In accordance with the Spirit of the Lie, the South has long represented itself as the victim of the Civil War, giving it the name “the War of Northern Aggression.” That’s not how it was. 1) It was not that way in the political struggles of 1848-61 that polarized the nation and led to the war. And 2) that is not the way it was in the series of events that precipitated the horrific armed conflict.
1) In the decade leading up to the Civil War, it was clearly the South that was on the offensive. While there may have been demographic and economic tides moving against the South and its “peculiar institution” of slavery, at every crucial turn of those years, it was the Southerners who were trying to expand the power and extent of slavery, not just defend what was already in place. This can be seen in the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which did away with the Missouri Compromise that had stabilized the conflict for more than three decades), the fraud of the Lecompton constitution to impose a minority’s will in Kansas, the Dred Scott decision, etc.
The South continually escalated the conflict and drove the polarization of the nation. The polarizing figures in the South were treated as mainstream, while those in the North – the abolitionists – were the targets of considerable hostility even in the North. The North was basically re-active. Lincoln re-entered politics in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. And it was only at the very end of the decade, after the passions of the North had been ignited by events, that John Brown made his Harper’s Ferry raid that sparked so much polarizing passion.
It is clear, then, that the main impetus toward making the issue of slavery one that divided the nation into conflicting and soon-to-be warring sections came from the South. It was the South who found no room for compromise, and the South that pressed the battle.
Then there is the question of which side chose war at the end of this process of escalating polarization.
The immediate issue over which the war was fought was the right of states to secede from the Union. Southerners believed they had such a right. The duly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, believed they did not. The issue was debatable. What is not debatable, however, is the legality and acceptability of the South’s way of dealing with the disagreement.
When citizens believe the president wrong, they have two constitutional recourses. 1) They can work to replace him in the next election. Or, 2) they can take the matter to the Supreme Court, which is the ultimate arbiter of what the Constitution allows and forbids. The South did neither, but instead unilaterally decided the issue and pronounced themselves ready to defend their interpretation by force of arms.
In the American constitutional system, there was no equality of legal status between the secessionists and the president. The president is empowered by the Constitution to be the executor of the laws and the defender of the Constitution. Part of his job is to decide what that means, and that responsibility gives him a status far beyond that of citizens generally.
So while secession itself might or might not be outlawry, but the manner of the South’s seceding was not only high-handed and provocative, but clearly illegal. Their conduct manifests a spirit so insistent on achieving its own will that it refused to abide by the order to which the Southerners, like other Americans, had bound themselves.
Such insistence, such violation of the order, was outlawry. And the South’s willingness to wage war to defend its unilateral determination of its rights in itself represented – even prior to the firing on Fort Sumter – a declaration of war.
We see that same spirit of war in our times– expressing itself from the right, with the Republican Party as its instrument.
Our politics in these times are more thoroughly conflictual than at any time in living memory, perhaps indeed more so than any time since the era of the Civil War.) With respect to this political pathology, no clear-eyed observer can doubt that it is the Republican Party that has chosen to make our politics almost all-out conflict.
Politics in a democracy is always a combination of inter-party competition, in which the actors seek advantage in the quest for power, and inter-party cooperation to serve the national good. Clearly, the Republicans have chosen to discard the usual balance and to make a fight over virtually everything. Two junctures will illustrate this clear truth.
First, in 2002, the Republicans chose conflict over cooperation when the Bush gang used the war on terror to divide Americans for political advantage. At the very time that the national trauma of 9/11 had prompted the Democratic Party, then in opposition, to rally round the president for the sake of national unity, the Republican president chose to use that same national emergency as a weapon against the other party.
The idea for a Department of Homeland Security had originated with Democrats. After resisting the idea for months, that Republican president – George W. Bush — put forward a bill to establish the department. But he did it in a way that that cast aside national unity for partisan warfare. Not only did the Republican president appropriate a Democratic idea, but he also set a trap for the Democrats – by putting an irrelevant poison pill into the measure – into voting against it so that they could be flogged for being “soft on terror” in the upcoming midterm elections.
That the Republicans are animated by the spirit of conflict over cooperation was equally clear in 2009, when now out of power they made it their top priority not to get Americans back to work but rather to make the president fail. Again and again, the Republicans fought against ideas that had been theirs before a Democratic president proposed them—from the form of health care reform to cap and trade as a market-based means of dealing with climate change. The Republican efforts to sabotage health care reform – repealing it 50 times, thwarting its implementation, etc. – is perhaps unprecedented in the history of American politics.
