April 9, 2007

1865 - 2007

On this day, one hundred and forty-two years ago, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, effectively ending the United States Civil War. Confederate soldiers, commanded to surrender their arms and colors, took out scissors and bayonets and cut up the Confederate battle flag rather than hand the stars and bars to the Yankees.

Modern enthusiasts will gather at Appomattox Courthouse today to re-create that scene, and the ones assigned to wear the gray uniforms will cry real tears when they surrender their cut-up strips of red and blue fabric.

What's interesting to me today are the issues that led to the war in the first place. The dominant issue was, of course, slavery. Certainly as a society we have reached a consensus that slavery is a bad thing, but race relations is a far from settled issue. We have made some progress here, but largely because of the blood and efforts of people in the 1950's and 1960's rather than the appalling number of deaths wreaked in the previous century.

The more ancillary issues (which Southern apologists claim actually dominated the Confederate motivation to fight) are still very much alive and very much unsettled seven score years later. Think about these kinds of issues: federalism, the scope of Presidential power, the importance of the decisions made by the President, the manner of our country's projection of force outside its borders, the use of taxes and social welfare programs to benefit some Americans at the expense of others, and the balance of civil rights of citizens (and others) against the need to preserve national unity and prosecute national interests.

History does not exactly repeat itself, but if you pay attention, it rhymes a lot.

These days, we aren't shooting each other because of these things (very much), for which we all can be grateful. No foreign enemy has ever proven so effective at killing Americans as we proved ourselves to be, including in later years when our enemies had much better military technology at their disposal.

But while we Americans aren't resolving these political differences on the battlefield and instead are simply shouting at one another, we are polarizing more now than we have even since the 1980's, which was a big part of the problem in the 1840's and 1850's. Back then, political differences of opinion became so polarized that agreement and compromise became impossible. Today, there are still people who call George W. Bush "the Governor" because they continue to dispute his legitimate election to the Presidency (both times), and who maintain that he ought to be impeached. Today, there are people who think that advocates of civil rights and a pluralistic society are traitors to the United States. The "America, love it or leave it!" bumper stickers I see from time to time are par tof the problem. Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly's recent played-up-for-ratings shouting match about crime and immigration is a result of reducing political disagreement to a form of entertainment rather than productive democratic discourse. Leaders of Congress conducting their own foreign policy in the Middle East are taking our disagreements beyond the water's edge and making us look disturbingly like the Romans did two thousand years ago, when their generals conducted contradictory foreign policies and wound up spending more time killing their fellow Romans in civil wars for political ascendancy than advancing the interests of their nation.

This is strong stuff, both sides are to blame, and we need to tone it down and remember that we're all Americans and committed to a civil society where our disagreements are played out through the peaceful, legitimate mechanisms of a republican government. That doesn't mean anyone has to back down from their core arguments; it means only maintaining a minimal level of mutual respect for one another.


zzi said...

"...we are polarizing more now than we have even since the 1980's,"

Sure you don't mean now! Not during the 80s . . .

Reagan beat Carter by almost ten percent. The electoral college vote was a landslide, with 489 votes (representing 44 states) for Reagan and 49 for Carter.

Reagan received 58.8% of the popular vote to Mondale's 40.6%. Mondale lost the electoral vote in every state in the union except for his home state, Minnesota.

Burt Likko said...

...And despite losing big at the Presidential level, Democrats held the House and eventually re-took the Senate during this same period of time. So it's not like they were quiescent or passive or lacked some measure of popular support.

Ronald Reagan was an unusually talented politician and an exceptional leader; the Carter-Mondale team was exceptionally weak in those respects. While Carter was an exceptionally moral man with the very best of intentions at all times, he would have never been President had he run in any election cycle but the one following Richard Nixon's disgrace. It's hardly surprising that Reagan won election and then re-election by such large margins against such weak opponents.

And don't forget, a lot of Democrats voted for Reagan, too; Reagan was able to reach across the aisle and assure them that their concerns would be addressed in his Administration. Voters were able to see beyond the "R" after Reagan's name and realize that he was the better choice.

My concern is that such a thing would not happen today -- very few Democrats are willing to look past the "D" and very few Republicans are willing to look past the "R", and no one is willing to consider the substance of a policy idea or take the real measure of a person.

"My side is right and your side is evil, so shut your stupid yap" is how what passes for public discourse is conducted these days. It's not margins of victory that bother me, it's substitution of sneering contempt for civil disagreement. To give one example: there are a lot of people who seem to think that electing Hillary Clinton to be the next President would be equivalent to laying down the welcome mat for al-Qaeda to come and attack us again. They're wrong; an honest assessment of Clinton's stance reveals that she is very much a hawk, as much as any of the Republicans currently in the running (including Duncan Hunter).