By Michael E. Berumen
The traitorous Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, may have surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox in 1865, but that did not really end the American Civil War. It only ended (other than some isolated skirmishes in the months that followed) the military conflict between the United States and the disloyal secessionists. Major segments of the latter were never reconciled to defeat, did not accept many of the principles and the cultural ethos that impelled the victorious Union, and would live to fight another day by other means. Indeed, that battle by “other means”––––political means–––continues to this day, albeit between parties no longer easily defined by geography. While it is true that the locus of the ideological heirs of the Confederacy continues to be predominantly among whites in the South, the outlook that defines it has also infiltrated other states. For lack of more descriptive appellations, I characterize this particular idea of “politics as war by other means” (inverting von Clausewitz’s aphorism) as a struggle between what I call liberal cosmopolitanism and the neo-Confederacy.
It is not my purpose, here, to provide a scholarly disquisition on the Confederate outlook of the 1860s and how it is manifested today in more modern terms in what I call the neo-Confederacy. At the risk of oversimplification, therefore, allow me to summarize its major attributes, which I believe consist of five major elements, in no particular order of importance, recognizing that there are variations on the theme of each with weightings that differ among individuals and sub-groups. First, the neo-Confederate ethos entails a sense of religious superiority, which is to say, a belief theirs is at once a greater and more appropriate kind of religiosity versus the more secularized society or religions one finds among the economic and cultural elites, usually the more educated in more liberal urban centers of the nation. These are typically Protestant religions, and especially among the more Evangelical and Pentecostal varieties, though it must be noted, almost exclusively among peoples of European origin. Second, there is a belief that liberal cosmopolitans have strayed from the kind of country the neo-Confederates imagine the Founders and Framers intended, one harkening back to a kind of Rockwellian depiction of the halcyon days of a mythological white America. The hagiography surrounding major figures of the rebellious states during the Civil War, especially military figures, and plenty of iconography and symbolism in admiration of the Confederacy, are all emblematic of this mythmaking. Third, there is a shared antipathy for what is seen as an economic hegemony by unscrupulous, elite money powers with global interests, interests often typified by Wall Street money men, and additionally, today, Silicon Valley techno-barons. In some quarters there are disturbing, exaggerated, and not-so-subtle reminders that some of these moneyed interests, as well as major media outlets, are led by Jews. Then of course, there are the liberal denizens of academia who are intent on corrupting the young with anti-American and anti-religious ideas, and notions of equality among the races and sexes, even acceptance of sexual deviancy from the supposed norm. The focus of many of these elites is on investing capital, science, and technology, as opposed to more worthy forms of labor–––and it is at the expense of the “little man”––––a perpetual victim of dark forces. Victimhood by the impingement of outsiders is a particularly important trait shared by both the old and the neo-Confederacy. These elites denigrate the neo-Confederate’s prized values of masculinity, womanhood, hearth, and godliness, bringing us to the fourth attribute, namely, eschewing multi-culturalism and globalism, in other words: cosmopolitanism–––an outlook that often attends financial power, affluence, and education. And fifth, and not least of all, there’s the matter of race (a rather bogus concept, biologically, I hasten to add, and largely a social construct, but one that communicates for our limited purpose)–––and an imagined loss of prestige and power in relation to those who are seen as inferior or as outsiders, resentments reinforced by an underlying and nearly visceral tribal contempt for “the other.”
By way of excursus, I should point out that people in the neo-Confederacy do not suggest a return to slavery, as such, or even a major rollback of key civil rights laws. Most even deny that they have racist or ethnocentric outlooks, though their language and behaviors quickly belie these protestations. What they really want when one adds it all up is to ensure that those of European heritage maintain suzerainty and privilege over persons of non-European origin, and especially those who are seen as inferior, threatening, or both. At the very least, they demand that they not lose the rightful power and prestige (usually imagined, since the working classes seldom had either) that they believe has been taken away from them. That African Americans, for example, hold prestigious positions in entertainment or sports, and that they are entitled to enjoy facilities with equal public accommodation, are not of special untoward consequence to most neo-Confederates; however, that African Americans might hold key public offices, and especially the presidency, or that they seek to change white privilege in other cultural or economic arenas that are not viewed as being tantamount to minstrel work, are in combination seen as a bridge too far.
