Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

The Party of Lincoln: Civil War, Seccesionist Republicans and American Trauma

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I was just reading a column by E. J. Dionne that got me thinking about a few themes in American politics.  Dionne presents the Governor of Texas as an extreme rightist who has embraced positions far to the right of George W. Bush. He also suggests that Perry, who yesterday won the Republican Party primary for governor, has voiced support for secession from the United States. This is interesting because Sarah Palin’s husband has also been associated, to some unspecified degree, with Alaskan secessionists in the past as well. Palin had also supported Perry in the defense of his governorship. This comes together in a picture of the new right as something like the modern day incarnation of the Antebellum South. As I have heard it put, it is difficult to find the edge of the right fringe, much as it was back in 1964.

I am now trying to decide if the fear of the right is based on reasonable expectations of secessionist proclivities (however unlikely these are to be realized), or if the civil war is acting here as a kind of chosen trauma for progressives who fear the past. This makes some sense if we remember that the progressive movement was a creature of the Republican Party under figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette, and that the Republican Party was created in order to combat the secessionist south. Progressive tendencies within the Republican Party were alive and well until around the late 1960s when New Yorkers like Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits were closing out their careers.

If we think of the mix of symbols that animate this new right, they have many secessionist or break away aspects. The Tea Party invokes that moment when the American colonies broke away from the Kingdom of Great Britain. The various state incarnations have had brief moments of secessionist excess that were duly noted as Dionne has just done. The rebellious southerners who fought the civil war against the north were members of the Democratic Party, whose descendants clung to their party affiliation almost as doggedly as they did to their god and their guns (insert appropriate emoticon here to signal irony).  The only thing that could break the south from its rejection of the Republican Party conquerors, was the slow drift of the Democratic Party to more inclusive forms of conceptions of social justice. The Democratic Party began to embrace black civil rights as early as the 1930s, but the violent rejection of any reasonable move to end the racial caste system stymied most efforts until the last somewhat progressive Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, supported the decision of his Supreme Court to begin to integrate society along racial lines.

This history is all well known, but the new right that developed after 1964 can only be thought of as being compatible with caste-like sensibilities. The fact that white voters have not been in majority support of the Democratic Party since the 1964 election is not a coincidence. There is something important and troubling going on here and we can certainly see it in the rise of the new right. The fascinating thing about this is it all happens at the same time that racial attitudes are becoming more liberal. Whatever, your commitment to the new racism theories, this cannot be ignored either.

This becomes an important moment to ask what role the civil war plays as the chosen trauma of the progressive movement. What do these secessionist urges signal about American politics and how does this mirror what we see in other ethnocultural conflicts?

I started to watch the movie CSA, Confederate States of America, which plays out a fantasy of what would have happened if the South won the Civil War. I found the movie too painful to watch and I did not think it was even plausible. There are much better what if histories that have been written on the subject. What is interesting about it though, is the signal it sends about how Americans see themselves as a nation moving forward. The movie was, if you will accept a pun, too black and white. Things are more complicated than that, even if this divide is the key. I don’t for a minute believe that secessionists are gaining a footing in the Republican Party, but I do think that we can’t ignore the fact that as Americans explore their political roots, some have come to preach secession (also remember Joe Wilson) and even to vilify Abraham Lincoln as a progressive.

Changes in the collective memory of Lincoln will be the signal. On April 15th last year when the big Tea Party protests were on, I spent the day on the Washington Mall at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful day to hang out with my family at the great monument and to get the Washington feel. As we were leaving I noticed a guy walking with a drooping sign and then saw the Tea Party Express bus driving off as the gathering wound down. I realized that I had not seen a single sign of protest on my side of the mall, while they were all gathered in front of the Capitol. The lesson I drew from this is that Lincoln no longer speaks to all of us, and I am beginning to get a sense of why that is.


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