Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

JULY 15, 2010 8:53AM

Michele Bachmann’s Nation of Slaves

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 Bachmann Tea Party Rally Placard

A “slave” signifies at a St. Paul Bachmann Tea Party rally, 2010

Fibonacci Blue, / Creative Commons 

  If you have been wondering whether right-wing extremism is afoot on the campaign trail this season, you need look no further than Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann.  Her sly assertion, phrased in the form of a rhetorical question, that we were becoming a “nation of slaves” under Obama hit all the right notes to her intended audience.  Speaking to the Western Conservative Summit in Denver last weekend, she drew on a Founding Father, John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, to cast the centrist Democratic administration as a tyrannical government.

            The quote she took from Jay was rendered as follows:

“We are determined to live free or not at all. And we are resolved that posterity shall never reproach us with having brought slaves into the world.”

            This she spliced with her own takeoff:

“We will talk a little bit about what has transpired in the last 18 months and would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.”

            A nation of slaves. This was, we are to presume, devoid of racial overtones in referencing the agenda of the nation’s first African American president?  Let’s say it was.  Let’s say she used the term in the same manner as did Jay, who was referencing the tyranny of the British Crown.  Jay, an incremental abolitionist, whose dubious strategy toward that end was to buy slaves, hold them until he reckoned his investment was paid off, then freeing them as adults (evidently it took a long time to work off his purchase price)—was employing the familiar “Live free or die” trope.

            Live free of the British Crown.  Live free of British meddling, repression, and taxation, because, after all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament.  Unlike today.  Today, even the smallest of the small people have the right to vote—and the obligation to abide by the outcome.  This is apparently lost on the recidivist ditz from Minnesota, who thrives on hyperbole and disinformation.

            You may think such outbursts would hurt her changes, that the farther to the fringe she drifts, the lower her approval ratings would be.  Not so!  The most recent KSTP/SurveyUSA poll shows her approval ratings at 48-39 within her benighted district.  So much for the “correction to the center” theory of electoral dynamics.  This makes extremists more dangerous in the body politic; they don’t self-exterminate politically. 

            But what is she actually talking about?  It all comes down to one word:  freedom.  Bachmann calls herself a “Constitutional Conservative” but really, she owes more of her political philosophy to Barry Goldwater and Edmund Burke.  Goldwater, like his precursor Burke, believed that freedom from legislation was a hallmark of a free people.  This came naturally to Goldwater, who grew up in Arizona when it was still the frontier.  So it was natural for him to say:

“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden.”

~The Conscience of a Conservative, (1960) p. 15

            Where Goldwater, like Bachmann, fails is in the assumption of some Rousseauean state of unregulated innocence.  Beyond the reach of bad men with guns.  Beyond the reach of a 12-hour workday for children.  Beyond the reach of a gutted Gulf full of oil.  Beyond the panic of an $80,000 hospital bill.  Beyond the reach of bad meat, bad air, or cars that explode.

            Though it may be hard to see at first glance that such hard punchers as Goldwater, Bachmann, and, for good measure, Palin, are naifs—that is exactly the case.  And against their wish-upon-a-star sense of “freedom,” throwing around words like “slavery” and “tyranny” comes easily.

            E.J. Dionne said recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival, “In a democracy, government isn’t the realm of ‘them,’ it’s the realm of ‘us.’”

            This point, so lost on right-wing extremists, belies the whole slavery-tyranny construct.  But it makes me suspect the commitment to democratic process on the part of, at least, Bachmann.  Democracy works when her side wins; but, apparently, it only works when her side wins.  How can that be?

            Bachmann tells you exactly what to expect if her faction wins:

“We reform social security, then we reform Medicare, then we pare back welfare to the truly needy, for the truly disabled, because, yes, we can make that determination. Close and secure American boarders, cut the budget, limit our foreign entanglements for America, then we massively cut spending first, then we cut taxes.”

            This will take you far past Goldwater’s turf; this will take you back to 1929.  The naïve worldview of this, the Paleo-Libertarian-right, exaggerates the threat to freedom posed by the “tyranny” of government-engineered solutions while at the same time it minimizes—even vaporizes—the threat to life and liberty posed by every well-dressed criminal, hard core polluter, and institutionalized form of bigotry out there.

            I am more concerned, in a metaphorical way, about the “slavery” of a person who can’t get served by a business than I am about the “rights” of a business owner not to serve, or pay, or refrain from exploiting that person. 

            I detect a suffocating rhetoric in the air.  Morris Fiorina, author of Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, contends that most Americans don’t know and don’t care about politics.  He proclaims this as if it were a virtue; it is not a virtue.  If we don’t know and don’t care, we have no effective retort to the “nation of slaves” nonsense.  Michele Bachmann made the comment in part in reference to health care reform, which, for all its faults, will improve by some degree the health and general welfare of millions of Americans.  We need an antidote.