After the “surrender” at Appomattox, there was ample reason to be hopeful about the prospects of recasting the South, and going about it in a way that was conducive to reconciliation. The latter objective was clearly stated in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, where he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…” Lincoln’s assassination and the disastrous tenure of his successor, Andrew Johnson, set all of that behind, though the key 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolishing slavery, bestowing citizenship, and ensuring voting rights had been put into motion and were all ratified by the states by early 1870 with considerable pressure from Radical Republicans in Congress and the executive branch. Notwithstanding these amendments, white southerners wasted no time after the war in establishing the so-called Black Codes, which, among other things, restricted black people’s right to own property, conduct commerce, lease land, or move freely through public spaces. After Johnson left office, President Grant attempted to adopt what he believed more closely comported with Lincoln’s vision and to enforce that in the erstwhile rebellious states. Grant spent a great deal of his time eradicating the Ku Klux Klan, squashing various disaffected militia groups, and enforcing suffrage and representation. However, by his second term, the Radical Republicans in Congress had lost much of their power; the abolitionist wind that had hitherto billowed Republican sails had died down, and the appetite for funding Grant’s reconstruction and regulatory efforts had seriously waned.
After Grant, the Republican Party became increasingly aligned with commercial and more parochial Northern interests, thereby enabling southern whites and northern interlopers willing to exploit the situation to roll back much of the progress that had been made. Soon, under Hayes and successor Republican and Democratic presidents, powerful whites were able to shut out blacks from the state legislatures in the South, and they instituted apartheid-type laws, widely known as Jim Crow laws–––laws that mandated segregation in nearly all aspects of life. These would last well into the second half of the next century, indeed, in this writer’s lifetime. They implemented various impediments to any hope of political representation or financial prosperity, and enforced what amounted to indentured servitude, effectively removing all economic and political power from African Americans. Many local militias, including a burgeoning Klan and like-minded organizations, terrorized African Americans to keep them in line. Many blacks fled to northern urban areas and to the West Coast to escape these privations. There they would encounter problems, too, for racial animosity was not confined to the South, but not to the same degree, and they were not as bereft of political, commercial, and organized labor allies in positions of power. Moreover, there were opportunities to establish major enclaves that created both economic and cultural advantages in urban areas without many of the kinds of impediments found in the South.
Fast forward to the 20th Century–––the South remained essentially the same until the mid-1960s, a virtual apartheid nation within a nation, and from the perspective of an African American, a totalitarian dictatorship. In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to cobble together strange bedfellows of Southern Democrats, northern labor interests, academic and intellectual classes, and many African Americans–––a great many of whom had been Republicans prior to the 1930s–––a coalition of unlikely partners formed out of shared economic interests that resulted from the Great Depression and hardships that affected everyone. These were not natural alliances, least of all with the racist, agrarian, non-union, insular, and relatively poor whites in the South, which would nevertheless remain Democratic until the 1960s and 1970s. Fissures in FDR’s coalition began to show in the early 1950s with Brown v. the Board of Education and the ensuing forced integration of public schools, and these breaks were furthered by the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and capped by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the three most important pieces of domestic legislation since the 1860s. President Lyndon Johnson lamented to his aide Bill Moyers that his strong-arming civil rights legislation through Congress would be the end of the Democratic Party in the South, but he knew history was on his side.
Johnson’s prediction would come true in relatively short order, as cynical Republicans used states’ rights (often code for anti-civil rights legislation) and other effective memes to foment dissension and attract disaffected Southern Democrats. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” and “law-and-order” planks, not-so-subtle code for preserving white power and culture, drove the penultimate nail in the coffin in terms of Democratic hegemony in the South. And Ronald Reagan drove in the final one with his rhetorical flourishes of robust patriotism and military prowess, always a selling point among many working and middle-class Southerners, and in particular–––and somewhat ironically for this twice-married Hollywood man–––by effectively co-opting the Evangelicals from the Democrats with the help of the likes of Jerry Falwell of the misnamed Moral Majority. In a matter of two decades, the South became a bastion of Republicanism. All this was shored up by state party operatives who ensured that gerrymandered districts and voting restrictions of various kinds would establish and preserve disproportionate power to their national numbers in congressional elections. Meantime, these new culturally-driven, revanchist Republicans drove away many of the cloth coat, country-club Republicans of the business class, and more liberal and moderate or libertarian Republicans of the northern and western states, if not to the Democrats (who were simultaneously losing more moderate and conservative-minded members), then to unaligned, independent and non-partisan status, where they would pick and choose based on candidates rather than based on party affiliation. Thereby, of all things, the Republican Party, the erstwhile Party of Lincoln, became a party that represented many of the values of its once mortal enemy, the old Confederacy cast anew. It cynically sought to capitalize on cultural grievances and on racial antagonisms (now expanded beyond African Americans) while, at the same time, maintaining its standing with commercial interests with the idea that self-interested financial motives of a more cosmopolitan and socially liberal commercial class would enable it to overlook the racism, religiosity, and the vulgarianism of the neo-Confederacy.
