notwithstanding.

For example, in the face of overwhelming empirical and technical evidence that many states and localities—including Virginia and its seaside communities—now confront daily, President Donald Trump and the GOP have chosen to deny climate change.  Likewise, the administration and Republican Party’s decision to attack the human and civil rights of immigrants, refugees and would-be asylees as well as its willingness to do the same regarding the voting rights of minorities and assistance to the poor, suggests that the existing formal policies designed to ensure such rights are simply that, and that they may be changed or undermined by the determined efforts of officials in power.

I have been reflecting on these realities as I have sought to understand why these specific GOP and Trump stances, among others, have gained traction with a portion of the voting public. My October 2019 Tidings commentary addressed the exploration by the Institute’s Community Change Collaborative of what one scholar has labeled the “Deep Story” as a critical element in understanding why patently discriminatory, unjust and anti-egalitarian policies have lately gained credibility with a portion of the American public.[1]  In that essay, I noted that a share of our citizens’ view of the world today is now fueled by a mixture of fear and anger brought on by the swift pace of economic and social change. In support of that argument, I cited a national study by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University, that found that many rural inhabitants particularly, had adopted a narrative, predicated on that rage and anxiety, that the national government, understood narrowly as the Democratic Party, had allowed certain minority groups special advantages and those populations were undermining those residents’ way of life.[2]

This argument closely tracked the findings of another recent longitudinal analysis of a Louisiana community by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild that found that citizens there believed that a “natural hierarchy” in their communities had been disrupted in recent decades by government action and along with it, their way of life and of knowing the world. This population, too, was persuaded that its economic and perceived social dislocation had occurred as a result of their national government unaccountably assisting undeserving individuals:

Along with blacks and immigrants, women were also ‘line cutters,’ although in men’s minds, women tended to divide into separate mental categories, daughters, … wives or partners, … and potential rivals at work. … So, race, class, national identity, religion, region, views of gender and sexual orientation¾all these joined to reinforce a sense that outside of Louisiana, too, a precious way of life, like the nation itself, was being left behind.[3]

This argument also suggests why some voters can be persuaded to loathe their most precious gift, their sovereignty, and permit its usurpation by a minority of powerful elites who promise to assuage their fears by scapegoating minority groups. While I find these analyses compelling, they constitute only a part of the puzzle, albeit an important portion, of why the GOP today and many of its supporters are willing to abridge or deny the rights of other residents on the basis of their skin color, religion or economic status. I have lately been reading historians whose work deepens and further contextualizes Wuthnow and Hochschild’s efforts by suggesting that the current GOP-led assault on minorities’ voting rights and its support of misplaced moral hierarchies can be understood to be anchored in a deeper struggle for democracy and equality against the claims of racism and injustice throughout American history.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning Columbia University historian Eric Foner is often described as this nation’s most insightful interpreter of the Reconstruction era in American politics, a period usually marked as occurring between 1865-1877. He recently published a new volume on the import of political and Constitutional developments during those years that makes clear that the present Republican Party’s decision to use race, racism and demagoguery as cudgels to polarize, demean and divide citizens to sustain its political power are not new. In fact, they have a long provenance in the struggle to define how the nation should view itself:  

But even if we are unaware of it, Reconstruction remains part of our lives, or to put it another way, key issues confronting American society today are in some ways Reconstruction questions. Who is entitled to citizenship? Who should enjoy the right to vote? Should the laws protect the rights of aliens as well as citizens? [4]

All of these questions are central to current Trump administration and GOP politics, with the President attacking citizenship as a birthright for targeted groups and with state legislatures controlled by his party purging minorities from voting lists and seeking to make it more difficult for such individuals to vote via identification requirements.[5] These concerns also appear in the administration’s ongoing attacks on the civil and human rights of minorities more generally, especially of asylees and refugees. Finally, Trump and his GOP have embraced individuals’ rights to discriminate against others, particularly gay and transgender individuals, based on personal religious beliefs, rather than overt state action. That is, the administration has sought not only to sanction, but also to encourage intolerant practices resting on a posited inequality among individuals based on the self-declared superior righteousness of one or another politically favored group’s view of human difference.[6]

Analogously, during Reconstruction those who opposed former slaves obtaining full citizenship rights argued that slavery had been a benign paternalistic institution and that freed individuals had corrupted politics when they were allowed to become involved in it. As Foner has put this point:

This portrait of Reconstruction became part of the Lost Cause ideology that permeated southern culture in the first part of the twentieth century and was reflected in the proliferation of Confederate monuments that still dot the southern landscape and have lately become a source of strident debate.[7]

Many so-called conservatives and Republicans have embraced this ideology, which was and remains a grotesque and baseless justification of an indefensible practice. While some Party leaders, including President Trump and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, have supported variations of these claims concerning the “proper place” of non-white individuals and the character of slavery respectively, their manifestation in today’s GOP is most often revealed in a paradoxical view of minorities as simultaneously “threats” and “less than,” as in the Deep Story narrative.[8] At least since the late 1960s, the Republican Party has systematically depicted individuals who suffer poverty as minority schemers and ne’er-do-wells whose receipt of public support represents a waste of government funds. When applied to immigrants and refugees, this narrative suggests these individuals are threats because they cleverly gain unmerited support while “stealing Real Americans’” jobs.

