History of a Red State: Oklahoma, Hotbed of U.S. Socialism

In recent years, Oklahoma has taken right-wing politics and turned it up to 11.

In 2008, it defied national trends and thoroughly endorsed John McCain for the presidency, with every county going for the Grand Old Party. Dan Boren, the sole Democrat among the state’s seven congressional representatives, owes his unique status partly to a large “Dixiecrat” contingent in southeastern Oklahoma as well as his shilling for the oil and gas industry, a lucrative prostitution that has seen his income jump significantly over the last six years. In the Senate, Sooners claim two notable Republican personae. There’s Jim Inhofe, who invented the “God, Guns and Gays” campaign strategy and famously went to an international climate conference in 2010 to insist global warming was a hoax (only to be called “ridiculous” by one of the handful of reporters who listened to him). Then there’s Tom Coburn, the unlikely best pal of President Obama and a fiscal conservative so principled and adept at blocking legislation (including benefits for veterans) that he could give Ron Paul a run for the title of “Dr. No.” Recently, the state legislature has made headlines for such unusual conservative campaigns as banning sharia law in legal decisions and aborted fetuses in food.

Yet it was not always this way. Oklahoma, now the reddest of red states, used to be “red” in a much different way. While the state will undoubtedly go for Mitt Romney in November this year, one hundred years ago Oklahoma voters gave 16% of their vote to Eugene V. Debs – the Socialist candidate in the 1912 presidential election. By 1914, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma possessed 984 chapters with a sum of 12,000 registered members – the most in any state.

Why did socialism flourish in Oklahoma of all places? Following statehood in 1907, most Oklahomans worked the land, usually as tenants. Poor farmers leased land from landowners, aping the ancient feudal hierarchy in which serfs toiled under the wealthy nobility. In addition to this exploitation, farmers also had to contend with the crop-lien system – in which farmers borrowed money against the value of their projected harvests, often ending up in debt when crop yields or crop prices fell below expectations. Reeling from these injustices, working farmers found motivation to reform the system to be more equitable. In order to do that, however, they needed to organize.

In the early 20th century, early agrarian movements like Farmers’ Union and the Farmers’ Alliance mobilized for the interests of the average farmer and provided much-needed experience in organization and advocacy to their regular members. When these groups came under the influence of landowners who sought to transform them into special interest groups rather than activist coalitions, many farmers left en masse. Disenchanted with the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties who also served elite concerns, they flocked to the Socialist Party, which was taking shape with the help of organizers moving from the Midwest to the Southwest. In attacking the concentration of power and riches in the hands of a narrow few, Oklahoman socialists carefully chose narratives that fit with and appealed to the consciousness of their future comrades.

Rather than embracing “true” communism and its abolition of private property, Oklahoman socialists advocated land redistribution so that farmers could conceivably own their own property instead of paying someone else rent, regardless of how their farms performed each year. They borrowed from Thomas Jefferson, lionizing the “yeoman farmer” in opposition to bankers, lawyers and other privileged classes. In such terms, socialism sounded less like a foreign ideology borne from a German political economist and more like the continuation of the United States’ own Founding Fathers. Additionally, Oklahoman socialists invoked Jesus Christ and the Bible, giving their strain of the socialist movement a “Christian socialist” character. With Jesus’ identification with the poor, sick and oppressed, it has never been a hard case to make in any Christian society that Jesus was on the side of the plebeians against the patricians, and the Oklahoman socialists made that case well. Although God is often cited in today’s political rhetoric against extending civil rights to homosexuals or giving women the right to choose, in the past God often featured heavily in the speeches and pamphlets of left-wing radicals who utilized the compassion and charity in the Christian tradition rather than its intolerance and hatred. It seems doubtful that socialism would have bloomed bright red in Oklahoma had it not changed to fit the local political and cultural language. In many other places, socialism tried to change that language to suit its own needs, and often died on the vine as a result.

The Oklahoman socialists did not focus on economic justice to the exclusion of other issues. In 1910, the state disenfranchised African-Americans, denying them access to the ballot through use of a “grandfather clause” that introduced literacy and property restrictions on voting save for those whose “grandfathers” had the right to vote before the Civil War – in other words, poor whites. The Socialist Party of Oklahoma stands as the only Southern socialist party to have spoken up for the civil rights of African-Americans during the origin of Jim Crow. Prior to statehood, the socialists had supported extending the right to vote to women, although this effort was defeated by an array of reactionary forces, including anti-suffrage governors and right-wing propaganda in the Daily Oklahoman, then owned by the conservative E.K. Gaylord and now owned by the equally conservative (and anti-gay) Philip Anschutz.

