Wednesday, July 30, 2014
1860 All Over Again
As loyal readers of the blog know, for the past few years I've been obsessed with the political and social history of the Civil War. Out of that interest I recently read Year of Meteors by Douglas Egerton, a lively and incisive account of the election of 1860 and its aftermath. That's the presidential election, of course, that put Abraham Lincoln in the White House and led to the secession of the Deep South. Since I knew a lot about Lincoln and Douglas' actions during that election, I was most interested to read about the Southern "fire eaters," since I knew little specific about them.
They were a crazy lot who intentionally broke the Democratic party apart in order to hasten secession. This reckless strategy was based in the belief that seceding would be the only long-term way to preserve the South's slavery-based economic structure. While most white Southerners weren't as radical, once Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, secession began. Politicians in the Deep South simply refused to accept the legitimacy of the Lincoln administration to the point of leaving the country. As far as they were concerned, any president who wanted to restrict the expansion of slavery (Lincoln only went that far in 1860, he was no abolitionist) was de facto illegitimate, since they felt that the Constitution defended their right to human property, the key to the Southern elite's wealth.
Obviously, if a large number of elected officials refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the president, the country either falls apart or becomes ungovernable. Although we aren't in any real danger of civil war today, we are back in a place where the legitimacy of the president has been rejected, leading to strife and a dysfunctional government. As I've said before, the Republican Party has ceased to be a party in the traditional sense. It is merely the vehicle for an extremist conservative movement that values its ideology above all else. It has been this way since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, when hotheaded modern fire-eaters started calling for Clinton's impeachment years before Monica's blue dress.
People scratch their heads today, wondering how in the hell the president of the United States got impeached over some sexual shenanigans. It does sound ridiculous, doesn't it? The main reason was not Clinton's behavior, but the fact that Republicans had been trying hard to find ways to get Clinton removed, and their fishing expedition turned up something to work with. Of course, getting a hummer from an intern in Oval Office is cruddy behavior and reflective of Clinton's lack of self-control, but hardly qualifies as a high crime. (Did anyone take the perjury angle seriously?) The fact of the matter is, Republicans did not accept the legitimacy of the Clinton administration.
The current conservative opposition to Obama makes the anti-Clinton stuff tame by comparison. Not only has the conservative movement and its media propaganda arm become more brazen in the last decade, the racial resentment against Obama has made the attacks on his legitimacy uglier and more intense. For Exhibit A, look at Birtherism. Obama has been much less mistake-prone than Clinton, which enrages conservatives even more, since they have to work that much harder to find grounds for impeachment. Even more than under Clinton, Republicans have engaged in an obstructionist strategy, one unprecedented in this nation's history. They are so unwilling to acknowledge the president's legitimacy that simply have refused to govern until he is out of office. Recent Congresses have set records with their indolence, despite the many problems our country faces.
That indolence sometimes awakens into obnoxious actions that harm the country's health. Conservative radicals have used the debt ceiling as a hostage on multiple occasions, threatening to kill the economy if they don't get their way, much as fire-eaters used to threaten secession to get what they wanted. In my thirty-eight years I've never seen anything like it. We aren't to the point of 1860-levels of discord, but we are seeing a certain kind of history repeat itself. Although the current legitimacy protest is not purely regional in nature, the South and West are where most of the current fire-eaters are located, and I hardly find that to be a mistake, since both regions have historically assumed that they get some kind of mythical veto power over national legislation that they don't like.
As stupid and comical John Boehner's lawsuit against the president may seem, we shouldn't be laughing. It is an escalation in the ongoing legitimacy crisis manufactured by conservative ideologues who feel that the end justifies the means. Our political system is practically ungovernable, and as the United States navigates economic inequality, the loss of its imperial power, and recovery from the financial crisis, the refusal of Republicans to ever accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president has been and will continue to seriously hamper our society's ability to respond to its most pressing problems. Or as somebody more famous than I once said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.