Monday, August 04, 2008

The Cousins' War & Nixonland

A Fourth Cousins’ War?

According to the Washington Post, Barack Obama enjoys a two to one lead over John McCain among low wage workers. But that level of support, especially among white members of the group, is not deep. In battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Florida if McCain can pry these votes away from the Democrats, he has a chance of winning another four years in the White House for the Republican party.

Many, if not most Americans, are expressing thoughts that would lead one to believe that they would not support this. My dad recently emailed me from Central Florida:

“We have a Bush Countdown Calendar in the shop” (my family runs a bait and tackle shop- just a few years ago, a calendar like this, openly displayed, would have brought about the death of the business among the hyper-patriotic working white males who also make up the majority of the fishing population- if he’s lost this group, then Bush’s halcyon days are truly over.) “Most people think it’s really funny,” my dad wrote, “but I still think McCain is going to win here. People just can’t bring themselves to vote for Obama.” My father went on to mention how people where in debt, how businesses were folding and how bad things were.


We Democrats pride ourselves on being the party who fights the cause of the common man…and yet time and time again in recent years, that man has turned against our party at the polls and voted (as we see it) in diametric opposition to his best self-interest…both long term and short term.

In fact, if Rip-and-Read could chose only one question to focus on, this paradox would be that question. Why does it happen, and, how can it be reversed without selling out everything we, as Democrats, believe in? (Meaning, not to put too fine a point on it, how can Democrats regain the trust and votes of the white working and middle class while not throwing blacks, Hispanics, women and other minorities under the bus.)

I’ve always believed that the answers to most questions about the present lay in careful study of history, and over the last few years, I’ve found myself looking to history for the answer to my question.

In particular, I’ve found myself drawn to two books, each very different from the other. The authors’, too, are very different from one another. And yet I found myself wondering if they weren’t telling different aspects of the same story.

The first book, The Cousins’ Wars, by Kevin Phillips, postulates that three separate conflicts, The English Civil War, the American War of Independence, and the U.S. Civil War are actually three chapters in one long story of conflict between two opposing camps and their allies about what the words freedom and progress meant to the English speaking people of both Great Brittan and North America.

The second book, Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, tells the story of how Richard Nixon managed to find a great silent majority of ordinary Americans who felt alienated by the Revolution of the 1960s. Nixon used this resentment to capture the solid South (which remained solid even as it shifted loyalties) and middle America and white working class voters for the Republican party. Although Nixon himself fell from power in disgrace, his political heirs, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have picked up his mantle and managed to retain control of the White House for the better part of half a century.

The Cousins Wars tells the story of how one camp, based first in East Anglia (England) and later in New England, and then later in what Phillips refers to as Greater New England, battled against the other camp, based first in the North and West of England, and later in the states of the Old Confederacy, and finally (perhaps) in what has been called “The Sun Belt”.

Each side (both with deepest roots in the old English factions of Cavalier and Roundhead) needed to confront the existence of other peoples within the sphere of the conflict (Scots, Welsh and Irish in the case of the English Civil War; Irish, Scots, African American, and German in the case of the two American Wars.) In each war, the importance of these other, non-English, groups grew.

As I began to look at the maps of the conflicts and loyalties in Kevin Phillips’ book, I began to wonder if there weren’t parallels to what was happening in today’s politics. The Confederate States and the Union States look very much like today’s Red and Blue States…the political battle lines in the undecided states (Pensylvania and Ohio, for example) not very far from the old border line between North and South.

This is certainly not a new idea, and it’s obvious the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s reopened the wounds of the Civil War of the 1860s. But I’d always assumed that the make up of the sides (or at least of the Northern side) had changed too radically for the parallel to be taken much further. After reading Phillips’ book, comparing the charges made by Cavaliers against Puritans, Loyalists against Patriots, and Rebel against Yankee (and vise versa) I’m not so sure- the comparison may have been even more apt than I first thought.

In each of the Cousins' Wars one side embraced new economic realities, the other clung to the past. In each of the Cousins' Wars, one side tended to romanticize the state while the other saw it as a means to a more individualistic end. And each side deeply held that the other was engaged in a conspiracy to take away freedom from the other.

If a case needs to be made that the 1960s represented something very close to a Civil War in the United States, complete with violent killings, inability to compromise, or even discuss, and deep divisions within families, and communities, let alone between regions of the country, Perlstein’s opening chapter of Nixonland puts that case very well- his narrative crackles with the sounds of angry words and angrier gunshots.

As I read the Perlstein’s description of the rhetoric flung by “conservatives” against “liberals” (and vise versa), I found that, again, each side felt the other was engaged in a conspiracy to take away freedom from the other.

Kevin Phillips labels the U.S. Civil War “the final Cousins’ War”, but after I started Perlstein’s book, I’m not so sure any more. I already believed that America has been in something very like a Civil War since the mid-sixties, but I am now starting to wonder if we are not still fighting the same old fight, between the same two camps that we’ve been fighting since 1642. The great divide in American Politics which is presently costing us so much may not be entering its fourth decade, but rather may be entering its fourth century.

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