For a man dead 150 years, 2017 was unexpectedly eventful for Robert E. Lee. The furies in this most turbulent of years clashed most memorably around the Charlottesville statute of Lee, proud, tall, and darkly symbolic of the past and, inevitably, the present. “You will not replace us”, chanted in the torchlit marches surrounding Lee’s statute, was the most apposite mantra of 2017, containing within just five words the purest distillation of far-right demographic dread.
That decades-old Confederate statutes are the most vivid image of our modern American fracture was somehow fitting. The cascading rhythms of white existential terror, increasingly violent clashes, and measured tribalism spilling over of the rims of the political system into the sinkholes of factional excess are new to us. Yet for Lee, and Americans of his generation, the whiff of the all-too familiar would be in the air. The distant echoes of another time — the lead up to the Civil War- — abound in our nation, and our politics today.
The turbulent 1850s began with a congressional compromise over the expansion of slavery, but descended down through partisan warfare in Kansas, John Brown’s raid in Virginia, the Dred Scott decision, and an increasingly angry and hostile schism between union and disunionist elements. Slavery was the precipitating cause, the irreconcilable difference between North and South. That, perhaps, gives some comfort: we are not, today, faced with a public question as vexing as the monstrous moral abyss of racial slavery. Nor are we — pray not — on the glide path to the past’s agents of systemic failure, secession and civil war. And yet, the divide over slavery which tore asunder the Union arose not from its moral implications but its symbolic political divide. That divide was in turn simply a larger element of the overarching debate between two combatting ideologies for the soul of the nation. The Civil War only partially solved the debate, burying the rest for a later time.
The ideology of the North perceived America as a constantly changing, economically dynamic nation of breathing, liberal Enlightenment ideals, (albeit imperfectly applied), buttressed by the free labor of native born and immigrant alike, in which slavery was an embarrassing and retarding anachronism. That of the South believed that America was a nation of blood and soil, and more specifically, a nation of a specific traditional religious, racial, social, economic, and cultural orders, handed down since Revolutionary times, unchanging, and to be preserved at all costs against interference by a heavy-handed and elitist federal government. Dynamism and diversity, traditionalism and order, arrayed against each other firmly and irrevocably. Each side believed they represented the best of the American tradition, and each cast the other as an interloper in the America envisioned in their own mental sky. This debate was not over policy: it was, rather, existential. Who, in fact, were we, and who were we to be in the future?
That existential question could not be answered by politics; the cataclysm that followed tore the nation apart and killed 700,000 Americans. And while the Civil War and the generation that preceded it were sui generis, the same question, dormant for so long, has re-emerged in our own time. Our politics appear so tribal, so broken, because we re-fight the larger rupture between the two visions of America, traditional and forward-looking, ordered and individualized, in real time. The question has re-arisen, much as it emerged in the 1850s, because of the differential growth in power between rival camps, broken along racial and cultural lines, and the resultant fear such differential creates.
Power and fear are bastardized versions of the same coin. We often wonder why the land of our youth — partisan but functional, argumentative but ultimately serviceable- has faded to the crunching cliff of complete estrangement. The answer, in shorthand, is power and fear, and more importantly the all-consuming questions of identity, hope for the future, and inevitably, race. The critical fault line today, although commonly shorthanded as “red and “blue” or “Democrat” and “Republican”, is actually not political in the normative sense. It is at a deeper level a heated conversation between the waning cultural, political, and economic power of what I will call White Christian America, and the corresponding rise of a multi-cultural, religiously diverse coalition, shorthanded as Blue America. The wrenching changes in world economics have conferred vast power on Blue America, often indirectly at the expense of White Christian America. Declining religious attendance in younger voters, the rise of the anti-patriarchal #MeToo movement, and the inexorable ticking-clock trend toward majority-minority status for whites suggest a further undermining of White Christian America’s power to control the national conversation in the churches, the ballot box, and eventually, the government. The roiling waters of dissonance run through these channels of terror of eclipse, decline, and replacement. It may have only been the far-right shouting the slogan of “You will not replace us,” but the right-wing populist revolt stands on more gentile but no less anxious sentiments. This debate is not politics, for politics is the art of the bridgeable difference. It is rather an ephemeral search for the security of reinvigorated primacy (the “Again” in MAGA) balanced by the fear of accelerating estrangement in a Blue America-shaped land of values, colors, and economic power. When fear of the other meets a decline in power to check that other, politics ends, dread extends its icy grip, and tribal warfare- unyielding, uncompromising, and zero sum- begins.
Southerners of the 1850s would understand. They, too, faced the question of continued hegemony that confronts White Christian America today. Southern power was dependent on the maintenance of a slave-based society, and as the levers of power began to ever so decisively turn to increasing Northern dominance in population and economic might, Southern confidence in power curdled into fear. Having spent generations atop the power structure of the national government, and having long held commanding sway over the agriculture-based economy, Southern aristocracy, and slaveholders in particular, had become accustomed to dominating antebellum America’s power structure. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, slave states outnumbered free states by 8–5, and retained a lead until the admission of California in 1850. Twenty of thirty-five Supreme Court justices had come from the slave states, as had 23 of 36 Speakers of the House. The Presidency, as well, was dominated by Southerners, or at least, individuals with a supportive view toward the South’s peculiar institution: of the twelve Presidents serving through 1848, ten were or had been slaveholders. With the three-fifths clause protecting its flank in the House, and the parity of slave to free holding court in the Senate, the South had built itself a perch within the Union that seemed destined to intercept any hostile designs on slavery and hence, Southern power.
Despite its ingrained power, fear gripped Southerners as they looked to the future. Slavery was its lifeblood, the rope which knotted prewar society together. Yet Northerners were increasingly hostile to slavery, at least in terms of its expansion. Worse, the remaining territory in the continental United States appeared to be on ground inhospitable to plantation slavery, suggesting that Congressional parity would increasingly yield to the weight of free-state numbers. Had the North remained the North of revolutionary times, perhaps the menace would seem blunted, but by the 1850s, the North looked increasingly foreign to Southern eyes. The dominant economic engine of the future and the power of immigration sourced enormous latent power in the free states. 7 of 8 immigrants to the United States in the recent decades emigrated to the North, swelling the North’s advantage in population from 60% of whites in 1800 to nearly 75% in 1860. Meanwhile, the industrial revolution, which created the economy of the future, had arrived in the United States with a distinctly Yankee twang. The North had five times the factories of the south, and nearly 70% of the railroad lines. Only 16 percent of manufacturing power lay in the Southern States, heightening anxiety that the power to build the future lay outside Dixie’s control. By per capita income, a Southern white man was twice as wealthy as his northern counterpart. But that wealth was almost entirely concentrated in land and slaves, and with every advance in Northern potential numerical political power came a resultant fear that the basics of Southern wealth lived on the quicksand of Northern good will.
Fear of the expiry of such good will fed the flames of bellicosity. Southern leaders corseted themselves in a blanket of fear that in time became the burial shroud of the culture they sought to preserve. Southerners who were not slaveholders followed, yoked together with their social betters by the privilege of their skin color: as Georgia’s Governor Joe Brown stated, “Among us the poor white laborer..does not belong to the menial class…He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men.” The South, slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike, viewed their way of life through the prism of their power to preserve that civilization through bisectional Congressional balance. Once that balance was threatened by growing Northern strength in voting population and economic output, Southerners assumed a political defensive crouch that viewed every gain by the North, no matter how insignificant, as a mortal threat to the South.
So it is today. White Christian America has long enjoyed the modern equivalent of antebellum bisectionally; even those not implicitly aligned with interests key to the civilizational view of White Christian America have largely acquiesced to its dominant role in American national identity. In the aftermath of the Civil War, North and South papered over the yawning question of race by agreeing to create a racial caste system. Democrats and Republicans could exchange ideas on policy and nationhood while resting assured that White Christian America was the dominant actor in any resulting structure. So calmed, the political passions of the day were constrained within a system which, at minimum, assigned primacy to those of the dominant religious and racial group. America’s stable politics of the 20th century were largely built on tacit agreements of race and power.
That assumption was broken most prominently in 2008. The rise of the Obama coalition at the end of a decade which saw the hollowing out of industrial America’s broad-based economic industrial strength caused a spasm of mourning for a perception of civilizational power transfer away from White Christian America. Both economics and politics presaged the growing economic and populational strength of blue America, which in turn heightened concerns of decline for those whose identity as White Christians predominate their civilizational identity. They have reacted exactly as did their antebellum southern predecessors: by professing to rediscover the “real” America of their forefathers and by allying across class lines with the wealthy capitalholders who claim to help the masses retain cultural, if not economic, primary. White Christian America does not define itself as seeking anything other than the continuation of America as they have viewed and lived it — an America of specific religious, cultural, and social order. Nor did the South. Even in rebellion, Confederate President Jefferson Davis could plausibly state that “We are not revolutionists. We are resisting revolution..we are conservative.” Similar sentiments are expressed on the American right today.
This fear, interposed in response to the overarching existential national question, is the driving emotion which makes our politics intractable. The first casualties have been politicians with the self-assuredness of shared national belief — so called “moderates”. In prior eras, such politicians were the oil in the joints of American sectional harmony. Men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster brokered the compromises that calmed the waters of agitation in the decades prior to the 1850s, trading on the political capital of the rational and honest. Similarly, Senators of national stature like Bob Dole, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and John McCain, whatever their partisan affiliation, worked across the aisle on a number of weighty issues to advance national causes in our era. Compromise, rather than undermining each individual, only enhanced them. But in the 1850s, Clay and Webster retired, soon to die, and a new breed of Southern politicians increasingly defined by unremitting hostility to compromise and guided by the North Star of Southern demographic fear, took their place. Those deemed insufficiently hostile were voted out and replaced by those who were. As Southern politicians grew increasingly intransigent, their Northern counterparts became harder in opposition, birthing Lincoln’s Republican Party.
The same trend exists today. Politicians, particularly among Republicans, are increasingly defined not by the wisdom of their positions or the manner in which they propose to advance them, but rather than unremitting nature of their opposition to Blue State progressivism. “Primaried” has become a verb rather than a noun. Today’s Democrats, meanwhile, grow more hardened in capital-R Resistance to the Republican orthodoxy of fury; even in the depths. of Reagainism, the Democratic opposition was never fired with similar animosity toward their Republican counterparty or, more ominously, their voters. Even the concept of resistance to laws generated to address the cultural terror is redolent of the antebellum era: local law enforcement in many Blue cities refusing to work with ICE on its stepped-up immigration enforcement is a distant echo of personal liberty laws passed in northern states to ensure local law enforcement refused to support federal enforcement of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.
When compromise dies because of cultural terror, politics becomes blood sport rather than a mechanism to govern wisely. Quality and process suffer as voters cease to punish politicians for failing to advance policies so long as they stand athwart the tide of history and pledge fealty toward unyielding cultural identification. What they become for is being against.
The political system could not contain the descent in the 1850s. The effect was to shatter the national appeal of both reigning political parties, first the Whigs, and then the Democrats, as the stresses of the widening gap between Northern power and Southern dread forced politicians to choose between increasingly strident Southern demands to exult the static, slave-based society and Northern demands to elevate free labor. Northern and Southern voters began to split dramatically, previous fidelity to specific party ideology now replaced by a simple demand: you are either with us, or you are with them. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, won election in 1852 with the majority of both northern and southern voters. It would be 80 years before another candidate won with similar demographic strength.
It is nearly as pronounced today. The stress of responding to the increasing stridency of nativist white anxiety is causing intense fissures in the bone structure of both parties. The Republicans have weathered the storm electorally but find themselves torn between traditional conservatism and full-fledged Trumpist grievance politics. Policy incoherence has been the first, and most obvious result (somewhere, no doubt stiff drink in hand, Paul Ryan is nodding sadly). The Democrats, meanwhile, are caught between wings which pledge heightened economic focus to ameliorate white grievance and those which prefer to focus instead of the rising demographic majority of the future. There is an overlap between the two which has kept the party united, but the fracture is real, and growing.
Neither party will disintegrate, as the Whigs did after 1852- if nothing else, each coalition is kept united by the fear, even hatred of the other. Yet just as Democrat and Whig in the 1850s ceased to mean a shifting coalition of differing interest groups attempting to appeal to values based on moderate positions of national interest, so too today’s parties have ceased to cleave to their historical postwar coalitions. Democrat and Republican by 1860 had largely meant a zero-sum choice between Southern extremism and the sole organized party to definitively oppose it. Similarly, Republican and Democrat today have largely morphed into political receptacles of the seminal question of today: either for the increasingly strident demands of White Christian America to retain national hegemony, or for the eclipse of that sole domain by a rising coalition of multiracial and religious interests. The calcification of the parties around the sole and intractable question of 1860 shattered the political parties and then, the Union itself; the effect today is of course yet to be written. But we can already see ominous portents.
Fear has led to confrontation over issues of relative unimportance in the national conversation, then, and now. Southerners of the 1850s fomented crises over issues which had minimal relevance to the lives of most Southern citizens, yet to which Southern rejectionist leaders, given the evocative nickname of “fire eaters”, used as outward manifestations of inward apprehension. Demands to reopen the long-defunct Atlantic slave trade, invade Cuba, and mandate slavery in Kansas, an area most felt was inhospitable terrain for plantation agriculture, were poor return for the wager of Union itself. Looking from 150 years later, one is struck by how insignificant the issues for which Southerners precipitated national calamity appear to posterity. But fear is not rational: Southerners built an enclosure for their deepest fears of eclipse, and paced the cage like a tiger, growing and striking at bystanders who otherwise would have left them largely unmolested.
We see similar appetite for needless confrontation today. Whether transgender individuals can use a certain bathroom, whether football players stand for the anthem, and whether bakers need bake cakes for gay weddings are issues if vanishingly small impact as to the practical lives of the vast majority of the Republican coalition. Yet just as the South blanched from its fear of deteriorating ability to dictate certain terms of the national conversation and extrapolated a bleak future of accelerating decline, White Christians today view each issue of changing cultural practice, no matter how insignificant, with similar dire portent.
Fear has led to the acceptance of the previously unacceptable. Some of us look with horrified befuddlement on the rousing support given by white evangelicals in the recent Senatorial election to defrocked judge (and scourge of local malls) Roy Moore. How can professing Christians profess to elect a man who preys on their daughters for sport? Yet the voters of prewar South Carolina would understand. In 1857, Representative Preston Brooks so badly beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of Congress that Sumner suffered from what we now know as PTSD for the remainder of his life. Brooks’ actions were an outrageous breach of decorum even for the wild 1850s. How, Northern observers asked, could the South support a man whose actions breached the very concept of chivalrous code duello which was the animating spirit of Southern honor? Apparently, with ease: Brooks resigned his seat to give his constituents a chance to reflect on his actions, which they dutifully ratified by electing him to a new term in a special election. Whatever else Brooks — and today, Moore — was, he was something more important: one of their tribe, and more importantly, one who acted in unapologetic defiance of the other.
Information itself has been a casualty of fear. In the antebellum world, fear shattered the common well of information from which each sides drew, making the impossible the inevitable. Uncle Tom’s Cabin set off a firestorm in the North when published in 1852, but was banned in the South. Southerners, if they read a national newspaper, read the New York Herald, selected for its pro Southern leanings. Northerners preferred Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the most popular newspaper in the nation and an avowedly anti-slavery publication; reading Greeley’s paper in the South was anathema- had they had the term, surely the Tribune would be lambasted as “fake news.” Politicians ceased to attempt to straddle the widening fissure ripping up from the ground. Lincoln, the Republican candidate in 1860, was not even on the ballot in most slave states, allowing Southerners to draw the worst caricature of him their imaginations, and partisan press, could conjure. Today’s divide, in which the allegedly “liberal” media is attacked by the President as an “enemy of the American people,” and in which the two tribes consciously seek vastly different news sites, is redolent of the divide of the 1850s, and portends similarly calamitous results.
Then, as now, some attempted to control their fears and think rationally. The 1850s had their own version of today’s “Never Trumpers,” Republicans who refuse to reconcile themselves to the overthrow of conservatism. In 1857, North Carolina author Hinton Rowan Helper caused a stir by publishing “The Impending Crisis of the South,” arguing an anti-slavery position based entirely on its retarding effects on Southern economic development. Helper argued that, much as Never Trumpers do today, that Southern leadership was using racialized appeals to keep poor, non-slaveholding whites voting against their own interests. To say that it was poorly received is an understatement: not only did the South ban the book, but three luckless Arkansas men were hung for owning it. Whatever the Trumpist insults bandied at the Bill Kristols of the world (“Cuck!”), at least we have not progressed to outright execution.
Even religion has become a fault line. The perversion of honest religion in the service of tribal infighting is a staple of our age: any man receiving recompense each time the question “How do evangelicals unquestioningly support an avaricious adulterer?” is asked in befuddled anguish would be rich enough for those same evangelicals to drive from the temple as a moneychanger. Yet the twisting of religious doctrine to support earthly aims would be easily recognized by Frederick Douglas in his jeremiad against supposedly religious slaveholders, sneering from the speaker’s lectern in 1852 that “For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! Welcome atheism! Welcome anything! In preference to the gospel, as preached by those divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny.”
Upon surrendering to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in April, 1865, Robert E. Lee shook hands with members of Grant’s staff, stopping only upon gazing at the dark features of Lt. Col. Ely S. Parker.. Lee extended his hand slowly to Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe, and remarked “I am glad to see one real American here.” Without missing a beat, Parker replied “We are all Americans.” Having long buried the political implications of Parker’s aspirational remark, we are now straddling the earthquake fissure of bringing true multi-racial, multi-religious democracy to fruition. The magnitude of what we as a nation are in the process of attempting is a heavy lift in the eyes of history, and leads inexorably to fear of the ultimate impact. This fear haunts every bitter dispute dividing us, from immigration to gun control.
In their new book “How Democracies Die,” the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out, somewhat chillingly, that
The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.
We may well be the first, but to do so, we must calm the waters of demographic terror that seizes White Christian America today, and which pushed antebellum Southerners over the cliffs of despair and into the stormy lifeboat of disunion. For if not quieted, fear looks to existential solutions to existential questions- even the rejection of the nation, and its political legacy, itself. Our predecessors glimpsed the coming plunge, but could not stop it. Lincoln himself, in his speech before Cooper Union in early 1860, recognized of his Southern counterparts: “Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.” Ruin they did, and so the war came.
I have no obvious solutions to return today’s American democracy to the fields of honest competition and implied legitimacy. Perhaps it is best simply to accept that we are embarked upon a great crusade to build that which has never existed, embrace the difficulty of the role posterity has ordained in us, seek justice where we can establish it, and recognize once again qua Lincoln, that we cannot escape history. To White Christian America, and to Blue America, one can only note that we are united, whether we will it or not, in this grand experiment, in the here and now, and our choices will echo down the hallways of posterity. Can we preserve that which is worth preserving while expanding it to citizens of different races, religions, and education was the question which drove our country into the maelstrom of Civil War and beyond. It is the same question we face today. Would that we answer it less destructively, and with greater finality, than our predecessors.