And how did you like the kabuki dance, Mr Lincoln?
Reading this piece
by John Judis about President Obama's misreading of Lincoln's "compromises" reminded me of a (far less elegant) post of mine
from some years back on the subject of America's original sin and the two tribes that emerged from it. Judis writes:
THIS IS IMPORTANT because Obama may now be facing his own crisis of the Union. Over the last four decades, the Republican Party has transformed from a loyal opposition into an insurrectionary party that flouts the law when it is in the majority and threatens disorder when it is the minority. It is the party of Watergate and Iran-Contra, but also of the government shutdown in 1995 and the impeachment trial of 1999. If there is an earlier American precedent for today’s Republican Party, it is the antebellum Southern Democrats of John Calhoun who threatened to nullify, or disregard, federal legislation they objected to, and who later led the fight to secede from the union over slavery.
It's my my ongoing thesis on this blog that we've never stopped fighting that war, it just varies in intensity. My old post quoted extensively from a speech by historian Steven Z. Starr, who made it on the centennial anniversary of the civil war:
The second basic issue between the sections lay in the area of politics; necessarily so, for it was in the political arena that the problems between the sections were fought out until the South decided that political solutions, reached by a process of give and take, were no longer adequate to protect its "honor and self-respect.”
Bear in mind that middle and upper class Southerners were politicians by birthright. Active participation in politics was, in the South, a way of life. One would expect, therefore, to find a much greater degree of political skill and acumen there than in the North. What one finds there instead is demagogy, bombast, irresponsibility, incompetence, a childish refusal to come to grips with realities, and a habitual substitution of slogans, symbols and bogeymen for facts. These are strong statements, but hardly strong enough to fit the situation.
The South had an almost unbroken control of the Federal Government from 1789 until secession. The presidents were either Southerners., or Northerners like Pierce and Buchanan, who were mere puppets in the hands of Southern senators and cabinet members. For seventy years, the Supreme Court had a majority of Southern justices. With the aid of its Northern allies and the three-fifths rule, the South controlled one or both houses of Congress. The fifteen Slave States, with a white population of not quite eight million, had 30 senators, 90 representatives, and 120 electoral votes, whereas the State of New York, with a population of four million had two senators, 33 representatives, and 35 electoral votes. Even the election of 1860 left the South in control of both houses of Congress, and until at least 1863, Lincoln and the Republicans would have been powerless to pass legislation hostile to the South, and through its control of the Senate, the South could have blocked the confirmation of every Lincoln appointee whom it considered unfriendly. In spite of this, and notwithstanding Lincoln's repeated assurances that he would not, directly or indirectly, interfere with slavery where it already existed, the South chose to secede.
Starr goes on to show that this irrational behavior was not due to the south failing to get the the legislation it wanted, because it did. It became an emotional issue in which it was important to "crack the whip over the heads of the northern men" and they began to make enemies of their allies in the territories. As Starr says, "this tale of political ineptitude, the habitual misreading of the minds of opponents, the misjudging of the practical possibilities of a given situation, the purposeless striving for effect, the substitution of arrogance and threats for rational discussion, could be expanded many fold."
Starr's view is that the south behaved irrationally prior to the civil war because of it's defensiveness about its culture of slavery. He grants that there other differences, some exaggerated and some quite real, but notes that most people of both regions were farmers and had more in common than not. The record suggests one very important difference, however, and that was that the south had a much inferior educational system,
...in 1850, 20.3% of white Southerners over the age of twenty were illiterate, as against less than one-half of one percent of New Englanders.
But it is important to point out that lack of educational opportunities was a significant factor in preventing the rise of a class of intelligent, educated farmers and artisans in the South. Only two Southern states, North Carolina and Kentucky, had respectable public school systems before 1860, and this had much to do with the failure of Southern whites to understand that their "peculiar institution" was out of tune with the moral, social, and even economic sentiment of the times, and with their readiness to follow the Pied Pipers who thought that a nation and a state could be founded on the enslavement of four million human beings. These are among the dangers of a closed society and of an iron curtain.
Granting the existence of cultural differences between the North and South, can we assume that they would necessarily lead to a Civil War? Obviously not. Such differences lead to animosity and war only if one side develops a national inferiority complex, begins to blame all its shortcomings on the other side, enforces a rigid conformity on its own people, and tries to make up for its own sins of omission and commission by name-calling, by nursing an exaggerated pride and sensitiveness, and by cultivating a reckless aggressiveness as a substitute for reason.
And this was the refuge of the South. For ten years before secession, Northerners were commonly referred to as “mongrels and hirelings." The North was described as "a conglomeration of greasy mechanics filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moonstruck theorists ... hardly fit for association with a southern gentleman's body servant." And, most fatal delusion of all, Southerners began to credit themselves with fighting ability equal to that of nine, five, or more conservatively, three Northerners. Once a nation or a section begins to speak and think in such terms, reason has gone out the window and emotion has taken over. This is precisely what happened in the South, and this is why the Cotton States seceded before Lincoln was even inaugurated and before his administration had committed, or had a chance to commit, any act of aggression against them. Such behavior is fundamentally irrational, and cannot be explained in rational terms.
