I've been having an occasional email discussion with a friend about the political situation lately. My friend is bothered by all the name-calling, noise and general nastiness of the political discourse lately, and would prefer not to accept any label or be too closely associated with either side. I can understand that view, but my knowledge of American history tells me that the vision she has, of people discussing things, disagreeing, but still getting along, has been rather rare in this country. There was a time that the historians call "The Era of Good Feelings" from 1816 to 1824, when partisan bickering was almost minimal; but it did not last. At the best of times, American democracy has a tendency to get messy.
But I do think that the U.S. today is more sharply divided than it has ever been in my lifetime, possibly more divided than at any time since the Civil War. And this time the division is not along any geographic regions, as with the Southern Cotton states and the manufacturing North, but is much more spread out. Even the Red State/Blue State maps of the last few presidential elections do not show the real gravity of the situation: if you look at the first map on this site http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/2008/ , you see the electoral vote by states, and it looks like one side controls the coasts, the Great Lakes area, and a few scattered states elsewhere. But farther down the page, there is a map of the electoral results by counties, and the picture changes dramatically; many of the solidly "blue" states turn out to be dominated by a small highly populated area surrounded by a land mass less densely populated--of the opposite opinion. There are no neat geographic dividing lines between Left and Right. Even if we wanted to, we can not just split the land up and go separate ways as the South tried to in 1861. (Reminder: these maps at the link are of the 2008 election results; there is a strong possibility that a map for 2012 will not look as blue.) The South, as a contiguous defined region, had at least some chance of making it as a nation; the Blue cities have no such chance--they are too dependent on the surrounding Red counties to survive without them. The disagreements, which really are fundamental, are going to have to be worked out over time. It may be some states will be divided into two or more new units, as West Virginia, a mountainous region of small towns and small farms, separated from the Virginia of Tidewater plantations during the Civil War. Most of Illinois would likely be happier without Chicago, and much of upstate New York would not really miss New York City. There has even been a proposal voiced to break California up into five states, because of the cultural differences in that state's regions.
So far, the rhetoric, and actual violence, has not been as bad as in the years leading up to the Civil War. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor, when Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina walked up behind him and started beating Sumner with a cane. He kept it up until the cane broke. Sumner took several years to recover from the beating, and Brooks received donations to pay the fine the court assessed him--and a lot of canes from all over the South to replace his broken one. The territory of Kansas was being settled in this period, and the violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions got so bad it was called "Bleeding Kansas."
But why did these things get out of hand so badly? Overall, there is some case to be made that the South escalated the rhetoric, and later the violence, and the North responded in kind. And the South escalated the rhetoric because they saw they were beginning to lose the long-term struggle. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the Southern states and the Northern states were equal in number; while the North's greater population gave it an advantage in the House of Representatives, the South maintained an equality in the Senate that would allow it to stop any legislation it disliked. In 1820, the "Missouri Compromise" brought in two new states, Missouri (slave) and Maine (free)--the equilibrium was maintained. But as new territories were acquired by the United States in the 1840s, this equilibrium was about to end. Most of the new land would not have been suited to growing cotton, and would likely be settled primarily by anti-slavery people from the North. The South did not really have the population to fill up these new states-to-be. And as their long-term prospects dimmed, the voices in the South got louder, angrier, and more inclined to violence. I am not saying the North was blameless in the march to violence, but I do think the South led the way in starting the rhetoric and in ratcheting it up. And of course, it was the South that first resorted to arms. They did win the battle at Fort Sumter (and quite a few more) but they lost the war.
I also think one of the major factors leading to the Civil War was that too many people in the South, among the leaders and the ordinary citizens, fell into the trap of believing their own propaganda. They had to learn the hard way that their slogan "One Southerner can whip any five Yankees!" was mistaken: Midwestern farm boys turned out to be as tough, man for man, as any Southerner. And that discovery itself pointed out another of their big mistakes: many in the South assumed the Midwest would side with them against the industrial Northeast; they totally underestimated the anti-slavery sentiment among the small farmers of the Midwestern states. (Another change they had not noticed: in the early 1800s, much produce from Ohio and Indiana was shipped down the Mississippi to market, but by 1860 the railroads provided an alternate route to market.) Another mistaken assumption by the South was that the British would come in on their side to keep the flow of cotton going to their factories. As it turned out, many British politicians were inclined to favor the South, but the mass of the British people was so firmly anti-slavery that it would have been political suicide to intervene.
