Old Is New

America’s Long-Simmering, Semi-Civil Civil War

Lloyd Green on the old, old factions that just won’t die.

Win McNamee/Getty

Welcome to the latest installment in America’s long-simmering, semi-civil, civil war. Just because General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House doesn’t mean that old grievances have gone away.

These days, the Republican Party is the party of the South; the party of Lincoln is now the party of Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint; and the DeMint-backed Senate Conservatives Fund is bellowing that the “Republicans are the problem right now.” The only thing missing from this tableau is South Carolina’s long-gone Preston Brooks.

Preston Brooks? Yes, Preston Brooks. Back in the day—the day being May 1856, he beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over the head with a cane in retaliation for a speech Sumner delivered a few weeks earlier, in which Sumner had advocated the abolition of slavery and dissed a Brooks relative.

Still, the reality is that the skirmishes of the last four-plus years are less about race per se, and more about diversity tinged by the brush-strokes of need, and the political demands of the polychromatic poor. As Jonathan Chait acknowledged, “In a few weeks, the United States government, like those of France, or Australia, or Israel, will begin to regard health insurance as something to be handed out to one and all, however poor, lazy, or otherwise undeserving each recipient may be.”

Through this lens, the fights over Obamacare, or even immigration and guns are not simply about the transfer of wealth, government mandates, amnesty, or the text of the Second Amendment. Rather, it is a culture war, a battle over the social fabric itself, in an America which grows ever less monochromatic and where diversity broadly correlates to poverty.

As economist Paul Collier observes in his latest book, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World, immigration, welfare, and diversity pose a collective challenge to the political eco-system, or as Paul Krugman phrased it, “open immigration can’t exist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure healthcare and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.”

Like it or not, there is a tension between mass immigration on the one hand, and the welfare state on the other, and it’s not going away.

Against this sulfurous backdrop, Democrats and Republicans alike feel compelled to man the ramparts for their core constituencies. In the Congress, a Confederate-like hostility to government has found a home in the House of Representatives, where a majority of the majority (translation – a minority) blocks consideration of a clean continuing resolution that would allow government to muddle along, and the stock market to heave a sigh of relief.

For those who worry about these developments—like the high end of the GOP’s donor base—Republican-induced market drops are unwelcome, and could lead to problems for the party down the road. Obama’s tax hikes are despised, but what’s a tax hike compared to a default-triggered portfolio wipe-out?

As a reminder, wealthier voters actually voted Democratic in 2008—a first—as a rebuke to the failings of George W. Bush’s presidency. History could repeat itself in 2014 and 2016 if the Republicans go over a cliff on the upcoming debt ceiling fight. The latest Washington Post poll shows the public blaming the Republicans for the standoff.

But beyond the fight over the budget and the debt, the Republican Party appears ill-equipped to meet the challenges posed by America’s changing demographics. It is not just about minorities. The gender gap looms large at the voting booth, as well as among donors. In 2012, women donated 44 cents of every campaign dollar received by the Obama campaign, but less than 30 cents raked in by the Romneyites.

Also, there is the issue of geography and the cultural center. Right now, Ted Cruz is the leading contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and is followed by Kentucky’s Rand Paul. New Jersey’s Chris Christie trails in third. Cruz’s filibuster delighted many conservatives, and powered him to the top of the GOP’s scrum. But beyond that, his appeal and traction appear limited to the party faithful.

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In contrast, Hillary Clinton is part of the cultural center. She was once the first lady of Arkansas, and in 2008 she ran well among white working-class voters. Equally as important, she is closer to her party’s center of gravity—unlike Mitt Romney or Governor Christie, who appear to be outliers within their own party, each in his own way. In other words, Clinton would be an easy sell to the Democratic base.

Fortunately, no one has been caned over the head as the national debate continues full bore. Still, old animus dies hard.

The regional frictions transplanted from England in the seventeenth century are still alive. The mindsets of both Cavalier and Puritan took root in the New World, and the experiment launched in 1776 continues. But the folks who settled here were quarrelsome. Less than 100 years after they rebelled against the Crown, they fought each other—just as their ancestors had during the English Civil War.

South Carolina’s Joe Wilson screaming “you lie” at President Obama during a September 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress, as the president declared that health-care reform would not cover illegal immigrants, presaged the fights that would follow – in the same vein as Obama calling out the Supreme Court at his January 2010 State of the Union Address for its decision on campaign finance laws. The fissures of old have not disappeared, and so the question we face is whether America itself is to again become a nation divided by a common language and Constitution.