So, what happened? The answer lies with an event often not mentioned in Oklahoma classrooms. In 1917, a group of radical tenant farmers called the Working Class Union (WCU) launched an insurgency against the state and federal government based on anger over military conscription. The country had just entered World War I, and not only did most Americans not identify with the Allies (the British had just brutally crushed Ireland in the Easter Rebellion), but few saw any benefit in sending their young men to die in a “rich man’s war.” Despite no actual records documenting what was planned, historians have nevertheless guessed that WCU agitators encouraged farmers to take up arms and march on Washington, D.C. living off the land and eating roasted “green corn” – leading to the revolt being called the “Green Corn Rebellion.” Betrayed by an informer, the rebels gave up when confronted by a posse on the banks of the South Canadian River. Hundreds were arrested, with over a hundred sentenced to prison terms.

Although it had played no part in fomenting or carrying out the failed insurrection, the incident was used to stir up public opinion against the Socialist Party of Oklahoma. According to the memoirs of Oscar Ameringer, a German-born socialist active in early Oklahoma politics:

“Though not a single official of the Party was connected with the Green Corn Rebellion, thousands of our members were arrested. Jails were so overcrowded that four hundred prisoners were shipped to the state penitentiary for safekeeping. Thousands sought safety in the Winding Stairs Mountains, in adjoining Colorado, Texas, and Arkansas.

Of the Green Corn rebels convicted, some thirty-odd went to Leavenworth, the federal prison, from which the last of them were released after Kate Richards O’Hare had marched their wives and children to Washington, where they picketed the White House. …

Shortly after the trial of the Green Corn rebels an emergency convention of the mortally wounded Party was held in Oklahoma City. It was at that convention that Patrick S. Nagle, one of the leading attorneys of the rebels, sponsored and succeeded in passing a resolution disbanding the Socialist Party of Oklahoma.”

In short, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma succumbed to repression and intimidation, fearful that it would be stamped out of existence if it did not choose to disband voluntarily. Granted, it is not the most heroic climax for any group in history, but it is certainly a logical one. Given the illegal searches, seizures and naked violence that accompanied the Palmer Raids during the first Red Scare of 1919 to 1920, the Oklahoman socialists may have taken the less painful (if less courageous) choice in committing suicide rather than having a jackboot placed upon their collective neck.

(As an interesting side note, Oklahoma used to have a different flag than what it has now. The old flag – red with a white star on its background – was abandoned in the 1920s because it appeared too “communist.”)

In 2009, the Oklahoma House voted down a measure to name “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips as the state rock song (The Lips are from Norman, Oklahoma) partly because one of the band members had worn a t-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it to the state capitol. In a strange way, The Flaming Lips may have been more in touch with the history of Oklahoma politics on that day than the actual elected representatives. Given the news stories that come out of Oklahoma City these days, there is little debate that the aging space rockers are more in touch with reality.

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The Great Emancipator and The Artful Dodger

When President Obama recently declared his support for gay marriage in an ABC interview, it seemed as though the Internet had collectively transformed into Marilyn Monroe breathily singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” while doing a sexy dance. Despite the announcement having zero implications in terms of actual policy, Obama’s statement was nevertheless hailed as a major civil rights victory, a momentous step forward for the cause of gay rights. Once a sitting U.S. president publicly “takes the plunge” and comes out in favor of something, the thinking goes, it must be only a matter of time before the entire country comes around to it. Personally, I could not feel that Obama’s “coming out” would have been more useful before North Carolina voted in favor of a state amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. It would have been meaningful if Obama had actually campaigned against the amendment in the state, throwing re-election cautions to the wind (as the state is a toss-up in November).

I could also not help drawing some parallels between Obama and Abraham Lincoln, although not for the reasons many people do. Yes, both men come from Illinois, held the same U.S. Senate seat and hold iconic statuses among African-Americans for different reasons. Yet both men also share tepid records on handling the enormous social issues of their day, and while historians and presidential scholars have been generous to Lincoln, I am skeptical that they will be as forgiving to the Oval Office’s present resident.

