Clausewitz wrote that war is politics by other means, and Mao Zedong added the corollary that politics is war without bloodshed. That is the only way to understand the events taking place this weekend on the floor of the House of Representatives, and it would be just as rash for me to predict the outcome of tomorrow's House vote as it would to have bet on the outcome of the coming battle in Pennsylvania on June 30, 1863. To paraphrase Lincoln, now we are in the midst of a lesser civil war, to determine what form our nation shall assume for the next eighty years. Both sides are rallying their troops with language as extreme as ever used by any general on the eve of battle. Both sides feel, once again, that their way of life is at stake. Certainly I would agree that much of this seems exaggerated, and so it must seem to foreign observers--but so did the conflict of 1861-5.
Having spent much of the last two weeks preparing and delivering a lecture involving the civil war, with a long seminar yet to come, I am increasingly convinced that the 1860s, rather than the 1930s, provide the best parallel to what is happening in the United States today. The lecture focused on Lincoln and most of my reading has dealt with the Northern side, and many depressing parallels occurred to me. The Republicans in Congress were every bit as selfish, irresponsible and disunited as today's Democrats. Today every politician seems to have a favorite earmark, but in those days every leading Senator and Congressman had a favorite general, and Lincoln, the commander-in-chief, had to take their views into account--surely a more humiliating procedure even than anything President Obama has had to submit to. Just as the Ben Nelsons and Mike Stupaks of the Congress have put disastrous measures into the health care bill, political generals like John C. Fremont and Ben Butler helped prolong the war and cost thousands of lives. Lincoln had to stick with George McClellan, who could never have won the war, because he had initially helped build him up as the savior of the Union and had no idea who else might be better. It was no accident that Grant and Sherman began their careers in the West, further from the scrutiny of Washington, where they could (barely) survive a mistake or two. I would like to believe that the true leaders of the current crisis might emerge from state governments, but I am not aware of a single governor who is making an inspiring record right now.
The parallel with the 1860s obviously extends to the other side--indeed it is becoming clearer every day, as Republicans begin to talk about rolling back not only the New Deal, but the results of the Civil War itself insofar as they concern the powers of the federal government. They are political as well. Like Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln did not represent the extreme of his political party. On the way to the White House he denied repeatedly and sincerely that he was an abolitionist, although he expressed hopes that slavery would finally disappear. In the same way, while Barack Obama said a number of times during the 00s that he would prefer a single-payer health care system, he is making no attempt to implement one. Yet today's Republicans, like Southern Democrats in 1860, reacted to his election as though he were the Antichrist himself. Substitute "abolitionist" for "socialist" in today's attacks on Obama and you will have the flavor of 1860-1. Just as Rush Limbaugh thunders daily that Obama is determined to destroy the private sector, Southerners proclaimed that they would be the slaves of black men within a few years if they tried to live under Lincoln. States are once again claiming the right to nullify federal legislation (and a constitutional crisis looms, by the way, in the not impossible event that today's conservative Supreme Court majority might strike down the health care mandate in the bill if it passes.)
In the face of all this, the Democratic Party suffers from a problem that nearly wrecked the Northern high command in the early stages of the civil war: a lack of professionalism and discipline. (I am not accusing the common union soldier of indiscipline--he was never the problem--his leadership was.) This stems from the rather eerie and depressing similarity between the leading generations of those times and these, the Transcendentals (born about 1793-1820) and the Boomers. Not only were both addicted to apocalyptic visions of the future, but both seemed incapable of making the simplest compromises, even on their own side, in pursuit of the greater good. Their selfishness communicated itself to not a few of the younger Gilded generation. During the months when he personally held the destiny of the Army of the Potomac in his hands, General McClellan poured out a long stream of complaints about his commander-in-chief, Lincoln, and his fellow generals, in letters to his wife. There was no moment during the war so bleak that politicians would not try to turn it to their individual benefit. Fortunately the South did no better--in fact it may have done even worse--and that balanced things out sufficiently to allow the Union to win the war with the help of the genius of that most underrated of Americans, Ulysses S. Grant.
The same problems, however, eventually crippled Reconstruction. Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson, a man of modest capabilities and accomplishments, nonetheless felt himself entitled to go against the party that had put him into the nation's highest office, and did what he could to set back Reconstruction for four years. The Republican leadership--increasingly Gilded rather than Transcendental--became more focused on the enormous profits to be tapped from the new economy and less interested in the plight of the slaves. Deadlock and corruption ruled the entire American government for most of the next thirty years, and the black population of the South was terrorized into submission once again. That, at this point, frightens me more than anything. Even if the health care bill does pass, the Democratic Party has not shown itself capable of a sustained and determined effort to correct the flaws that have opened up in our society over the last thirty years.
It is increasingly clear that we are not about to see a replay of the New Deal, mainly, I think, for two reasons. First, as I have remarked here before, the crisis of 1929-32 was unique insofar as no one--no section of the country, and, initially, no social class or economic interest group--could deny that drastic action was necessary. Roosevelt in 1933 forward disposed not only of huge majorities in the Congress (much larger than Obama's now), but also of the enthusiastic cooperation, for at least a year, of the whole of the American people. That enabled him to do so much during the first two years that he actually gained seats again in 1934 (something that Lincoln could not do and that seems very unlikely for Obama now), and again in 1936. But in addition--as I have observed in my current research--the Missionary Generation had qualities that the Transcendentals and Boomers simply lack. Born in the wake of the destructive explosion of emotion that even now took more lives than every other American war combined, they were raised with self-discipline and a sense of broader responsibility. They also, as I have found again and again, had to show true administrative ability to rise to public eminence. That is why Roosevelt could put together a bipartisan team, including the Secretaries of War and of the Navy, to prepare for and fight the Second World War. Modern society has never been more disciplined than it was in the first half of the twentieth century. That made it capable both of unprecedented evil and unprecedented good. Fortunately for us, the good prevailed.
The stakes today are lower. We may indeed descend into another gilded age in which many millions of Americans live their whole lives in poverty, but even that would be better than living under totalitarian dictatorship, or fighting another disastrous civil war. Politically we do not live in an age of greatness. Yet that does not mean that we must not choose between better and worse alternatives, and I shall try to be watching when that choice is made, probably tomorrow afternoon.
P.S. With this post I announce a new policy. This blog is designed to provoke discussion and it is not supposed to be reserved for people who agree with me. I have had plenty of intellectual battles in my career and given ample proof that I can take it as well as dish it out. Anonymous, abusive comments, however, contribute nothing to resolving the problems we all face, and henceforth comments that are both anonymous and abusive will be deleted.