This Evil Force Can Be Seen Moving Through Time– II: The Spirit of Domination

Summary: The parallels between the spirit that drove this nation to Civil War and that which has taken over the Republican Party are many, dense, and interrelated. There’s plenty enough there for book-length treatment. All I will venture here is sketching out some of the major lines.

[Here is a partial list of the books I’ve drawn on for an understanding of the history leading up to the Civil War.]

More Power to the Powerful

The force that took hold of the South in the middle of the 19th century, and has taken hold of the Republican Party in our times, has been consistent in expressing a relentless drive to expand the power of the powerful. The drive toward domination is at the heart of how this spirit expresses itself.

slaves watched in the fields

It is not coincidence – indeed it could hardly be more significant – that the driving obsession behind the conduct of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War, and the reason behind the secession that led directly to the war, was slavery. The more this spirit took hold of the South, the more insistent became the Southern elite that slavery be expanded without obstacles.

Despite the falsehoods that the South has been telling itself (beginning immediately after the Civil War, as James McPherson has shown ), the war was altogether about slavery. Or, to put it a bit differently, the only “states rights” it was about was the right of the Southern states to secede in order to protect and extend slavery.

In fighting for slavery, the South – dominated by its slaveholding class—was fighting for the right of some human beings to treat other human beings as property. The slaveholding class, which sought relentlessly to exert dominant force in the American nation, fought for the idea that they were entitled to regard other human beings as having “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” as Chief Justice Taney put it in his infamous Dred Scott decision.

The essence of the Southern argument, in the final years leading up to the Civil War, was framed persistently in terms of their “property rights.” It would have been a humiliating position for them, they said, for them to be denied the same rights as any other Americans to go wherever they wanted with their “property.” Property consisting of human beings held by force — by the lash and worse – to serve their masters.

In America today, of course, “slavery” per se is no longer an issue. But slavery is not the only means by which a powerful few can dominate and exploit the weaker and more vulnerable many.

In the force that’s taken over the political right in America today, the same dynamic of domination is pushing to empower the powerful – and to subordinate the weak — in many ways. It pushes to abridge previously recognized rights of workers in relation to giant corporate powers. It pushes to transfer the burden of taxation from those who have most to those who have less. And, perhaps most crucially, it is pushing to transform our system of government from one that is not not just of the people but for and by them as well, into a plutocratic system of rule of the people, but for and by big money. *

All this is a consistent thrust of the Republican Party, with the same relentless insistence as was manifest by the slaveholders in the years leading to the Civil War.

[*Note: (The plutocratic tendency may contaminate our whole political system, but the differences between the parties is significant. This difference was recently shown in dramatic form by the recent decision, McCutcheon vs. FEC , which gutted still further the already feeble efforts to contain the ability of big money to buy our government: in that decision, the five-person majority in the Supreme Court were all Republican appointees, while the four justices making a stinging and vigorous defense were all Democratic appointees.)]

In both eras, this drive to dominate is dressed in the language of pseudo-moral justification. “[S]lavery, “said Alexander Stephens, one of the more “moderate” of Southern leaders, declared on the eve of the Civil War,” subordination to the superior race, is [the Negro’s] natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” In the controlling echelons of today’s Republican Party, it is apparently regarded as right for the “makers” to control the “takers.” The sense of entitlement is palpable in the words of the plutocrats.

The parallel is clear: In both eras, this force works to allow the superior few to dominate the inferior many.

Terror of the Subordinate Role

In a society based on slavery, the core of the relation between master and slave is subordination. As soon-to-be Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens declared: “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

It is easy to understand how, in a society based on slavery, the idea of being subordinate would be terrifying. And the language coming out of the South as that section lost its dominant position in the American political system confirms how fraught with degrading connotations, for the men of the South, was the idea that political developments might consign them to a subordinate role in the governance of the nation. As they faced the prospect of the presidency being won by their opponents – Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party – and of having to submit to policies they opposed, the Southerners used words like “vassalage,” “inferior position, “ and “a degradation to which a high spirited people should not submit.”

We in America today do not have that kind of institutionalized nightmare of domination. But there are other ways of instilling in people a terror of being in a subordinate position. We all grow up in situations of weakness, and the psychology is well-established about how the lust for power can grow out of traumatic experiences of weakness. The way in which today’s dominant group apparently speaks of half of America as “takers” and “losers” seems evidence of something absorbed regarding the meaning of being on the bottom of the hierarchical ladder. That, however, is speculation.

What is not speculative, however, is how much the Republicans of today re-capitulate the refusal of the Southerners on the eve of the Civil War to accept the prescribed American tradition of how to deal with losing an election conducted in a constitutionally legitimate way. It has been more than thirty years since the Republican Party has accepted the legitimacy of a Democratic president. Rather than accepting that sometimes one’s side will lose an election, and be consigned to playing a subordinate role, they have chosen to fight to destroy the power of their duly
elected opponent.

