A curious thing came out of the midterms. The fact that a lot of GOP candidates won their races (many by a nose hair) and yet in those same districts more or less progressive referenda also won. Legalization of marijuana and the legitimization of gay marriage being the two most prominent. This is curious when you consider that for the last umpteen years now the GOP has made its bones by being obsessively loudmouthed social naysayers. People seem to have been voting for them because they are opposed to all the things identified as signaling the End Times of Civilization, most of which can be lumped loosely under the rubric of “Permissiveness.” Abortion, sex education, liberal arts education, science, critical thinking, and so forth have all come in for pulpit-drubbings by various right wing candidates.
And yet, it seems, even while in local to state races the electorate has been rewarding such rhetoric, when given the chance to actually vote on specific policies the trend would appear in the opposite direction, if only by a smidgen.
According to polls, the country has maintained more or less the same split over abortion, namely that the majority favors its legality. On the local level, the Right have resorted to playing very narrow games of accreditation for facilities in order to shut down clinics and in some cases have enacted what may appear to the uninvolved perfectly reasonable waiting period laws, but every “personhood” amendment on the ballot across the country failed. When it comes to the actual core issue—a woman’s right to choose—that divide doesn’t budge. (If they keep playing games like this, though, we may discover in the next couple of election cycles that a greater majority favor legal access than we previously assessed as people get tired of the brinksmanship.)
The War on Drugs, declared under Nixon lo these many decades past, is losing its moral legitimacy with more and more people.
And finally Texas school books have been purged of anti-science rhetoric. Now all we have to do is achieve the same in history.
So what exactly is going on? If right wing demagogues are being elected to “represent” districts while at the same time those districts are rejecting the social programs being pushed by these demagogues, some head-scratching is in order.
It may not be as baffling as it first appears. It just depends on what battle we think is being fought.
It occurs to me that, stepping back and trying to see it as a whole, the closest fit would be to see this as a variation on the Civil War. Specifically, the debate between local and federal control. It is a fact that most of the men who fought for the Confederacy were not slave owners, they had no direct stake in the Peculiar Institution (although it would be a mistake to maintain that they were totally unaffected by the question), and that there were deep pockets of abolitionist sentiment throughout the South. Of the multiple reasons they would fight so ardently, the one that makes the most sense is the “Because you’re down here” issue. They did not think of themselves as Americans in the sense of a single national political (or even social) entity, but as a general idea expressed through regional tradition. Culturally, it would difficult to describe a New England seaman, an Appalachian hardscrabble farmer, and a Louisiana riverman as belonging to the same social aggragate. We are, as we like to say, a nation of immigrants, and no one abandoned their heritage when they got off the boat, even if they tried. We are a nation of villages.
When the Civil War broke, the driving political question was where the primary power to change lives lay. Locally? Where most people, even in the North, naturally assumed? Or centrally, at the federal level, with laws emerging from the minds of people most of the country did not know and did not understand and could, it would be reasonable to assume, knew nothing of “how we live here.”
This is not to say we lacked any kind of national identity. Far from it, but for the most part the two—local, or regional, and national—had little real interaction. You could be an American and believe you lived in a country of fellow Americans, without that ever meaning you had to do anything to accommodate the sensibilities of people living a thousand miles away. Or even a hundred, for that matter. It became an issue when those people came to your area and began telling you that, in fact, you did have to make such accommodation.
Again, probably for most people in any given area or era, this was not a big deal. But we can see explosions of when it became one. The Range Wars in the west over settlers and grazing rights is exactly this kind of dispute. The Whiskey Rebellion, while not usually characterized this way, was one of the earliest and most prominent, an explosion coming out of the fact that the Atlantic seaboard had no idea of the conditions for survival in Western Pennsylvania.
The so-called Civil War is the largest of these and utterly transformed the relationship between states and the nation as a single entity.
It’s useful to recall the by-now well-known statement that Robert E. Lee made when refusing command of the Union Army, that he could never fight against his country. It is perhaps simplistic to see that as his claiming that Virginia, the state, was what he regarded as “his country” and it wouldn’t be wrong, only insufficient. Lee was not simplistic and he was a West Pointer. “His country” may well have been both—Virginia and the United States—and his statement would then have made sense as a declaration of his unwillingness to fight in opposition to the configuration in which both existed in relation to each other. Fighting for the Union in order to facilitate the imposition of the federal over the states would for him be as bad as treason, because that meant changing the very intent of that relationship.