When the Republican Party took over many statehouses in the elections of 2010, once again it showed its predilection for strife. While the great majority of Americans were united in their desire to have government help create jobs, these Republican state governments chose instead to stir up renewed conflict on the one issue on which it is clear the nation has irreconcilable divisions. Upsetting a long-standing truce of sorts, achieved for example by the Hyde Amendment, and ignoring the great pain in the country over the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the GOP chose to make sure that Americans would become embattled with each other, once again, over the issue of abortion.
If, as Jesus said, it is the peacemakers who are blessed, then the opposite of peacemakers must be driven by a spirit that is the opposite of blessed. It creates brokenness in a nation. A political party that makes a fight over everything cripples the nation’s ability to solve its problems and meet its challenges. It degrades the country. Making politics into a form of warfare is destructive, and a political force that insists on destructiveness reveals the evil nature of the spirit that animates it.
The Transmission of the Patterns
This pattern of resemblance between the spirit that animated the South many generations ago and that which animates the Republican Party in our times could be elaborated in great detail. Each of these resemblances could be fleshed out with extensive documentation, and other important additional lines could be adduced. (These additional parallels include, for example, an impetus to undermine democracy and a tendency toward self-destruction – damaging or destroying those very institutions, values, and goals that the actors themselves proclaim themselves to be working to protect and advance.)
In both eras, we see a Spirit of War, a Spirit of the Lie, and a Spirit of (sometimes sadistic) Dominance. Behind these is the unifying element: the Spirit of Brokenness, a coherent force that works continually do damage whatever is whole within its reach.
In each case, also, the workings of that spirit depend upon a mutually reinforcing coherence of elements at different levels of the cultural system. These levels range from that of a power structure, which serves as the visible instrument of the force, to the level of the individual psyche whose habits of thought and feeling have been molded to be manipulable in service of the animating “evil spirit.” Such a force can fully embed itself in the multi-layered cultural system.
My own moment of recognizing the persistence and importance of such patterns came in 2004. That is when I saw how that manipulative genius, Karl Rove, effected his seduction of many traditionalist Americans, employing an old pattern used a century before to seduce poor whites in the Jim Crow South.
In the Jim Crow South, and now again in Karl Rove’s America, the leaders inflame passions around peripheral issues to distract their supporters from what the leaders are really doing with their power. A century ago, the hot-button distraction was racial purity. In our times, the leaders on the right have whipped people up about issues of moral purity.
In both cases, unjust leaders use deception to exacerbate divisions useful to magnifying their own power and wealth. They inflame antagonisms between groups of people, thus preventing them from making common cause to protect their vital interests. Like magicians, they focus attention on issues peripheral to the real action – the theft of wealth and power – so that their audience will not notice what’s really going on.
But it is not just the conduct of the leading power that can be inferred to be part of this ongoing cultural pattern. In the followers, too, there has been inculcated a psychological structure into which such a pattern of manipulation as Karl Rove took off the shelf will fit, giving leverage to the manipulations from the power system.
The question of how these patterns manage to perpetuate themselves is one worthy of separate discussion. Suffice it for now to say that every culture is many-dimensional (social structure, power relations, cultural symbols, psychic structure), and that the different levels reinforce each other – in some ways for wholeness, in some for brokenness – through institutions and communications and family structure and socialization.
Whether ascendant or lurking in the cultural interstices, old patterns tend to persist. In the case of the spirit that drove the South into the Civil War, it was never truly extirpated. Dark patterns lurk in the system, like some dormant virus, ready to erupt when the culture’s immune system weakens.
Another question that warrants separate treatment is why it is that sometimes the power of the Spirit of Wholeness is ascendant, and sometimes it is the worst angels of a people’s nature that comes to the fore. Later in this series, we will look at how and why it is that America’s “immune system” has weakened, allowing this old pathological virus of destruction to return to center stage of American politics and wreak havoc on our nation.
However we answer that question, however, what’s important here is to recognize what the profound parallels between these eras show. Perceiving the same pattern in these two important eras –- our present crisis, and the crisis that led to the Civil War —- can be revelatory just like with the images in the Magic Eye books: out of the stereoscopic image, a startling figure emerges with depth out of a new dimension.
We can see, first, that we are indeed up against something that is much more than the sum of its parts. It is a coherent entity that has a consistent, destructive impact. It is that entity – not just its manifestations – on which we should focus our attention. The better we perceive our foe, the better able we will be to defeat it.
And we can see, second, something important about how the human world works. Beneath the level of concrete events and people that make the daily news, there are deeper forces operating. They may not be visible to our usual way of seeing, but they are crucially important. Indeed, I would say that these forces and patterns are the main shapers of our world, of us, and of our destiny.