This combined narrative mythologizes a virulently racist period in American history on the basis of false contentions. It also suggests that certain groups are in principle less-than others, and therefore unworthy of rights and dignification. It follows for people who choose to believe this argument that these “less-than others” can be blamed for whatever concerns those citizens may have. These premises capture two central planks of today’s GOP political strategy. In addition, however, current Republicans have coupled this story with an ongoing attempt to redistribute income upward within society to a relatively small group, who, echoing racist whites during Reconstruction, believe themselves the only class worthy to govern.

As Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson has recently argued in terms consonant both with Foner’s analysis of the enduring import of Reconstruction and the “Deep Story” outlined above:

Former Confederates loathed the idea of black men voting almost as much as they hated the idea of equal rights. They insisted that such programs were simply a redistribution of wealth from hardworking white people to blacks who wanted a handout, since they would cost tax dollars and white people were the only ones with property in the Reconstruction South. This idea that it was dangerous for working men to participate in government caught on in the North as immigrants moved into growing cities to work in the burgeoning factories. Like their counterparts in the South, they voted for roads and schools, and men of wealth insisted these programs meant a redistribution of wealth through tax dollars. They got more concerned still when a majority of Americans began to call for regulation to keep businessmen from gouging consumers, polluting the environment, and poisoning the food supply (the reason you needed to worry about strangers and candy in this era was that candy was often painted with lead paint). Any attempt to regulate business would impinge on a man's liberty, wealthy men argued, and would cost tax dollars and thus was a redistribution of wealth.[9]

Richardson concluded, “The powerful formula linking racism to the idea of an active government and arguing that a government that promotes infrastructure, provides a basic social safety net and regulates business is socialism has shaped American history since Reconstruction.”[10]

In sum, the modern Republican Party has endorsed and sought systematically to appeal to fear and racism to mobilize voters to ensure de facto rule by a few individuals rather than the democratic majority. The GOP has aggressively supported the argument that targeted groups may appropriately be blamed for social and economic changes that trouble affected citizens and it has extended that scapegoating claim to the concept of self-governance as well. That is, the Party has embraced a bankrupt and thoroughly discredited version of American history and the racism that attended it, even as it has persistently told citizens that government, in concert with minorities, is responsible for their perceived woes. It has employed this anti-democratic agenda to undermine popular support for governance and to offer a limited group in society—akin to the South’s resistant white landowners during Reconstruction who concocted the myth of the Lost Cause—nearly unfettered capacity to do as they wish irrespective of any public accountability or consequences for their actions.

            The United States today faces a democratic crisis of deep proportions. The question confronting our citizenry is whether the Republican Party will succeed in remaining in power by deploying the mythology of those who opposed Reconstruction to deepen injustice and inequality by systematically denying civil and human rights to groups in a society nominally dedicated to their furtherance. The Party has similarly scapegoated governance rather than act in reasoned ways to address the nation’s challenges, so as to empower a small group to secure additional wealth, irrespective of the social, environmental and democratic costs entailed in their doing so. If the current course is sanctioned by the 2020 national election, the U.S. will no longer be able to declare democracy, justice or equality as central animating principles, as these will have been displaced successfully by the quest among a few individuals, who have employed a mobilization strategy, rooted in our nation’s tortured racial history, to use human difference and fear to undermine equality and justice to pursue their privatized ends. The Institute will continue to follow and document these trends as all who are charged with responsibilities to American democratic governance and freedom must.


[1] Stephenson, Max Jr., “The Enduring Power and Danger of the ‘Deep Story,’” Tidings, October 7, 2019, , Accessed January 4, 2020.

[2] Wuthnow, Robert. The Left Behind: Decline and rage in rural America. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

[3] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their own land. New York: The New Press, 2018, pp. 258-259.

[4] Foner, Eric. The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019, p xxi.

[5] Truax, Chris. “There are a few (dozen?) glitches in that Donald Trump plan to end birthright citizenship,” USA Today, August 27, 2019, Accessed January 4, 2020; Hakin, Danny and Michael Wines, “‘They don’t really want us to vote:’ How Republicans Made it Harder,

 The New York Times, November 3, 2018,, Accessed January 3, 2020.

[6] The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, “Trump Administration Civil and Human Rights Rollbacks,”, December 2019, Accessed January 4, 2020; Holden, Dominic, “Trump’s Latest proposal Would Let Businesses Discriminate Based on LGBTQ Status, Race, Religion and More,” Buzz Feed, August 14, 2019,, Accessed January 2, 2020.

[7] Foner, The Second Founding, p. xxii.

[8] Davis, Julie Hirschfield, “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant,” The New York Times, May 16, 2018,, Accessed January 5, 2020; Kilgore, Ed, “Rand Paul and His Confederate Friends,” Washington Monthly, July 16, 2013,, Accessed January 5, 2020.  

[9] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, November 9, 2019,  Accessed December 7, 2019.

[10] Richardson, Heather Cox. Letters from an American, November 9, 2019.

Publication Date

January 21, 2020