Democracy does not guarantee anyone permanent dominance. In a democracy, a fundamental principle is that we all agree to abide by the results of fair elections. That’s what enables a society to deal with issues of power peacefully. But those people who are terrified of the subordinate role – those for whom being the weaker party, even if temporarily, tends to trigger such feelings as humiliation, impotence, vulnerability, pain and rage – respect the democratic process only when they are triumphant.

Elections Are to be Respected Only If We Win

For the first several generations of the American Republic, the slaveholders were extraordinarily dominant. As Richards writes in The Slave Power:

“Slavemasters had far more power than their numbers warranted. In the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected president—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson—were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker’s chair the longest—Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon—were slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders.

(Part of this was due to the three-fifths clause by which the Constitution granted slave states, and thus their dominant class, more votes in proportion to the number of human beings they held in bondage. Part of this was due to masterful play in the struggle for power.)

But when the constitutional process led to an electoral defeat, they declared themselves for disunion. Some in the South advocated waiting to see what Lincoln would actually do as president, or advocated for waiting until the next election to try to regain their dominance. But that view lost out to those who simply rejected the democratic process as soon as it led to an outcome unfavorable to their interests.

Likewise the force that’s taken over the Republican Party in our times.

When they held the presidency under George W. Bush, there was hardly a power the Republicans weren’t willing to usurp for their “commander-in-chief.” But as soon as they lost the presidency to the other party, they did everything they could to prevent him from functioning as president. They treated his trying to make good on his campaign promise to institute health care reform as an extreme and radical action. (See my op/ed piece, “An Attack on the System Our Founders Gave Us”.) They sought to de-legitimize him. They sought to make him fail. They acted as if the people who’d elected their man had no rights they were bound to respect by acknowledging the right of someone they opposed to play the presidential role.

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11 Comments

  1. Richard H. Randall

    The fascination with Ayn Rand by people like Rand Paul, his father Ron, Paul Ryan and others on the right is in part a driving force for these morally vicious people. Their racism appeals to people already forced by the Federal Government to end their racist, segregationist ways. The people in the Federalist club, such as our current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, is indicative of the economic/power thrust of not just the 1% but of the well entrenched money interests, who, in one of the greatest acts of treason in the history of this nation, the wealthy sent over 87% of our manufacturing jobs overseas for the profits of the ‘masters of wealth’ and the destitution of the future of jobs for future generations in our nation.
    With the encroaching issues of future weather disasters/possibility of massive shifts in sea level, and hurricane intensity, the possibilty of European war, as well as the continuing war on women, the middle class,
    public education and the possibility of further tax shifts, and the attack upon the Federal Government’s ability to defend and help care for the people of the United States, we are heading indeed for more interesting times. Andy’s piece above well explains the origin, and continuity of this
    ideology of fear, hate, greed and dominance. It is also called sometimes, Fascism.

  2. Observing that much of this is present reality a question arises:

    Can we find anything in the attitudes, activities and, say, commitments or lack there of in the general population as a trend in the ‘culture’ occurring prior to and during this trend downward economically and politically for ‘the masses’?

    If we use the scientific approach to test the ‘theory’ derived somewhat from history and practical religion . . might we find a parallel in the two trends ?

    ,ie , trending upward for the ‘momentarily’ powerful and downward for the general public.

    And if so might we find the possible indication of the operation
    of a principle long believed among many that . . . .

    • I am not positive, David R., that I understand your question– but if I do, I think it an important one:

      Can we find anything in the attitudes, activities and, say, commitments or lack there of in the general population as a trend in the ‘culture’ occurring prior to and during this trend downward economically and politically for ‘the masses’?

      What I think you’re asking is what else might have been going on in the culture to undermine the power of goodness/righteousness in America, paving the way for the rise of this “evil force.”

      Is that close to what you meant.

      If it is, there’s a piece posted here on NSB a number of years ago and that will be resurrected — and likely modified — to be an entry in the series. The piece is called “The Challenge of Affluence: A Root of our Moral Crisis,” and it posits that our culture, formed under circumstances of scarcity that marked human societies for millennia, did not prepare us for the affluence that sprang up in societies like ours in a twinkling (a few generations). And the piece explains how this new circumstance subverted the moral disciplines that our traditions gave us, thus weakening the power of the good in our cultural system.

      Here’s a link to that previous posting: http://www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?p=1533

  3. Richard H. Randall

    I have always appreciated and respected your understanding of the economic movement in this country, and as your background is business, I admit your understanding in this area is probably better than mine.
    I will put forward two ideas that are linked. The ascendency of the far left (it certainly wasn’t all good )which alienated many blue collar workers during the Viet Nam war, and the rise of Regan, with his not so subtle racism, to get the votes from the old Southern Democratic party area. Actually, I’ll make that three and four ideas: the rise of evangelical power, with some of it’s racist and ‘separatist’ overtones and, anti-government message. The influence, now waning, of the talk-radio crew supporting all of the above.

