Should We Be Disturbed that a Leading Presidential Candidate Endorses a Pro-slavery Position?

A couple weeks ago I was reading the New Yorker and came across this shocking (to me) passage about congressmember and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann:

While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I [Ryan Lizza] stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.

Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. . . .

In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes:

Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. . . .

Wha????

I’m sure if I’d been better informed I wouldn’t have been so surprised, but actually I was as floored as I was by that recent survey finding that “46% of [usual Mississippi Republican primary election] voters believe interracial marriage should be illegal, while 40% think it should be legal.”

Why was I so surprised? Because I hadn’t seen Bachmann’s historical revisionism mentioned in the various news articles I’ve read about her.

Back a couple decades ago when David Duke was running for president, everybody knew he was a racist. Racism was his #1 issue.

For Bachmann, though, my impression is that racism is only a small part of her issue portfolio. Unlike Duke, for whom the racial appeal was an organizing principle, Bachmann wants to get the votes of racists but maybe doesn’t actually believe this stuff.

As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes:

Republican politicians have usually been far more adept at mobilizing their religious constituents than those constituents have been at claiming any sort of political “dominion.” George W. Bush rallied evangelical voters in 2004 with his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, and then dropped the gay marriage issue almost completely in his second term. . . .

Even if Bachmann does become president, I don’t see much of a chance of a repeal of the 13th Amendment.

So, should those of us who would like to maintain the slavery-is-illegal status quo be worried about Bachmann’s pro-slavery messages, given that there’s zero chance of any retrogression on the slavery front? Or is the description of slavery as “mutual esteem” merely “the everyday language of an America that’s more biblically literate than the national press corps,” in Douthat’s words? There is slavery in the Bible, after all.

P.S. These are not easy questions. The David Duke voters and Michele Bachmann voters have to go somewhere. If Duke and Bachmann are not running for president, these voters will look for another candidate, and it’s perfectly reasonable to seek their votes. The challenge for a candidate is to assure the racists that you’re on their side, while not alarming the majority of non-racist voters out there.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.