David Brin has written an overview of a version of this ongoing civil war. While I might quibble with details, it suffices to describe a sentiment which I believe is at the heart of the apparent contradiction evident in the last election. The visceral rage evidenced by the Right since Obama’s election, something which has been building and gaining momentum since Reagan took office, seems to me perfectly explicable when viewed in this way. What we’ve been seeing is not so much a rejection of progressivism or even social justice—although there certainly is such rejection by certain factions—as it is a rejection of federal hegemony and centrality. Progressive ideals and social justice become collateral damage in this fight, which may seem a weak description of the real impact of such damage, yet the lack of any kind of genuine guiding principle behind their rollbacks can be explained by the apparent larger battle. This may be the last phase of an ongoing war over identity that has raged, to greater or lesser degree, for two centuries.
We want to be Americans but only as defined by local identity.
As I noted in the previous post, low midterm voter turnout may be an artifact of a perceived pointlessness in voting locally when one can do nothing about another district’s or state’s representative. If, in other words, my vote won’t get that guy from Ohio or Kentucky out of office, what’s the point? This would be a component of this identity question, expressed in ambivalence and manifest as apathy.
When you look at certain maps of electoral trends, there would appear to be a set of characteristics that are being squeezed. As frustrating as recent politics have been, federalism seems to be gradually winning the field. America is becoming one country, finally, after all this time.
Which would explain, in part, the most recent battle over immigration. The forces circling the wagons around the besieged identities of which I speak see rationalizing immigration policy as another attack on their primacy. Who can say what several million newly naturalized voters might do at the polls? Better to do all we can to keep them out and try to gain some kind of upper hand for—
Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? If what I suggest underlies all this, then the fight is over the desire to retain independence from the very thing you put forward as a last hope for freedom. You want to be an American but you don’t want to change yourself in order to be what that might mean.
Which makes several apparently absurd things make a kind of sense. Opposition, for instance, to the theory of evolution. If evolution is true—and, worse, we teach it to our kids—then that means change is natural, indeed inevitable, and, furthermore, that there is no scientific basis for exclusion. These twin notions, when put in political context, are explosive for certain people who are also trying to assert that our Founding Fathers based our guiding documents and institutions on Biblical foundations, which they by their own admission did not.
God created Americans, whole and perfect, and these pesky scientific notions of change and mutation and inconstancy violate that conceived perfection.
How about climate change, then? Never mind the cause, but the fact of it means we will have to change how we live in order to meet the challenge of the new environment. We will environmentally stop being the Land of Milk and Honey, the cornucopeia we have always told ourselves we are. If you are someone who believes the above idea about perfect creation, then this can be nothing but divine judgment (as opposed to natural evolution, which might be addressable if we would just get out of our own way), and by all that is who we wish to be that cannot be. It must be because of—
And the litany of the excluded follows. Gays, minorities, socialists, feminists.
As long as the larger world did not intrude upon your small patch of the landscape and you could define yourself according to standards shared by your next door neighbor without any regard for the nation or the world, everything could be fine.
Of course, it’s not, because such hermetic isolation is impossible, and ideas if nothing else seep in. The former Soviet Union was nothing if not an almost century-long attempt to isolate an entire nation ideologically from outside ideas, and if failed miserably, resulting in its collapse when the weight of willed ignorance grew too much.
I’m not here claiming a preference so much as indicating vectors and possible causes. The invective hurled at Obama would seem baseless and utterly without motive in any rational sense, the yowling of people who feel threatened for no apparent reason. But if seen from this perspective, it begins to make a kind of sense. This is, possibly, the last campaign of a civil war that has been going on for a long, long time. This is a stand against the future. Obama won both elections by wide margins of the popular vote, so clearly this is not a majority reaction, but a stung minority who see him as representative of a change which many of them may not themselves have clearly defined. That the very progressive measures which one assumes are the meat and bread oppositions of the representatives recently elected passed in so many places suggest that policy is less important in this than a kind of granulated regionalism.
It’s not the kind of argument, unfortunately, that lends itself to clarity, to a clearly defined right and wrong. Which is what makes the rhetoric so unfathomable at times.