The Spirit That Drove Us to Civil War Is Back

This piece ran on Huffington Post in October of 2014.


It’s like facial recognition technology: if the features match up, you conclude, “It’s the same guy.”

So it is with the match between the force that drove us to Civil War more than a century and a half ago, and the force that has taken over the Republican Party in our times.

In both cases, we see an elite insisting on their “liberty,” by which they mean the freedom to dominate.

With Citizens United, in our times, the corporatists have declared that their “freedom of speech” gives them the right to buy our elections, unfettered by any concerns about the rights of the average citizen to have an equal say in their government.

Back in the 1850s, the slaveholders insisted that their “liberty” meant that they had the right to take their human “property” anywhere in American territory, an insistence that swept aside the previously respected concerns of millions of their countrymen that there be regions of the country free of slavery.

In both cases, the use of the structures of American democracy was combined with a contempt for the democratic values that inspired our founders.

Nowadays, the Republicans have made a national effort to pass voter ID laws to address a non-existent problem of voter fraud— a campaign that is itself a fraud whose transparent intent is to disenfranchise the vulnerable whose champions are the Republicans’ opponents.

Back in the years leading up to the Civil War, the slaveholders banned the distribution of anti-slavery writings, and sometimes suppressed anti-slavery talk by violence.

In both cases, the elites driving the polarization of the country justified their dominance by distorting, in belittling ways, the humanity of those they sought to exploit.

Today’s Republicans talk about the 47 percent, the half of the country they characterize as “takers,” even though many of those 47 percent work multiple jobs just to make ends meet; and these Republicans vote to strip them of unemployment benefits, at a time of massive joblessness, in the mistaken belief that only desperation will get these lazy people to work.

Back in the time of the Slave Power, the slaveholding class declared they were doing their black slaves a favor to discipline them into an ethic of work; freeing them would be cruel, the masters claimed, because those blacks were inherently too lazy and incompetent to survive on their own.

In both cases, the idea of compromise became a dirty word, as the inflamed insistence on getting everything one’s own way took hold of the inflamed side.

Today’s Republicans do not seek compromise, and the dynamics of the party are such that anyone who works toward compromise is demonized and run out of office by challenge from the more extreme, uncompromising wing of the party.

Back in the years leading up to the Civil War, the South’s insistence on the unfettered expansion of their domain led to the overturning of the great Missouri Compromise, which had held the nation together for more than thirty years — a fracturing of the peace that instigated the return to the political arena of Abraham Lincoln, and set the nation on course to a bloody civil war.

In both cases, the powerful elite in the grip of that destructive force refused to accept that in a democracy sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and sometimes you have to accept being governed by a duly-elected president you don’t like.

Today’s Republicans have done everything they could to nullify the presidency of Barack Obama, whom the American people duly elected twice. Like no other opposition party in American history, they have refused to accept the temporary minority status to which American voters have consigned them. Blocking the president from performing the function for which the people hired him has been their top priority.

Back on the eve of the Civil War, the Southerners — who had disproportionately dominated the upper echelons of the national government from the time of its founding — considered the election of Abraham Lincoln an intolerable insult, and promptly made a unilateral decision to break the Union apart; they then raised an army to defend that decision, rather than accept the outcome of the democratic process and regroup for the next election.

As with facial recognition, the configuration of the features tells us, “This is the same ugly thing, come back again.”

In my upcoming series, “Press the Battle,” I will be expanding on the ways in which disturbing patterns match up between these two eras. In those later postings, it will also be explained how it is that such patterns can endure and re-emerge in a cultural system over the course of generations.

Suffice it to say for now that, in its re-emerged form, this pattern or force or spirit has retained its destructive nature. Back in the mid-19th century, it broke the nation apart and gave us a nightmarish Civil War. And in our times, it is damaging everything in American civilization that it can reach.

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