The historian Jill Lepore wrote recently in The New Yorker that a study by political scientists of congressional roll-call votes going back to 1789, together with longitudinal poll results and voter interviews, found that the electorate and its representatives are more polarized today than at any time since the South seceded.
It is no accident that the passions aroused by secession are still with us today since the issues raised by the War of the Rebellion, as it was called, have never been fully resolved. Rather, they have lain dormant to haunt us in various guises since the Confederacy was brought to heel. In the nearly 150 years since Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, these tensions have lain dormant, tamped down in collective amnesia and denial. Compromise was often achieved at the expense of the very people the Civil War amendments were supposed to liberate: the breach of faith that nullified Reconstruction, the “Separate but Equal” decision, the subsequent decades of Jim Crow, the pangs of the Civil Rights movement, and its abridgment in what has now become an undoing of the Second Reconstruction.
This time, the heirs of the Confederacy have learned that is more effective to suborn the government than secede. Tricked out in patriotic regalia as “The Tea Party,” these latter-day rebels have commandeered the GOP, one of the country’s two major political parties, enabling them to undermine not only the machinery of government but the idea of government. Boring from within, they have wreaked far greater damage on Washington than any Confederate victories.
Their efforts have been abetted by a supportive and activist Supreme Court, with echoes of the Taney court which, prior to the Civil War, provided significant legal cover for the slave power. As today, that bench was divided on ideological lines. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was a passionate advocate of slavery, as were four of the other seven justices. The Dred Scott decision—that slave property could not be excluded from the territories—was a ruling of naked partisanship. The next step, that no state—North or South—could exclude slavery, was only one decision away. As James McPherson tells us in The Battle Cry of Freedom, it was already being adjudicated in “Lemmon v. The People,” and would likely have become the law of the land—which Lincoln would have been obliged to uphold—had the Civil War not intervened. If the South had not made the blunder of disunion, it might well have gotten its way through constitutional means. In the words of William Cullen Bryant, the Stars and Stripes might have become “the flag of slavery.”
The heirs of the Confederacy would not make the same mistake twice. A look at a map leaves little doubt that the Tea Party derives its base from what was once the Solid South, a Democratic bastion in the days when White Power had a free hand to hold its blacks in thrall. When the Democrats, under Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s, it was seen as an act of betrayal by an outraged white South. The payback was swift and the re-alignment was total: a Solid South, but this time, Republican. The Party of Lincoln had become the Party of Reaction. It was only a matter of time before it lighted out for what had once been the territories. Tea Party enthusiasts, in terming their movement “The Second American Revolution,” might do well to check their history books. In appropriating this mantle, the Confederates got there first.
This spirit of reaction might have been confined to a region except for another government betrayal considered perhaps even greater by the outrage of those whom it discomfited: The commitment by the Progressives and their liberal successors to uphold the general welfare at the expense of corporate greed.
Corporate America and its ideologues embraced government intervention as long as Washington served as its handmaiden. Big business and its apologists of the Gilded Age had no problem with a strong federal hand that helped break strikes, keep populist farmers and restive workers in check, call in militias to suppress labor unrest, protect currency manipulation, banking interests, and corporate privilege.
The issue for Gilded Age plutocrats was not to foster small government but to maintain powerful governance in the service of market forces. When the Progressives and their New Deal successors, in the belief that democracy was best served by an equitable social polity, intervened for the common good, corporate America perceived this as an act of treachery. Government activism on behalf of the common man was an unforgivable sin to be extirpated from the body politic. To do so, Market America wrapped itself in the banner of “freedom.” Ever since, it has rallied to the battle cry of “get the government off our backs… ” Unstated is the corollary “… so we can trod on the necks of others.” The wounded plaints of right-wing tribunes—from the Republican senator who lamented the introduction of child-labor laws as socialist coercion, to the outrage at Woodrow Wilson’s graduated income tax, to the hand-wringing of Ronald Reagan, who saw Medicare as a slippery slope to tyranny—have all sprung from a definition of “freedom” that is as duplicitous as it is self-serving. It calls to mind the polemics of slave-holders who invoked their sacred “freedom” to own property, in this case other human beings.
