Ted Cruz and the “Consumer as King”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has gotten some attention lately for a 2010 speech in which he claimed that there were more communists than Republicans on the Harvard Law School faculty when he attended the school in the 1990s. The speech became news again thanks to an article by The New Yorker staff writer Jane Meyer (“Is Senator Ted Cruz Our New McCarthy?” Feb. 22, 2011). Cruz had already been accused of McCarthyism for “insinuating, without evidence” that defense-secretary nominee Chuck Hagel had received payments from the North Korean government. Now, Meyer has unearthed the 2010 speech, in which Cruz claimed that Barack Obama would have been an apt leader for Harvard Law School since there were a dozen (unnamed) faculty members who “would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

Cruz’s allegations were refuted from various quarters including, in the Meyer article, by Harvard Law School professor (and Reagan solicitor general, and former Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice) Charles Fried. Suppose, however, that Cruz’s outlandish claims were true. If there were so many communists on the Harvard Law School faculty, why did Cruz go there? Was he just an uninformed consumer? If so, why did he stay after he realized the truth? Did he decide that Harvard Law School offered him such opportunity for advancement that he didn’t mind a few reds so much?

Conservative economists argue for the genius of capitalism on the grounds of “consumer sovereignty.” Ultimately, they say, it is buyers, not sellers, who decide what is produced. If businesses offer products that consumers do not want, those products go unsold. If those businesses do not change the products that they offer, they will lose market share and, ultimately, go out of business. In short, the consumer is king. It’s not clear what Cruz thinks about this, but certainly many of the self-styled “pro-business” conservatives in his party believe it.

Conservatives seem to like complaining about the academy as overrun by the left. According to the doctrine of consumer sovereignty, however, if the faculty of the Harvard Law School—or of any institution of higher education—is wall-to-wall communists, that must be because consumers want wall-to-wall communists (or at least don’t mind very much).

Thaddeus Stevens, Social Revolutionary

One of the nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role at this year’s Academy Awards, Tommy Lee Jones, played Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) in the Best Picture-nominated Lincoln. Stevens was a U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania (1849-1853 and 1859-1868), a leading congressional abolitionist, and the most important figure of so-called Radical Republicanism during and after the Civil War. (For more on Stevens, see this Wikipedia entry.)

Jones didn’t take home the Oscar (unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, who won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of President Lincoln), but the film is still a good excuse for saying something about Stevens. In his incomparable Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, historian Eric Foner describes the Stevens Plan for the reformation of the South, announced by Stevens at the Pennsylvania Republican convention in September 1865. (The bulleted points are direct quotations from the book.)

  • [S]eizure of the 400 million acres belonging to the wealthiest 10 percent of Southerners.
  • Forty acres would be granted to each adult freedman.
  • [T]he remainder—some 90 percent of the total—sold “to the highest bidder” in plots … no larger than 500 acres.
  • The proceeds would enable the federal government to finance pensions for Civil War veterans, compensate loyal men who had suffered losses during the war … and retire the bulk of the national debt.

Foner concludes: “As was typical of its author, the plan combined idealism, expediency, and Northern self-interest, all in the service of a far-reaching social revolution…. Stevens’ aims were political in the broadest sense rather than strictly economic…. Confiscation, Stevens believed, would break the power of the South’s traditional ruling class, transform the Southern social structure, and create the basis for a triumphant Southern Republican party composed of black and white yeomen and Northern purchasers of planter land. Even among abolitionists and Radical Republicans, however, only a handful stressed the land question as forcefully as Stevens” (Foner, pp. 235-236, emphasis added).

As Foner emphasizes, that was a plan to break the back of the Southern landlord/slaveholder class. It would also have been a way to prevent the counterrevolution that took place in the South after Reconstruction. Yes, the counterrevolution that would ultimately set back the cause of emancipation and broader social equality for another century, and which powerfully shapes U.S. political and economic life to the present.