How does this compare to our situation today? I have heard quite a bit of what comes from both sides, and I think the Left is in the position of the South in the late 1840s. The handwriting is on the wall, and they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people.
In the 1930s the Democrats backed the industrial unions and helped them gain legitimacy; now only six or seven percent of private sector workers belong to unions. Now the main strength of unions is among government employees, but their successes in the past in negotiating lavish pensions and other benefits is threatening to bankrupt cities and states across the country. There was a lot of commotion in Wisconsin earlier this year when a new Republican governor and legislature took steps to curtail union power and benefits; steps in the same direction by the Democrat governor of New York did not attract nearly as much attention.
For many years the public school systems across the country have been a bastion of liberalism. Yet as many have noted, the more tax money is spent on education, the lower the quality of the results. The causes are too many to go into here. But one result is the cracking of the monopoly on education. In the 1920s efforts to shut down the Roman Catholic school systems failed. In the 1980s a new wave of private Christian schools began to appear, followed by the phenomenon of home schooling (my own family was part of this, and our daughter is now teaching her own children). Now charter schools are cropping up all over the landscape, and voucher programs are starting to get past the legal challenges and gain ground. The educators' unions are still fighting, but it is definitely a rear-guard action.
Another albatross around the Democrats' neck is the social welfare programs; people are realizing they cannot be sustained. When Social Security began in the 1930s, there were over 150 people working for each one collecting its benefits; by last year there were three workers per retiree. In the '30s, many who retired at 65 drew benefits for a year or two. My grandfather died in 1973, nine years after retiring. My own father died last year at the age of 90, after 35 years of collecting both Social Security and his pension from Ford Motor Company.
And then there is the regulatory mess. When the Federal government started regulating businesses in the early twentieth century, there was some need for it. But they have kept adding, and adding and adding...the Federal Register shows 81,000 pages of new regulations--just for the past year! Add to that the state government regulations, county and city enactments, zoning boards, and even homeowners' associations that want to tell you what color you can paint your house....A few months ago the President of the US admitted that there hadn't been as many "shovel ready" jobs as expected when Congress passed his stimulus bill. Just this week he voiced concern that we are no longer building great things like the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, they did not have Environmental Impact Statements to file back then! As I mentioned in the last post, it took a year and a half to build the Empire State Building in the early 1930s; a few months ago in an online article, the writer was telling of his co-op association's ten-year effort to get a permit from the city to repair the building they live in.
This is just a sampling. But the point is, whether you call it Progressivism, Liberalism, or just the Democrat Party, it is failing, and a large part of the American people are getting soured on it. And the "Blue States", "liberals" or just "Democrats", whatever you choose to call them, showing signs of getting scared, just as the South did. They cannot bring themselves to admit it, any more than the South could, but they are scared, and they are reacting the same way, by making more noise and getting nastier.
Some may say there is little to choose from in rhetoric between the two sides, but I do not agree. It is one thing to call a politician a "Marxist" or "socialist"--one might argue whether the label is accurate in a particular case, but these are at least terms that indicate a political philosophy by the way, there is a socialist caucus in the US Congress, and a 2009 newsletter from the American Socialist Party claimed it had 70 members--I looked at the list, and a lot of them are still there, and many of them are quite well-known). [I tried to link to Gateway Pundit's post on this, but either the computer or Blogger would not cooperate]. But on Labor Day of this year, Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters Union, referred to Tea Partiers as "sons of bitches"; President Obama spoke after him, and did not then and has not since done anything to show disapproval of that language. That was not a description of a political philosophy, it was a coarsening and degrading of our political discourse. And, I think, it is a sign of decline and failure of liberalism in this country.