The problem for the plutocrats and their political allies was that by openly espousing their policies, they would fare poorly at the ballot box and thereby fail to retain power through the polls. What was needed was a reliable rank-and-file. Enter the conservative movement: a marriage between corporate America and the New Confederacy. The former supplied the financing, the lobbying, a corporate underpinning, national links, and an overall strategy. The latter provided numbers, passion, righteousness, self-righteousness, and a patina of faux populist clout. Throw in a mix of social Darwinism, sectarian fundamentalism, super-patriotism, anti-immigration fears, latent racism, ideological Ayn Randism, inherent disaffection, together with a cauldron of assorted grievances. Mix with a floundering economy and foreign misadventures. Stoke with talk-radio demagogues and the internet echo chamber. Stir, and voila! A “spontaneous” people’s movement, albeit one generated by big bucks using shock-troop tactics to intimidate legislators, and to simulate grass-roots outrage.
Simply put, this misalliance of the corporate and the Confederate is anything but conservative, which looks to conserve what is best in a society. Rather it is reactionary, seeking a regression to the status quo ante that obtained during the Gilded Age in which corporations, in league with a compliant government, controlled the business of America and Southern patricians had their way with the social and political arrangements in their demesne. They justified their actions by invoking the sanctity of “states rights” even though these prerogatives often trampled on the rights of individuals living within their borders.
In the intervening years, the tribunes of the Tea Party have learned to mask their agenda by appropriating the language of their opponents to their own cause. In effect, they’ve invented a Republican Newspeak in which they invoke the idiom of progress in the cause of reaction.
They cite freedom of religion to prevent their employees from obtaining health benefits for reproductive care. They secure our borders against phantom Al Qaeda terrorists by hunting down Hispanic gardeners. In the name of protecting the ballot box from non-existent fraud, they seek to exclude millions of citizens from exercising the franchise. By gerrymandering legislative districts, they provide the illusion of black representation when the actual result is disempowerment, far more effective than the cruder disenfranchisement. They posture as keepers of the American flame while espousing measures that not long ago were considered the spore of a lunatic fringe. And, of course, they trot out the Constitution to justify their actions, much as the slave holders did 150 years earlier.
It is interesting to note that in the presidential election of 1856, the Democrats, who opposed the insurgent “Free Soil” Republicans, were the de facto national party that represented Southern interests. Their platform embraced “popular sovereignty”—a code for introducing slavery into the territories. It also endorsed states rights, limited national government, opposed federal aid for improving infrastructure as well as a national bank—a legacy handed down virtually intact to their latter-day heirs.
As passions heated up in the ensuing years that led up to the Civil War, legislators took to arming themselves in the halls of Congress, as did their partisans in the galleries. Matters came to a head when the Republicans, who had a majority in the House, tried to elect John Sherman of Ohio, a moderate, as the Speaker, in the face of obdurate Southern resistance. Southerners refused to suspend the House rules to elect the speaker with a plurality. The House continued disorganized through two months of balloting before frustrated Republicans withdrew Sherman’s name. McPherson quotes from a letter of one Southerner during the controversy: “Better the wheels of government should stop and the Union demonstrate itself to be a failure and find an end, than our principles, our honor, be infringed upon.”
While on the one hand, the country has been significantly transformed in the last 150 years, on the other hand, ghosts of the past continue to beset us. Our nation may have healed, but there are still exposed nerves that, when touched, cause trauma to the body politic. We are once again a house divided. Hard times lead to radical responses. In 20th-Century Europe, the colors of revolt were either red or brown. America was spared this choice because, although we at times had divided government, there were sufficient moderates on either side so that a working compromise could usually be achieved. We now find ourselves in a situation where partisan passions make consensus daunting. Moderates have been driven from the GOP, with the remaining pragmatists forced to toe an ever more stringent party line. Democrats, their backs up, have altered Senate rules on filibusters in the face of Republican obstruction. The spiral of polarization whirls. The fires that corporate America lit have now become a conflagration beyond its control. In the end, it will be up to the voters to restore a functioning Congress and effective government to our nation.