Lincoln was not an abolitionist. While he expressed opposition to slavery as an institution on ethical and economic grounds, he did not support its immediate abolition throughout the United States until 1864, when he shepherded the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress. The amendment, however, owed its existence if not its passage to politicians who actually endorsed eliminating slavery everywhere. Lincoln could have freed all slaves in 1863 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but instead the executive order only liberated slaves in those Confederate states still in rebellion against the Union. Just prior to signing the order, Lincoln had written the newspaper editor Horace Greely, stating, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” Before his first inauguration, Lincoln backed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have preserved slavery authoritatively in the South in the hopes of preventing Southern secession. Thankfully, the Corwin Amendment never received ratification, clearing any obstacles to the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

For most of his political career, Lincoln clearly considered slavery to be a “domestic institution” for states to deal with, a thorny issue that required negotiation and concession. Had the necessities of civil war and the Radical Republicans within his party not pushed him, Lincoln probably would not have taken the course that made his “Great Emancipator” legacy what it is today. History has been kind to Lincoln, and while he may not have necessarily been on the right side of history for much of his life, we as Americans still like to pretend that he was. (Lincoln’s views on racial equality were even less progressive, and I encourage you to read what Henry Louis Gates has written on the topic.)

For Obama, marriage is also a “domestic institution” for states to determine how to define. He made it clear in the ABC interview that his opinion on gay marriage “is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” The problem with this state-by-state approach is that it encourages inequality regarding an issue that is all about equality. Why should homosexual couples be able to wed in New York or the District of Columbia but not in North Carolina or California? Why should borders alone determine whether a bond of love and devotion has equivalent worth in the eyes of elites? Why should some states be allowed to enshrine ignorance and bigotry in the law of the land, denying basic legal protection to some, while others are allowed to be treated as equals? It is impossible to see any future for a state of affairs in which the only thing deciding if people in love can be treated the same as their heterosexual counterparts or as second-class citizens depends on lines on a map. Just as slavery is either just or unjust, either homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as everyone else or they are not.

Well, one might argue, if Obama is going to make a dodge on an important issue, at least he’s in good company. Yet there is a marked difference between the Lincoln and Obama administrations. Yes, Lincoln was a “white man’s president,” as Douglass called him, mostly concerned with white America’s interests, but his saving grace was a respect for the U.S. Constitution. At least part of what restrained the Emancipation Proclamation from freeing slaves across the country was Lincoln’s belief that he did not have such a power; as commander-in-chief, he could free slaves in rebellious states as a temporary war measure, but he did not have the constitutional authority to abolish slavery unilaterally writ large. Similarly, when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the outbreak of the Civil War, he acknowledged that he had violated the enumerated powers in the Constitution and pushed for the adoption of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act 1863 that provided authorization for the suspension after the fact. Even if he had been the dynamic, unwavering nemesis of slavery and all its defenders we sometimes imagine him to be, Lincoln still lived in an era in which the public and fellow politicians alike considered the executive office to be much less powerful than it is today. Its occupants were beholden not just to horse-trading on Capitol Hill but to the authorities, checks and balances set out by the Founding Fathers.

Obviously, today things are much different. From World War II to the Cold War to the War on Terror, the presidency has accumulated and consolidated increasing levels of prerogative power. The examples from George W. Bush’s administration alone are too numerous to mention: circumventing the Geneva Convention, authorizing warrantless wiretapping, holding “detainees” without production of evidence or trial within the judicial system, and so on. Despite campaigning on promises to do so, Obama has not scaled back these violations of the Constitution in any meaningful way, and it is apt to say that Obama has presided over, at least in regards to national security and civil rights, Bush’s third term – except that even Bush did not carry out extrajudicial executions of U.S. citizens.

Obama has not been shy about using the incredible power at his disposal. He did not hesitate to commit U.S. forces to hostilities to stop the massacre of civilians in Libya. He has said repeatedly that the country cannot afford to wait for Congress to act on economic recovery measures. Yet, on the question of gay marriage, he does nothing. To be sure, doing nothing can be a good thing, such as Obama’s Justice Department not defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet homosexual citizens deserve more than a passive president. They deserve an active advocate for their rights, a leader who will make bold moves, risk real controversy and even his career to stand up for what is right, not just what is electorally viable. Instead, they have a man who will not even sign an executive order barring federal contractors from having anti-gay bias in their hiring practices.

