Save your Confederate money, boys, the South gon’ rise again
I’m still trying to wrap my head around this scene: Yesterday, in Washington, a group of angry white people—it was billed as the “Million Vet March” but numbered in the hundreds, maybe the thousands, and who knows how many were actual veterans—led by Tea Party-aligned Texas senator Ted Cruz and former half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin, marched on the Lincoln and World War II memorials, tearing down the barricades and demanding that President Obama reopen these sites, which, of course, are closed because of the shutdown that Cruz initiated two weeks ago. As Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, tweeted:
Do I have this right? The Republicans closed a war memorial so they could heroically break into it?
— Henry Blodget (@hblodget) October 13, 2013
And then Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist best known as a merciless gadfly during the Clinton administration, got up and said this:
I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.
Klayman, the CNN story fails to note, has convened—in Florida, no less!—what he calls a “citizens grand jury” that “convicted” Barack Obama and “sentenced” him to 10 years in prison for forging his birth certificate.
And then Ted Cruz, an actual elected official thought to be campaigning for the presidency of the United States of America, speaking in front of a flag for the radical right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, said this:
Why is the federal government spending so much money to erect barricades to keep veterans out of this memorial?
And then Sarah Palin, the Alaska snowbilly grifter, said this as protesters yelled at horseback police:
You look around though and you see these barricades and you have to ask yourself, is this any way that a commander in chief would show his respect, his gratitude to our military? This is a matter of shutdown priorities.
And then the lot of them, having knocked over the barricades and chanted at Barack Obama to “tear down this wall” because they’re incurable dupes who’ve been spoon-fed this horseshit by Cruz and Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and the rest of those Tea Party charlatans, decided to march down to the White House, where they waved Gadsden flags (and in one case a Confederate flag) and demanded that Obama resign or be impeached for the high crime of … eff it, does it really matter anymore?
A few caveats before we proceed: 1) One jackass waving a rebel flag or an Oath Keepers flag doesn’t mean that all these demonstrators are racists and/or right-wing militia members. 2) That these memorials have been closed because of the shutdown is of course unfortunate, but no less unfortunate than kids kicked out of Head Start or poor people’s food stamps being cut off or vital scientific research being abandoned or the veterans’ benefits that may run out at month’s end or any of the real, deleterious consequences of the Tea Party’s temper tantrum. 3) Make no mistake: This is a Republican shutdown. In fact, just before the government ran out of funds, House Republicans quietly changed the rules to ensure that a shutdown happened—and that any proposal to reopen the government would come directly from their leaders.
We’re now entering Week 3 of the shutdown. This Thursday the government will run out of borrowing ability and begin to default on its debts, with potentially cataclysmic repercussions around the world, unless Congress raises the debt ceiling. (This is true whether Ted Yoho believes it or not.)
All of this started, if you’ll recall, because a subset of radical conservatives were unwilling to abide by the judgment of the American people—who just last year elected a center-left, pro-Obamacare, pro–higher taxes, pro–higher spending president over a conservative who campaigned against all those things; it’s worth noting, too, that the Democratic Party won seats in the Senate and 1.5 million more votes in the House than the Republicans did—and threatened to blow up the government, and perhaps the world economy, if they didn’t get their way.
This all sounds very familiar.
I’ve been reading Year of Meteors, a very excellent history of the election of 1860—the one that produced Abraham Lincoln and led to the Civil War. And in there is the story of former Alabama congressman William Lowndes Yancey, the man perhaps most singularly responsible for the Civil War. He only served four years in Congress, from 1844 to 1848, but in that congressional career he “eschewed all compromise in favor of absolute southern privilege. His rigid positions won him few allies in Washington…” (Ahem, Mr. Cruz.)
Back in Alabama, Yancey—who once killed an unarmed man in a bar fight, only to be pardoned after serving three months—remained a Democratic Party power-player, “the prince of the fire-eaters,” an extremist who wanted to expand slavery to the West, as well as to reopen the Atlantic slave trade that had been shut down in 1807. By 1858 he had embraced secession full-bore, having (probably correctly) decided that the North would eventually outnumber the South and the abolitionists and those who wanted to restrain the planter class’s “peculiar institution” to its current geography would, in time, prevail, slowly depriving slavery of oxygen and leading to its demise.