  4. Richard H. Randall

    Thomas B. Edsell has an opinion at the NYTimes today, on Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, and the books critics. It is well worth reading as are many of the comments on the piece and especially on Piketty’s work and views.
    The bane of inequality, growing rapidly since Regan’s revolution, and aided by the Clinton Presidency as well as the other presidents since then, mirrors the economic situation-or it will mirror it-that many in the South faced prior to the Civil War.
    Interestingly enough, after WWI, some blacks and whites in the south were tentatively meeting and discussing the fact that they had more in common with each other than the South’s wealthiest power brokers. To stop this possible alliance, the aforementioned men poured money into the resurgence of the KKK, with both races being warned about trying to join a common movement to stand for their economic well being.
    Nowadays, the right panders to the worst of instincts, racism and greed and above all, fear, to maintain it’s place where it can.

    • Interestingly enough, after WWI, some blacks and whites in the south were tentatively meeting and discussing the fact that they had more in common with each other than the South’s wealthiest power brokers. To stop this possible alliance, the aforementioned men poured money into the resurgence of the KKK, with both races being warned about trying to join a common movement to stand for their economic well being.

      Thanks, Richard, for this bit of history– new to me.

      Can you cite where you learned of this?

  5. Yes, that is significant and partly enabling what has come about. The labor unions growing strong during WWII and the G I Bill and the new opportunities for College Education and home Ownership and more liberal lending brought prosperity to families
    unknown in the past and brought attitudes of sufficiency; very much NON conducive to Christian virtue.

    But there was much more all coming along with this.

    During the War People prayed and trusted and worked and sacrificed but after the war we ere deluged with constant ‘propaganda’ about American ‘know-how’ There were young people supposedly so much more educated and ‘smarter’
    than earlier generations, men becoming ‘Professionals’ with ‘careers’ rather than primarily laboring to support mother and children- the home as center of it all; more and more then women leaving the home seeking fulfillment out in ‘the man’s world’(meanwhile more and more were leaving the farms and rural life for the factories and cities)

    The advent of T V in the home with the T V tray in the den or family room at dinner rather than the family around the table; the boob tube still on in the evening rather than the kids doing home work with the parents interest; the ugly American travelling abroad in a devastated world- ‘we’ the greatest nation in the world having saved the world; liberalism in the Christian church, the people having had enough of blood and death in the war . . gladly abandoning the message of the Cross.

    Then how quickly the judgment falls on an unthankful people. Within five years war again in Korea and America begins her visible decline with a no-win retreat and withdrawal. Then JFK authorizes the assassination of South Vietnamese President
    Diem(?) –opposed, I believe, by vice-president Johnson- and the Vietnam war is underway. Then Kennedy is himself assassinated(you sow . . you reap ?) and the United States is on the way to a devastating defeat and major social dissolution at home under a President who did not want the war in the first place and had no leadership ability to lead a nation in conflict at all.
    And on down ‘we’ go. So much for the Pride of imagined power !

    Gosh; and how much more can we add to the accounting of the flood of influences and consequences !

  6. Rcihard H. Randall

    Hi Andy, and thanks for the msgs today about your article/radio program.

    It came from a college lecture at LSU in the early 70’s. The professor was quoting William E. Leuchtenburg, famous American Historian. I believe it came from the latter’s ‘Perils of Prosperity,’ but don’t quote me on that. I heard it later in another American History class, but I don’t believe their was a cite given.

  7. Rcihard H. Randall

    David R, thanks for the good list of influences. I’d disagree on a number of items you obviously believe were bad for our nation.
    The government assistance for Veterans, the GI bill made much of our progress possible, and as you note the work of Roosevelt, the new deal, etc. raised the standard of living enormously in the country for the growing middle class and the poor. My father helped build health centers, and schools in Mississippi,for both all people, which white power government kept segregated (good Christian virtue????).
    Secondly, you seem to believe that professional work is not virtuous. Do you think a Jeffersonian yeoman farmer is the only valid moral life? That is a very strange thought. For the record, I am very glad and think it is a great step in the right direction, that the government is assisting veterans and others who wish to go into farming to do this with loans and training, and the local county agents and the state colleges leading the way. I won’t go into the rationale for this here: I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.
    Finally, for me it is the liberals in the churches who present the Jesus’ message on the social gospel which is important. I have said elsewhere that I think the hell-fire and brimstone, worthless sinner emphasis of fundamentalist religious practice is a mistake.
    Finally, there is a great deal wrong now in the world and the nation: I understand that you wish for things to be better. I think your prescription for this is largely mistaken in some details, and lacks an understanding of the social construction of reality as it is. Nevertheless I understand that there are some ‘conservative’ principles of real value to the world and nation, and that you have shown us well how some of these are being debased and destroyed by what is happening to us all.