            So fine.  She has her free speech rights and her improbable bully pulpit of quasi-celebrity.  But let’s call if for what it is.  She is a demagogue with no legitimate message.  She represents a misguided extremism in defense of a bogus notion of liberty.  And sorry, Barry, but in this case, once again, it is a vice.  And just as it was in 1964, it’s a little scary today.


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It's not that people "don't know and don't care about politics", it's that their not knowledgeable about them. And that sir, is the frightening difference.
I'd take a guess that most people of Bachmann's ilk could barely comprehend what you are saying here. And yet, you say it so well.

Worst of all, as you say, "This makes extremists more dangerous in the body politic; they don’t self-exterminate politically." No, they don't, Steve. They seem to replicate at alarming fast rates. But you and I both know that already.
alarmingly. Damn.
It's astonishing to me that someone can say the stuff Bachman et al can say. Perhaps it's because here in Canada our politicians are too boring to stray that far into the realms of fantasy (and, I like to think, our population is too boring to follow them there if they did).

There's also the American paradox of wanting to be the world's super-power (tho she does recommend 'limiting foreign entanglement") at the same time as being quite isolationist, and of course the perennial unacknowledged problem of having vital government services but hardly any government (or taxes). The naivete, yes, that people and corporations (!!) will behave responsibly if government didn't 'interfere'... Makes one gnash what's left of one's teeth...

Oh yeah, and having cheap food from the fields and restaurants, and other low-cost services, but no damned illegals swarming into the country...
She is insane. Her supporters are insane. There is a large disconnect between her rhetoric and the truth. All of these no-government types should go to Somalia-no government there to bother you-just remember to bring lots of guns! R
What is staggering is her support. How Can Those People Over There Believe Her? How? I really really really don't understand that.
Cartouche: Fiorina contends that Americans want pragmatic problem solvers to represent them. He sure got it wrong when it comes to Bachmann.

Myriad: I know. If you think about the role of undocumented workers in our food system, and if you took away all government "interference,"--what a horrorshow.

LC: yes, let's tweak those meds!

Lib: Somalia is an excellent case in point.

Connie: I know people in her district who simply cannot fathom her support. It is a weird base she has, part exurbia, part dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotan, part rural. Even with a pretty strong, well-financed challenger in Tarryl Clark, Bachmann is not considered to be especially vulnerable--and of course Sarah loves her.

BTW, thanks all, for your comments!
I'm sure that if Bachmann loses her seat she'll end up as a FOX commentator or a contestant on Dancing With The Stars.

We make idiots into celebrities and she is an idiot!
Her political rival must answer, politely but firmly, so Bachman is not the last voice the voters hear. The Dems have to get into the fray and answer with the truth. Most desparate people, with jobs or unemployment or health care, will grasp at something, even if that something destroys them rather than at nothing at all.
'How does Bachmann continue to draw crowds, and support, despite the fact that she's a complete kook?', you ask, Steve.

Well, she make a complete spectacle of herself, like Sarah Palin, she pushes relentlessly to get her big mug in front of the cameras (while decrying that same media to her supporters), and most importantly--she feeds on the fear, hate and resentment of certain Americans.

We live in exciting (to me), but uncertain (many would call these, troubled) times, and in the midst of this Great Recession, people want easy answers to complex problems.

This is what Bachmann, Palin, Limbaugh and the rest of The Radical Right, offer. Don't think, hate. Blame. Resent. Fear.

Conservatives as a whole have a natural, and unnerving, tendency to want easy answers to difficult problems. And the more conservative one is, the easier the answers need to be.

Any loon claiming to be a white knight in shining armor that comes galloping across the horizon becomes the New Savior for right-wing malcontents across the land, regardless of how distasteful that knight's prescriptions are.

Call it the Jesus Factor, call it what you want, when times are tough, the right wing gets freaky, and looks for The Second Coming or its modern day equivalent, to come riding to the rescue.

Sad? Yes. Pathetic? Probably. Dangerous? Absolutely.

But there it is.
it's not a nation of slaves, it's a nation of serfs. the difference in american terms is 'free-range' cattle vs. 'feed-lot'.

people are not informed about politics, because they have no input. why worry about something utterly beyond your control, and where good information is impossible? the swiss read more newspapers than any other nation, and they are a democracy too.

jay and madison are on public record as despising democracy, as republicans do today for the same reason: they expected 'the mob' to vote away the wealth of the rich. there some logic in this, although the swiss are no one's idea of a socialist society.

why inject facts into this discussion? it's the eternal struggle for power and wealth, no holds barred. bachmann doesn't have a shred of logic at her command, but doesn't need it. the right have raised a nation of know nothings, and they respond to dog whistles.

the left is little better. unwilling to educate themselves, satisfied with whining, letting the other side define the issues, and utterly without any principles beyond "i wannit!'