A large part of the reason Lincoln is so well-regarded by the present generation is because, despite the flaws often overlooked in his handling of slavery, he was still a self-assured leader who did not shirk his duties and took the lead in realizing his goals. That those goals lined up with the eventual triumphs of African-Americans in the ongoing dream of racial egalitarianism ensures his place in the presidential pantheon. Obama, meanwhile, will neither reverse the negative trends he inherited nor deal decisive blows in the political fights that matter most to his supporters. He is a master of the artful dodge, the cynical hedge. Unlike Lincoln, whose many mistakes and flaws were covered up by his strong and forceful leadership, the craven, milquetoast maneuvering of Obama will be an insufficient curtain to hide the opportunities he could have seized but did not.

How Much Does a Grecian Earn?

Very little, according to a recent Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report. In 2011, real wages before tax dropped by 25% in Greece (the next largest tumble, in Korea, was only 6%). Despite the fact that they trail behind their counterparts in several other European countries in terms of pay, Greek workers have also seen their income taxes raised as part of the highly unpopular austerity program being forced down the country’s throat by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

The program accompanies a debt deal signed with foreign creditors by the former Greek government in February. The parties that co-signed the deal, the Socialists and the conservative New Democracy Party, suffered massive losses in elections on Sunday, receiving only 32% of the vote. Less mainstream parties prospered due to widespread frustration and dissatisfaction, the Radical Left (known as Syriza) being the biggest beneficiary, due in no small part to its utter rejection of the harsh austerity measures. The New Democracy Party and the Radical Left have both had opportunities to extract a coalition government from the hung parliament, yet there can be no consensus on the issue of the severe cutbacks, which include firing public sector workers and slashing social programs. Those who signed the deal want to proceed with it; those who were elected on opposing it demand that it be modified or abandoned.

Today, the head of the Radical Left, Alexis Tsipras, wrote a letter to the European Union, the European Commission and the European Central Bank to “re-examine the entire framework of the current strategy” because the election results destroyed any “political legitimacy” behind the current austerity arrangements, as voters clearly repudiated those who negotiated it. This comes on the heels of news that, on Wednesday, with the institution responsible for funding Greece’s bailout withholding one billion euros of a planned 5.2 billion euro payment to Athens. In other words, Greece’s creditors have played politics with the money Greece needs to finance government services, with the Greek people paying the cost for their politicians’ mistakes.

Admittedly, the members of the euro zone – including the currency union’s de facto leader, Germany – see a major interest in not having Greece default, either by refusing to follow the austerity plan or by leaving the euro zone. Yet threatening and intimidating the Greek people because of how they voted is the wrong tactic to adopt. Greeks, for their part, have expressed support for keeping the euro, but simply want bailout conditions to be softened. According to average Greeks interviewed by Reuters, the election was less about getting revenge on the EU and the IMF and more about asserting their desire to be on an “equal footing” rather than treated as “slaves” – or, perhaps more accurately, as children who do not know how to manage their finances. While there can be no denying that the Greek government generated its own massive deficit, that Greek government is ultimately accountable to the people of Greece, not European bureaucrats and bank managers in Brussels. The Greek electorate seeks to choose its own path out of the financial crisis, and there is every indication that it will repeat Sunday’s election results if, as is expected, the Socialist party proves unable to form a government and a new election is held in June.

Markets trembled after the Greek polls came out, already unsteady following the election of a Socialist president in France. And markets would fare no better were Greece to ultimately default on its debt, one way or the other. Yet none of that is any excuse for pressuring Greeks to go along with dictates from abroad, denying bailout disbursements and hoping that the people fear instability more than they want humanitarian relief. For all the concern given to the state of the euro states and their economies, precious little is being given to those Greeks who are seeing their incomes evaporating, not to mention a youth population dealing with massive unemployment. Now there is even talk that inflation could cure the euro zone anxiety. In the face of spiraling wages, high prices on basic goods and services would only compound to the incredible human misery that must be going on in Greece.

Ultimately, it would be best if Europe were to readjust its austerity program, allowing for some government stimulus in order to spur growth, raise employment and keep wages on track with inflation. It is highly unlikely that the Greek economy will ever recover if unemployment and low wages are kept at their current levels, and even if were to do so, it is hard to foresee how Greece would be able to compete with its fellow euro states once it reaches that hard-to-see light at the end of the tunnel. It would be far better if a bold Greek government, following the wishes of the people, were to out-and-out threaten to leave the euro unless the current debt deal was renegotiated. Assuming that haughty Berlin and Brussels did not budge, Greece should go ahead and leave the euro, readopt its old currency and deal with default. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it can be done; Argentina did it in 2001 and came out the other end. There is no reason that Greece cannot do the same.

At any rate, it cannot be much worse off than it is now.