  8. ( MAYBE CAN SEE CLEARER NOW)

    Yes, that is significant and partly enabling what has come about. The labor unions growing strong during WWII and the G I Bill and the new opportunities for College Education and home Ownership and more liberal lending brought prosperity to families unknown in the past and brought attitudes of sufficiency; very much NON conducive to Christian virtue.

    “and brought attitudes of sufficiency;
    very much NON conducive to Christian virtue”

    THE BENEFITS WERE GOOD AND HELPED MANY ALONG IN LIFE . . TO A BETTER LIFE . . AND PROSPERITY TO THE COUNTRY.

    “and brought attitudes of sufficiency”
    MAYBE THE PRELUDE TO PROBLEMS”
    “But there was much more all coming along with this”

    “During the War People prayed and trusted and worked and sacrificed but after the war we were deluged with constant ‘propaganda’ about American ‘know-how’
    SO WE DID IT OURSELVES

    Now there were young people supposedly so much more educated and ‘smarter’ than earlier generations.
    TOO SMART FOR THE RESTRAINT OF ‘OLD FASHIONED’ VALUES ?

    “Men becoming ‘Professionals’ with ‘CAREERS’
    rather than primarily laboring to support mother and children- the home as center of it all;
    SOCIETY NEEDS COMPETENT PROFESSIOONALS IN A NUMBER OF FIELDS
    IT’S THE CAREER TAKING ON EGO SATISFACTIONS AND HOME SECOND.

    SO THEN:

    more and more then women leaving the home AS FIRST PLACE seeking fulfillment out in ‘the man’s world’.
    THIS SPEAKS FOR ITSELF PARTLY AS A CONSEQUENCE
    BUT ALSO A RESPONSE TO NEW OPPORTUNITIOES AS WELL.

    (meanwhile more and more were leaving the farms and rural life for the factories and cities)
    ONE MORE MAJOR SHIFT AND DEPARTURE FROM TRADITIONAL LIFE AND CULTURE.

    The advent of T V in the home with the T V tray in the den or family room at dinner rather than the family around the table; the boob tube still on in the evening rather than the kids doing home work with the parents interest;

    “the ugly American travelling abroad in a devastated world- ‘we’ the greatest nation in the world having saved the world”

    “liberalism in the Christian church, the people having had enough of blood and death in the war . . gladly abandoning the message of the Cross.
    ………………………………………………………………………………………………..
    WE THE GREAT
    …………………………………………………………………………………………………

    Then how quickly the judgment falls on an unthankful people. Within five years war again in Korea and America begins her visible decline with a no-win retreat and withdrawal.

    Then JFK authorizes the assassination of South Vietnamese President
    Diem(?) –opposed, I believe, by vice-president Johnson- and the Vietnam war is underway. Then Kennedy is himself assassinated(you sow . . you reap ?)

    and the United States is on the way to a devastating defeat
    and major social dissolution at home
    under a President who did not want the war in the first place
    and had no leadership ability to lead a nation in conflict at all.
    And on down ‘we’ go. So much for the Pride of imagined power !

    Gosh; and how much more can we add to the accounting of the flood of influences and consequences !

    WELL, SO MUCH MORE IS PILING ON A FRAGMEWNTING CULTURE HELD TOGETHER BY THE BONDS AND DEMANDS OF OUR ECONOMIC NATUE.

    Can we see maybe how now money rules . . as simply a natural consequence ?

    Oh, I know : Let’s send a petition to congress !

  9. Rcihard H. Randall

    David, a big ATTABOY and thanks for the clarification. I agree with some of your analysis. I have said before that your understanding of the economics here exceeds mine.
    The problem is similar to the situations of the Greeks and Romans. In general, after wars, and civil wars, were ruled by the wealthy, who controlled their militaries, who murdered, e.g. Julius Caesar, who tried to alleviate the plight of his retired soldiers and the working class, why hire, when you can conquer and enslave?
    I am not an enemy of money: I am not a luddite, nor communist. I like the idea of small business, of small farmers, of local public education, sports teams, various scouting organizations, etc. But big, unregulated money is the enemy of democracy, an enemy of religion, an enemy of a sense of individual responsibility and a sense of community==and finally a sense of grace and wonder. it destroys the sense of accomplishment which comes for individual success and effort. It gives people peculiar ideas about themselves in relation to others. I have known wealthy men and women who were not only good people, but the kind of guy/gal you wanted to spend time with-people whom you could trust your kids with. That seems long ago, and far away. I think David, some of our older values can come back, without some of the dross which accompanied them-to be useful, and trustworthy for the near future (?)and for future generations. I pray to God it is so. Thanks again for the clarification.

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