Enmity in America, Echoes of the Civil War Era

Written and published (in newspapers and on the web), June 2017.


The other day, I saw some poll results that disturbed but did not surprise me. It revealed how deeply divided Americans have become: more than 80% of both Trump voters and Clinton voters regarded their fellow citizens on the other side as “enemies.”

Is there anyone who will deny that such enmity is the very opposite of what a good society should aspire to, the opposite of what he who said “love thy neighbor” and who taught an ethic of peace would call for?

I have been well-positioned to observe how, in our times, such antagonism has arisen in America. Throughout the 1990s, I was engaged with audiences on both sides of the divide and I saw: This enmity in America has not been fed equally by both sides.

My radio conversations on WSVA in Harrisonburg from 1992 onward gave me the opportunity to observe the spirit of that conservative audience. Already in the 90s, there was a hostility – fed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh — from many people on the right toward people on the liberal side that was almost wholly unreciprocated.

During that same period, I went around the country giving a talk titled “Beyond Dispute” to liberal audiences. In that talk, I preached that liberals and conservatives should be fighting each other less, and learning from each other more. Neither side, I maintained, had a monopoly on the truth. Liberals welcomed this message of bridge-building.

Then, during W’s presidency, Karl Rove’s divisive rhetorical strategy further inflamed the antagonism people on the right directed against Americans on the liberal side.

In 2005, I did one program asking my conservative radio audience: “To what extent do you see liberal Americans as your fellow citizens with whom you should work to find common ground to move the nation forward, and to what extent do you see them as enemies whom you should vanquish so they have no voice regarding the direction of the nation?”

The callers’ responses made my hair stand on end: bitter enmity was the overwhelmingly predominant attitude toward liberals.

Meanwhile, my liberal audiences wrung their hands over how a more cooperative and friendly relationship might be developed with their conservative fellow citizens.

The same asymmetrical picture is found at the level of the elected officials of the two sides. All of W’s most important legislation was passed with the help of Democratic votes in Congress. All of Obama’s legislative efforts were met by (near) unanimous opposition from Republicans.

Obama put forward Republican ideas in an effort to get bi-partisan opposition (e.g. cap and trade, Obamacare). Trump has yet to make a single positive overture to the Democrats.

In recent years, there have been many pleas for greater civility, greater cooperation for the common good. Virtually all those pleas have come from the liberal side.

Polling over recent years has consistently shown that Republican and Democratic voters have very different attitudes toward “compromise” with the other side. A majority of Republican voters oppose compromise, regarding it as almost a dirty word. The great majority of Democratic voters consider compromise a good thing if it is required to get things done.

The right has produced a political culture based on anger and resentment. Whom to love is a wholly neglected topic. Whom to hate is central to people’s political identity. Love thine enmity.

(So it is that, reportedly, the main reaction on the right to Trump’s pulling out of the climate agreement was glee at how upset liberals were. So it is that Trump’s tearing apart our 70-year NATO commitment to our closest allies has provoked no protest from his followers.)

I can’t help but notice how all this recapitulates the pattern of the 1850s, leading up to the Civil War. In the early 1850s, the hostility was intense on the Southern side, but muted in the North. But hostility begets hostility, and anger provokes anger.

As the decade continued, the consistent Southern attacks on the North’s interests and values – the Fugitive Slave law, the overthrow of the Missouri Compromise, the beating of Senator Sumner on the Senate floor, the fraudulent Kansas constitution, the Dred Scott decision – gradually inflamed the anger of the North.

By the end of that decade, the feeling of enmity in the North rose to a pitch nearly matching that of the South, as shown by the fervent support expressed by many in the North for John Brown’s anti-slavery attack on Harper’s Ferry.

And soon the war came.

No longer is the nation divided along a geographical fracture fault. So that kind of civil war of massed armies will not recur.

But just as the rancor of that era has led to deep wounds still not fully healed, so should we recognize that this polling showing how enmity has now become more symmetrical in the American body politic is a grave threat to America’s immediate and long-term well-being.

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