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.
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
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.