Sunday, April 10, 2011

Our Civil Wars

Even as our politicians escalate our tragic decline as a nation by their increasingly irresponsible, even childish, behavior of playing at shutting down the government, we are reminded this week how divided our country has been for so much of its history. For Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of when our country came completely apart as one section of the country took up arms against the rest. I refer, of course, to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, April 12, 1861, the opening shot in what would be four tragic years of unprecedented carnage, the U.S. Civil War. A little over a month earlier in his Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln had succinctly stated the cause of the war with straightforward, uncontroversial clarity: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” The somewhat more muddled ways in which that war, what led up to it, and its aftermath have been interpreted in the last 150 years highlight the still unsettled legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. Like so many worthwhile things in this anything-but-perfect world, the brilliant accomplishment of the Founding Fathers in forming “a more perfect union” in Philadelphia in 1787 required a problematic compromise on slavery, a compromise that set the stage for so much of what followed, even down to today, almost a century and a half after its abolition. Admittedly, no one seriously proposes restoring slavery today (although some extremists do propose undoing the 14th Amendment, the primary purpose of which was to guarantee citizenship to former slaves). “Racism” persists, to be sure, but I suspect there has seldom been less real racism in American society than today. There is certainly a lot less now that there was at the time of the centennial of the Civil War, which coincided, after all, with the height of the Civil Rights movement. The United States recently elected a non-white President, something no other Western nation has done or is at all likely to do any time soon. The visceral hatred President Obama inspires in certain quarters is perhaps partly racial, but I suspect it is for the most part much more cultural. For Obama represents the legacy of one side in our second Civil War – the 1960s. (Thus, for example, the embarassingly unchristian hatred for President Obama on the part of some very religious people certainly has much more to do with his stance on abortion – his location on the left-end of the continuum of cultural change - than with his race). Slavery created a conflict within the constitution itself. It forced the new republic into increasingly unsustainable contortions in the first half of the 19th century, in what (in hindsight) we can recognize as a prolonged run-up to the Civil War. Slavery made that Civil War inevitable. The Civil War in turn defined the political map of America for the century that followed. (When I started studying political science in the 1960s, it was still taken as almost axiomatic that, with certain exceptions, people voted as they fought – or would have fought - in the Civil War). What I like to call our second Civil War – the 1960s – has since significantly redrawn the electoral map. That second Civil War – the 1960s – divided the country over the War in Vietnam and my generation’s “sexual revolution,” but it was no accident that both sets of movements had roots in and imitated in various ways the Black Civil Rights Movement. The legacy of slavery and of our halting efforts to get beyond it has permeated our politics from the get-go and continues to do so in all sorts of seemingly disparate ways. In particular, the present configuration of our political parties continues to reflect the Civil War division – albeit in reverse. The Democratic Party, which for so long had had the Old Confederacy for its most reliable base, became the party of Civil Rights (and by extension the party of all “minorities” and by further extension the party of “identity politics”). In turn, the Republican Party, the “Party of Lincoln,” which had in so many ways been the more “liberal” party on what we now call “social” issues, is now solidly based in the South, and is socially conservative in ways that the Republican Presidents of the first half of my life – Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford – would scarcely have recognized. It was the Civil Rights Movement (the effort finally to undo the legacy of slavery) which set in motion a civil war within the Democratic Party after 1964 and especially after 1968. That process produced a Democratic Party culturally identified with the extreme left end of the spectrum of virtually the entire contentious moral and cultural legacy of the 1960s (and created in response a Republican Party which for the most part opposes much of that legacy). One of the lessons of American history is that, even under the best of circumstances and with the best of leaders, not tearing ourselves apart has been a challenge. So here we are today, 150 years after Fort Sumter, still tearing ourselves apart about some of the very basics of what kind of a country we want to be – and which groups should be the primary beneficiaries.

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