Right-wingers have an odd penchant for comparing anything they don’t like to slavery

Sarah Palin

Some Republicans have a hard time dealing with the issue of slavery. In many cases, it’s just a matter of mistaken history.

For example, I saw something the other day about how it was the Republicans who ended slavery while the Democrats favored its preservation. That’s true, but it ignores the fact that the Republican and Democratic parties long ago traded places on issues of states’ rights and matters related to race. That’s why segregationist Democrats like Strom Thurmond switched to the Republican Party. It’s also why the GOP is now dominant in the Old Confederacy, while Democrats prevail in areas with the heaviest concentrations of minorities.

Jamelle Bouie SEES ANOTHER MANIFESTATION of right-wing nonsense about slavery:

Chattel slavery stands apart in American history. It was unlike anything else in the Antebellum world: a comprehensive system that touched every life, from slave owners and overseers to notaries and store-owners. It was incredibly lucrative, laying the foundation for American commercial success and driving economic growth throughout the Union, from manufacturers in the North to millionaires in the South. (Prior to the Civil War, Natchez, Mississippi, had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country.) It was also brutal, an institution that sanctioned terrible, existential violence against black families, that tore children from their parents and sold them for a profit.

Slavery was so terrible, in fact, that people who lack perspective are tempted to use it as a shorthand for anything they don’t like. Hence, Sarah Palin, in a speech this past weekend, compared the federal debt to, yup, slavery:

“Our free stuff today is being paid for by taking money from our children and borrowing from China,” she said at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall fundraiser at the State Fairgrounds Saturday night. “When that money comes due—and this isn’t racist, but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to beholden to the foreign master.”Nothing about this statement is accurate. Yes, at $1.28 trillion, China is the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. But the vast majority of American debt is owned by Americans. We’re borrowing from ourselves, and in the current economic environment of mass unemployment and sluggish growth, this isn’t a huge concern.

What’s most important to note, however, is that owing debt is nothing like slavery. Let’s say we lived in a world where China owned most of our debt and we had to take drastic actions to pay our obligations. Even then, it would be a far cry from enslavement, where everything produced is stolen by an outside power.

But the stupidity of these analogies haven’t stopped them from gaining currency on the right wing of American politics. In just the last year, conservatives have invoked slavery in opposition to gun control—Glenn Beck attacked universal background checks as part of an effort to enslave Americans—affirmative action, and federal spending. To wit, in his opinion attacking the admissions policy at the University of Texas, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas compared affirmative action supporters to slaveholders and segregationists. “Slaveholders argued that slavery was a ‘positive good’ that civilized blacks and elevated them in every dimension of life,” wrote Thomas. “A century later, segregationists similarly asserted that segregation was not only benign, but good for black students.”

I’m sure Thomas saw the moral difference between discrimination to oppress blacks and discrimination to ameliorate historical wrongs, but I don’t think he cared. For him, attacking his opponents was more important than giving a fair and truthful account of their views.


It’s not hard to understand why anyone would use slavery or any other evil—like the Holocaust—to attack policies they oppose. Among co-partisans, it’s an easy way to claim the moral high ground. To everyone else, however, it’s foolish. If you oppose something, you should argue against it on its own terms. To compare everything you don’t like to evil is to do a disservice to yourself, and—in a small way—minimize the reality of suffering.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *