The uncivil war that continues

Sam Smith, 2012 – Next Tuesday’s election will be yet another battle in a civil war that we have been fighting for a century and a half. History books and the media tell us that the Civil War is long over, but in truth the South only lost the right to secede and to own slaves. Much of the rest of American politics – including our militarism, the excessive role of class in a supposedly democratic society, and our skill at making disaster look pretty, reflects the continuing victories of southern states and the power of their politicians in our national legislature.

If this seems exaggerated, consider this: it took a century for former black slaves to be granted legal equality with other Americans. We called it civil rights, but, in fact, it was unfinished business of the Civil War.

Or consider that our nation’s capital still suffers from gross political suppression thanks to control of its budget and other important matters by congressional committees based on colonial principles promulgated by southern legislators who regarded DC and its majority black population as part of their political plantation. To this day, most Americans are unaware that their capital is still a colony whose roots lie in southern prejudice and power.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a single positive cause – from women’s rights to food stamps to peace – that did not have as one of its primary handicaps the power of southern politicians.

And one week before the election, 76% of Romney’s projected electoral votes were coming from states that were either members of, or aligned with, the Confederacy. The war continues.

It has been as bad for the south as for the general population as recent recounted by Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic:

By nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states… The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. (The fifth is New Mexico, which has turned blue.) And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue: New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Hawaii. The numbers on infant mortality, life expectancy, teen pregnancy, and obesity break down in similar ways.

Advocates for the red-state approach to government invoke lofty principles: By resisting federal programs and defying federal laws, they say, they are standing up for liberty. These were the same arguments that the original red-staters made in the 1800s, before the Civil War, and in the 1900s, before the civil rights movement. Now, as then, the liberty the red states seek is the liberty to let a whole class of citizens suffer.

Because we tend to view the north-south issue primarily in terms of ethnicity we fail to observe a cultural difference of huge import: the south is still trapped in a power system that pits the less successful against each other based on false interpretations of race, religion, and economics. All these interpretations favor power by the few.

This is one reason why the deadly alliance between the old south and the contemporary predatory capitalism of people like Romney is proving so effective. Both believe in power without limit, integrity, or cooperation. Now, the corporation is treated as a person, the citizen increasingly as just property. If Romney only had the right accent, he would be right at home as governor of Missisippi or as an actor in Gone With the Wind. He evokes power both handsome and horrible.

The southern view of freedom is what David Hackett Fisher refers to as hegemonic liberty. The website Orcinus notes:

Fischer quotes Dr. Samuel Johnson, pondering the cavalier view of freedom. “How is it,” Dr. Johnson asked, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” …

Fischer has an answer. He argues that the cavalier cry against tyranny expressed by Jefferson, Washington, and other Virginians wasn’t the least bit out of character. In fact, it came straight out of their essential conviction that free white men of property are the morally proper holders of all the rights and liberties that matter.

Writes Fisher:

Virginian ideas of hegemonic liberty conceived of freedom mainly as the power to rule, and not to be overruled by others. Its opposite was “slavery,” a degradation into which true-born Britons descended when they lost their power to rule….It never occurred to most Virginia gentlemen that liberty belonged to everyone. It was thought to be the special birthright of free-born Englishmen — a property which set this “happy breed” apart from other mortals, and gave them a right to rule less fortunate people in the world….

One’s status in Virginia was defined by the liberties one possessed. Men of high estate were thought to have more liberties than others of lesser rank. Servants possessed few liberties; and slaves [and women] had none at all. This libertarian idea had nothing to do with equality. Many years later, John Randolph of Roanoke summarized his ancestral creed in a sentence: “I am an aristocrat,” he declared. “I love liberty; I hate equality.”

To be sure, with time more have been allowed to join the elite, but the principle still lurks deep in much southern politics. Even a poor southern boy like Bill Clinton understood the rules. You play the game to get to the top and then you get to do whatever you want. Power is its own justification.

This view, writes Fisher, differs from the New England one that liberty is defined by the community, or the Quaker perspective that liberty should be reciprocal, or even the libertarianism of the west, which the individual’s power was limited to one’s own choices, not one’s choices over other.

The success of the southern political elite (along with today’s business school elite) has required a consistent development of mistrust amongst the very masses who should be rising up against it. Writing on this topic a while back, I noted:

The Economic History Association reports that “In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion. . . . The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.”

History Central adds: “Most Southern white families did not own slaves: only about 384,000 out of 1.6 million did. Of those who did own slaves, most (88%) owned fewer than 20 slaves, and were considered farmers rather than planters. Slaves were concentrated on the large plantations of about 10,000 big planters, on which 50-100 or more slaves worked. About 3,000 of these planters owned more than 100 slaves, and 14 of them owned over 1,000 slaves.”

In other words, if you just consider economics, less than one percent of Southern families were fully enjoying the benefits of slavery as planters just as today less than one percent are truly enjoying the benefits of contemporary corrupt capitalism.

As we might ask of today’s Tea Party and middle class supporters of the GOP uncivil war, why did the rest of the whites go along? One of the rarest phenomena in the South – practiced by populists such as Earl Long – was a serious political effort to help poorer whites see what they had in common with blacks and how they were being ripped off by the white elite – just as today even liberals prefer to see the GOP base as devils equal to its leadership rather than as misguided victims waiting to be saved.

Key to each period was the myth that the elite was helping everyone preserve their “way of life.” The Southern mythology – celebrated in everything from books to musicals to movies – essentially described a culture that only a few could enjoy just as today the Republicans have not come up with a single program to significantly help their middle class or lower income constituents. The benefits of “free markets” accrue only to campaign contributors…

A century later, with the civil rights movement redefining the Democratic Party from its segregationist southern past, the GOP essentially took over planter politics and has been practicing it ever since.

Today, the GOP has raised planter politics to new levels. There are no ideological gifts to the many, only money and power to the few. And one can draw a direct line from the Civil War of the 1860s to the uncivil wars of today.

The tragedy is that there is no powerful opposition to this assault today. The Democrats have barely one milligram of populist blood in their bodies; they have offered hardly any economic reforms and have given the white middle and lower classes not one significant alternative to the vicious mythology of the Republicans.

As with the southern Democrats of long ago, the GOP is waging class war against the very constituency it pretends to represent and there is hardly anyone around to tell this constituency how they are being ripped off.

Until that happens, until a true populist movement takes form, the Republicans will continue their uncivil war against American democracy, taking apart the very laws and policies that allowed their present constituency to get where they were before the current disaster began.

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