Southern fire-eaters were a minority of the Democratic Party back then. The Democratic president was a northerner, albeit from the border state of Pennsylvania. The Democratic frontrunner heading into the election was a northerner, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. These men catered to the southerners’ demands—much the way that John Boehner today caters to the Tea Party’s demands—but (also similarly) the southerners’ didn’t trust their total commitment.
Long story short: Yancey decided that democracy was no longer working for him, so he sabotaged his own party to prevent Douglas from receiving the nomination and ensure that a hated Republican would win the election—which, as he figured, would presage secession. (He and other secessionists did not anticipate the Union fighting a war to bring them back.) So the Alabama delegation to the national committee insisted that the party stake out a radical pro-slavery platform. He also—in a move reminiscent of Cruz’s assertion that Republicans had “compromised” by only insisting on the defunding of Obamacare and not its repeal—told the Democratic National Committee that this platform “[was] not even all that Alabama ask[ed].”
(If anyone ever tells you the Civil War was not about slavery, read him this quote from Yancey’s 90-minute speech: “We want negroes cheap, and we want a sufficiency of them, so as to supply the cotton demand of the whole world.”)
Douglas was the candidate backed by the majority of delegates, but under party rules he needed two-thirds support to be the nominee. The South, led by Yancey and the fire-eaters, would not relent, and in the end, they got what they wanted: The party split, Lincoln won the election and the South quickly seceded. Democracy didn’t work they way the liked, so they took their ball and went home.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The issues are different today, of course. I suspect even that guy waving the Confederate flag in front of the White House yesterday doesn’t want a return to slavery and secession, and none of even the most radical Tea Partiers have publicly gone down that road (that I’m aware of). We’ll leave the undertones of racism in the Tea Party movement for another time.
It’s the underlying attitude in both of these stories that is so striking: The disrespect for democratic norms, the willingness to assert that you will burn the government to the ground if your demands go unmet—demands that you cannot achieve through the normal order of things. And so we see the same sort of flailing anger, the same absolutism, the same arrogance, the same denunciations of those who seek moderation or compromise.
This week that attitude has taken us to the precipice of the abyss. And once again, its epicenter is firmly within the Deep South, within a political party that celebrates its own radicalism and ignorance. Check out this interview with Norm Ornstein, a scholar with the quite-conservative American Enterprise Institute who has been critical of congressional Republicans:
But even there, you know, another piece that I wrote a couple of weeks back now on how there are five Republican parties, a House and Senate and presidential one, but also a Southern and non-Southern party. The bottom line was that it’s the House party and the Southern party, which are the dominant forces out there; they are the ones driving the dialogue. And the fact is that in the House party you’ve got people who come from homogeneous echo chambers in their districts and are concerned, most of them, only about primaries. The Southern party has a very different worldview from the rest of the country, and is not moved by broader national opinion. It is much more overtly hostile to Obama, and I suspect that race is a part of it.
Almost all of the people from those areas come from districts with at best a trace element of minority voters. If you look, even within the House, at all of those votes where Boehner tried to get bipartisan majorities, the ones at the end of last year and the beginning of this year: the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy, Violence Against Women Act, the ones who voted against him consistently, the vast number of them, were from the South.
These are not people moved so much by presidential politics or presidential elections, so it’s going to be a tough nut to crack. And it’s tough as well because what incentive is there for Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or a local radio talk show host to suddenly say, “Oh my God we’ve got to move back to the center.” The best way to get your audience larger and more consistent is to be more divisive and more radical and criticize those who cater to or kowtow to other forces. And the money is still much more driven over on that side, from multibillionaires and others, who themselves are more ideological, so it’s hard to see in the short run how we come out of this.
As I write this, there’s new talk of a deal in the Senate to open the government and raise the debt ceiling through January. How the Tea Party faction in the House of Representatives responds, and whether Boehner yet again bends to its will, remains to be seen. However it plays out, until this particular fever is broken, until the attitudes that propelled the South to secede 153 years ago are again placed in check, our democracy is imperiled.
And while this new civil war is, for now, a cold one, at least one guy in Missouri is thinking about secession again. Sometimes I wonder if maybe he’s not onto something. I would miss New Orleans, though.