I'm not much of a historian, but I probably know more history than a fifth grader. So here's my historical observation for today: I think that the last time our government was so polarized into hostile, fundamentally incompatible camps may have been the decade or so leading up to the Civil War. (I lived through the 60s--and those years were definitely filled with animosity--still, I don't think most of us really thought that the very fabric of the political system was unraveling: Congress still managed to negotiate and legislate.) But now, as in the 1850s, the battle lines seem drawn. Neither side is going to blink. And both sides absolutely loathe the other.
Furthermore, now, as in the 1850s, the reason for the mutual hatred is fundamentally cultural. Oh, I know--there's a lot of disingenuous talk about how the disagreements are essentially about economic policy--and hence, susceptible to compromise. This is untrue--and we all know it, really.
What divides us now, as in the 1850s, is a quarrel over the basic values and goals of the American people. What should America be like and in what direction should our society move?
And most particularly, I fear, the quarrel is still--as it was in the 1850s--about RACE (with a dollop of religion, perhaps). One side (the Red) wants to "return" to a manifestly unfair--but clearly understood--world in which white people and fundamentalist Christians hold the levers of power. Because this is a gut feeling/prejudice rather than a rationally defensible point of view, the spokespeople for this side couch the arguments in "economic" terms. But those arguments are dishonest and in bad faith.*
The other side (the Blue) wants to "move forward" toward a more open, more pluralistic society--a world in which people of many races, creeds and orientations can co-exist in justice. It's a nice ideal, but so amorphous that it frightens even some of the people who espouse it. How would such a society function? What old institutions would have to be dismantled and what new ones would have to be created? Who would "win" and who would "lose"? The moral high ground belongs to this side--but a STRONG LEADER is required to articulate clearly a MEANS to accomplish this end.
That brings us to Barack Obama. Because he is black (and therefore represents everything that terrifies the racists) he absolutely enrages the Reds. They would rather lose their country itself than allow Obama to score even the slightest victory. And, alas, Obama has failed miserably to conceive and/or articulate any program that would inspire the Blues to rally behind him and take advantage of their majority and their moral high ground. He has been content to pussyfoot and play nice (hoping, naively, to "win over" the racists--racists do NOT abandon their racism, Mr. President).
So there is no functioning rudder in Washington--and the country is adrift. Or, to use another metaphor: isn't American society in 2010 a bit like Humpty Dumpty sitting on his wall? And weren't we doing the same thing in the 1850s?
How about a rebel yell, here! Already the governor of Texas is threatening secession! OK, but calm down. History rarely repeats itself exactly. Certainly, a strong Red anger prevails in most of the states of the Old Confederacy--whereas a much more tepid Blue spirit percolates about in the remainder of the country (minus, perhaps, Utah). Still, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which the War Between the States could be repeated, given the heterogeneity of the country in 2010--including the Old South. I do think, though, that something very unpleasant could result from this standoff: assassinations, coup attempts, even constitutional crises. Ding! Ding! There is nothing "divine" about our Constitution. It has worked, mas o menos, for a couple of centuries. But the Roman Republic eventually gave way to the Imperium; the Ancien Regime was eventually supplanted by a Republic; and, tellingly, the Romanovs nowadays run restaurants and drive taxis in New York. It (or, at least, something rather like "it") CAN happen here.
Hello? Hello? Is anybody home? Do you know how to make an omelette, Mr. President? First ya gotta break some eggs.
* I know, of course, that there are many people--usually Republicans--whose political views are shaped by genuine economic conservatism--and NOT by racism or other cultural issues. For the sake of this blog, I'd like to exclude those sincere believers from the "Reds." It's unfortunate that such authentic conservatives (who may dislike certain policies, but who do not irrationally despise entire groups of people) cannot somehow disentangle themselves from the bigots and the hate-mongers.