The civil war, of course, made everything worse. Reconstruction was a nightmare and the north never had even the slightest idea what to do about the race problem once they dealt with the slavery problem. (Indeed, when it comes to racism, the north shared most of the same beliefs. They just didn't live among many blacks so they didn't have to deal with those problems until much later.) But, the ignominy of reconstruction gave birth to the Lost Cause mythology and that only reinforced the already outsized sense of wounded pride.
The south today has forty percent that votes with the blue states in national elections. They are white progressive modern people who share the southern cultural identity but have avoided the 200 year old baggage that makes it impossible to identify with people not of their own tribe and african-americans who were excluded except as scapegoats and second class citizens. (I'm sure nonetheless that some of what I've written sticks in the craw of many of you and you may feel that old resentment. It appears to me as if this is an ingrained reaction to discussions of this sort. It certainly has been around forever.)
I'm not going to take a stand against "heartland values" or "southern culture" whatever it's defined as this week. It seems to me that it would be worthless, because this battle is obviously tribal, not specific to any particular issue. Slavery and Jim Crow are long gone. Now it's religion and gays. The lines are drawn as they've always been and there will be no reconciliation through politics. Even a bloody civil war couldn't do that.
History suggests that the southern culture has always been as defined by it's resentment toward the rest of the country as much as anything else. The so-called bi-coastal liberal elites certainly don't think of themselves as having a lot in common with each other, other than being Americans. People from Los Angeles and Vermont call themselves Californians and New Englanders, respectively. I don't think they believe they share a "culture." People in Seattle call themselves pacific northwesterners. People in New York call themselves New Yorkers --- Chicagoans midwesterners. They identify themselves by their specific region and a broader identity as Americans, not by this alleged Bi-coastal cultural alliance. This notion of two easily identifiable cultures is only held by the people who used to call themselves the confederacy and now call themselves "the heartland." That alone should be reason to stop and question what is really going on here.
One thing this little historical trip should show everyone is that it is nonsense to think that this cultural resentment and cultural contempt was created by Hollywood movie stars and limosine liberals from New York City. Indeed, this has been a problem since the dawn of the republic. And it isn't a problem that will be solved by the Red States gaining and maintaining power. They have held power many times throughout our history and they were still filled with resentment toward "the north" (now "the liberal elites.") And, it won't be solved by adopting different stances on "moral issues," or telling the current Democratic southern constituencies to suck it up. Maybe it's time we looked a little bit deeper and realized that this tribal problem isn't going to be solved by politics at all.
The "liberal elites" will no doubt be making more compromises in the direction of heartland values for pragmatic reasons. But, judging by history, it won't change a thing. Neither will Republican political dominance. So, maybe it's time for the heartland to take a good hard look at itself and ask when they are going to adopt the culture of responsibility they profess with such fervor. It sure looks to me as if they've been nursing a case of historical pique for more than 200 years and that resentment no longer has any more meaning than a somewhat self-destructive insistence on maintaining a cultural identity that's defined by it's anger toward the rest of the country. They are talking themselves into a theocratic police state in order to "crack the whip over the heads of the northern men" and it's not likely to work out for them any better this time than it did the first time. The real elites in the church, the government and the corporations will take them down right along with us when that comes to pass.
The parties still represent the two tribes that were created out of slavery and the same dynamic prevails today. During the Bush years we were all fascinated by the comparison between the civil war map and the 2004 election. It still represents the political bases of the two parties pretty well, with the ascension of the Randian kook faction recently coming out of the Upper Midwest. It's interesting how this tribal identity spread beyond region, however, a subject which is partially covered in fascinating detail in Kevin Philips 2007 book called American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.
he shows how the Southern Baptist convention spread beyond the South to dominate Protestantism in general and it partially explains how this Southern based tribal identity comes to be found in pockets throughout the country. There's also urban white backlash and the dominance of corporate sponsored media aimed at stoking the resentments that animate this particular American identity. This tribe now calls itself the Tea Party or the Conservative Movement and it dominates the Republican coalition.
If President Obama wants to be the Lincoln of his day he needs to recognize that the same dynamics that drove the Southern coalition to total lunacy in 1860 are driving it there today because as John Judis points out, he's had it wrong from the beginning:
When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy on February 10, 2007, he did it in Springfield, Illinois, in the same place where Abraham Lincoln had made his historic challenge to slavery in June 1858. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln had declared, conveying his conviction that the union could no longer countenance the existence of a slave-owning South.
This speech, Obama said, was the basis of his candidacy: “And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States,” Obama said. But Obama had Lincoln’s speech exactly backwards. Lincoln wasn’t calling for a divided house to stay together. He was arguing against compromise with the slave South.
This Resentment Tribe doesn't do compromise. You have to beat them. But then I suspect that President Obama understands this very well. It's just that he's torn between his centrist ideology, which is well served by this chaos (opportunity!) and his need to operate in a partisan system. In the end, he may achieve the other side's policy goals and be punished politically anyway. It's not policy or politics that drives these people, it's tribal resentment. And he will never be one of them.