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Why Republicans Want and Need a Permanent Economic Underclass

Ever heard of the “mudsill theory”? Well, it goes back to the slaveholding South. And it explains a lot.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Odds are you’ve never heard of the “mudsill theory of labor,” but everybody in this country really should learn about it. It explains a whole spectrum of Republican behavior that otherwise seems baffling and self-defeating. For example:

The past seven years have seen a near-fivefold increase in documented child labor violations by employers. States have responded to this alarming trend in two ways: Democratic-controlled states are putting more teeth into their laws and upping enforcement; Republican-controlled states are loosening their laws and cutting back on enforcement so children can drop out of school and go to work.

So far, three blue states (and two red ones) have made it harder for employers to exploit child labor, while eight red states have made it easier for children to get trapped in a cycle of work that often ends their educational progress and consigns them to a lifetime of manual labor. Eight other Republican-controlled states are currently considering legislation to weaken child labor laws, while 13 mostly Democratic-controlled states are in the process of tightening their restrictions.

Meanwhile, Republican-controlled states are waging war against universal quality public education for their children. The first shots were fired in efforts to strip schools of books and curricula referencing America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, Native American genocide, and brutality against the queer community. Those were followed by often violent, threat-filled appearances at school board meetings by militia members and other white supremacists, “calling out” teachers and school administrators for “woke indoctrination.”

Most recently, multiple red states moved to kneecap public schools by removing their funding and reallocating it to families who can afford private academies, religious schools, and home schooling. Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and West Virginia have all instituted universal or near-universal school voucher programs in the past few years.

These programs, advocated by right-wing billionaires, are designed to ghettoize red state public schools by subsidizing middle- and upper-class children’s tuition while leaving poorer students—who can’t afford the costs beyond the vouchers—stuck in defunded and thus failing public schools. Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Alabama have put into place or are about to institute voucher programs that go nearly as far.

Finally, Republican-controlled states go out of their way to make it difficult for workers to unionize or for existing unions to succeed and expand. The immediate result of this “right to work for less” mentality and activity is that social mobility—the ability of a person to move from being the working poor into the middle class, or from the middle class into the upper middle class—is largely frozen.

My family is probably typical of American social mobility. My grandfather was a poor immigrant from Norway who made furniture. My father worked at a tool and die shop, a good union job. I’ve done much better than my father, just like he did much better than his father. And my son, with a master’s degree and his own business, will do better than I have.

Social mobility in America today, however, is lower than in any other developed country, a huge change since the 1950–1980 decades before the Reagan revolution, when we led the world in social mobility. Most American children today are locked into the social and economic class of their parents; the opportunity for advancement that union jobs used to provide is half of what it was when Reagan became president.

Maryland, Minnesota, Delaware, Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Montana, and Utah have the highest social and economic mobility in the United States; only Utah is a “right to work for less” state, and all the rest welcome unions.

Oklahoma, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas—all “right to work for less” states—are the states where workers stuck in poverty are most likely to be frozen in the social and economic class into which they were born.

If you notice a pattern, you’re right: Young people are far more likely to exceed their parents’ economic accomplishments in blue states than in red states, and have been since Reagan killed the union movement and defunded public education in the 1980s.

So what does all this have to do with mudsills, the first layer of wood put down on top of a home’s concrete or stone foundation to support the rest of the house? And how and why did today’s GOP adopt the mudsill theory?

For that, we must step into the Wayback Machine.

On March 4, 1858, slave plantation owner and South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond rose to speak before his peers in the U.S. Senate. At the time, his speech wasn’t noted as exceptional, but over the following year it was published in the newspapers and caught the imagination of the plantation owners and “scientific racists” of the South; it was soon the talk of the nation.

Hammond asserted that for a society to function smoothly, it must have a “foundational” class of people who, like the way a mudsill stabilizes the house that rests atop it, bear the difficult manual labor from which almost all wealth is derived. “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties,” Hammond proclaimed, “to perform the drudgery of life.”  Hammond claimed that every society throughout history rested on a mudsill class; that even Jesus advocated this when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.”

To stabilize society, he additionally argued, such a group of people must be locked rigidly into their mudsill class.

Hammond’s mudsill theory was quickly embraced by the Southern plantation owners as well as many Northern industrialists and newspaper owners, although progressive politicians and spokesmen for labor were outraged, particularly at the idea that social mobility must be denied to the laboring class.

President Abraham Lincoln jumped into the debate with a speech on September 30, 1859, in Milwaukee. At the time he was a lawyer in private practice and a fierce advocate for the right of social mobility for working-class white people. Speaking of the industrialists who employed child labor, opposed education, and used brutal methods to keep workers in line, he said: “They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again that his condition is as bad as or worse than that of a slave. This is the ‘mud-sill’ theory.”

Lincoln didn’t find the argument persuasive; in fact, he was offended by it. As president, Lincoln followed up with his goal of promoting social mobility; he signed legislation creating over 70 land-grant colleges, including my mother’s Michigan State University, where tuition was free or very affordable until the Reagan revolution.

These days, Republicans generally take Hammond’s point of view, while today’s Democrats embrace Lincoln’s perspective. This didn’t happen by accident or in a vacuum. Russell Kirk was the twentieth century’s philosopher king of the mudsill theory, although he never used the phrase. As I laid out in detail in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy, Kirk’s 1951 book, The Conservative Mind, argues forcefully, like Hammond did, that society must have “classes and orders” to ensure stability.

Kirk argued in the 1950s that if the American middle class—then under half of Americans—ever grew too large and well paid, then such access to “wealth” would produce a social disaster. His followers warned that under such circumstances, minorities would forget their “place” in society, women would demand equality with men, and young people would no longer respect their elders.

The dire result, Kirk warned, would be social chaos, moral degeneracy, revolution, and the eventual collapse of American society.

While at first Kirk was mostly only quoted by cranks like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley Jr., when the 1960s hit and the civil rights movement was roiling America’s cities, women were demanding access to the workplace and equal pay, and young men were burning draft cards, Republican elders and influencers concluded Kirk was a prophet.

Something had to be done.

Ronald Reagan came into office with the mandate to save American society from collapse. To that end, he set out to reestablish a mudsill class in America by ending free college and gutting public schools, destroying the union movement, and weakening enforcement of child labor laws.

Thus today’s Republicans—from Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas to Mike Johnson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Donald Trump—are finally close to fulfilling Hammond’s and Reagan’s vision of an America built on mudsill labor (while ironically repudiating America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln).

And now, as the late Paul Harvey would say, you know the rest of the story.