It is worth noting, here, that according to a recent Pew study, 39% of the electorate identify as independents, 32% as Democrats, and 23% as Republicans. Thus, a plurality of voters are now unaligned, while the two parties have become increasingly polarized without identifiable moderates in either party, or liberals among Republicans or conservatives among Democrats. This is very different than fifty years ago when both parties had conservatives, moderates and liberals. The difference-making target for both parties, nowadays, is to win based on turnout and attracting a sufficient number of independent voters on the margins
While the southern states remain the stronghold of the neo-Confederacy, it has certainly established footholds in other parts of the nation sharing some of the grievances and resentments previously adduced. So-called “hard hat Democrats” of the Nixon era were the progenitors of a movement of many disaffected, white working people in urban and suburban areas that came over to the Republican Party, which not many years before had been seen as a party of the commercial merchant and big-business classes, and one antithetical to the interests of blue collar workers. Increasingly, the Republican Party allied itself with several of the neo-Confederates’ cultural shibboleths and totems, such as religion, anti-abortion, anti-equal rights for women (e.g., the failed Equal Rights Amendment), anti-gay rights, and, of course, the firearms lobby embodied by the NRA–––and, somewhat ironically, despite its long track record of isolationism and pacifism prior to World War II, it re-branded itself as the party of robust defense and patriotism, especially under Richard Nixon and beyond. Along comes Donald Trump, a flamboyant and unlettered conman, a feckless draft-dodger and gauche playboy, but who, with a kind of intuitive marketing savvy into people’s darker natures, was able to exploit all of the grievances and resentments characterizing the neo-Confederacy by selling his distinctly American brand of fascism. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and faux hyper-masculinity appealed to many working class whites, and his racist overtones attracted all manner of kooks from out of the political recesses into the limelight. Whilst cosmopolitans were appalled at his vulgar taste and habits, his supporters reveled in it, for they represented what they would choose to be like had they the money and power. With more than a little help from Russia, James Comey, and Facebook, he secured an Electoral College victory with only 77,000 votes more than his opponent in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
So, here we are today, a nation nearly as polarized as we were in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, proper–––and, perhaps, with just about the same proportions in terms of the bifurcation of sentiments as measured by population–––then roughly 70% in free states, 30% in slaveholding states (the latter consisting of the Confederate and so-called Border States). The Republican Party, notwithstanding some of its establishment types who adhere to a more conventional brand of fiscal conservatism, is solidly in the hands of the neo-Confederates. Some of the commercial interests (e.g., the Koch brothers) and those establishment types clinging tenuously and cravenly to power (such as Paul Ryan), and some voters among the more educated business class, are cynically willing to overlook the semi-literates of the unwashed Republican constituency that reliably come out to vote the party line, all in order to protect their sinecures and fulfill their more parochial economic interests (such as lower taxes), and strangely enough, promote interests that are more often than not diametrically opposed to many of those among the less affluent who vote the party line. But Trumpism is beginning to force a change, and now even establishment politicians are taking stances in economic policy and foreign affairs that would have Republicans like Ronald Reagan, among others, rolling in his grave. The winking and nodding of the Romney types at the underclasses while going about feathering their nests will no longer cut it. White trash is now in charge of Congress and the Presidency. Only the unwieldy, large bureaucracies and the courts hold out, but for how long is anyone’s guess before irreversible damage is done.
With all of this said, in the final analysis we must acknowledge that we are divided along tribal lines. By this I mean the liberal cosmopolitans and neo-Confederates, and this is despite the patina of logical analysis and our self-serving sense of being right on both logic and facts. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume was correct when he said that nowhere in nature will one find a moral fact, but only facts (empirically verifiable matters or tautologies) and values (our preferences and passions), and that moral judgments are judgements of value and not matters of fact. And political ends are essentially moral judgments writ large, to borrow from Plato’s Republic. In other words, our political ends, the kind of world in which we want to live, are but our preferences, passions, emotions, desires–––our values. And as Hume said, we cannot show that a value is something we ought to desire without conjuring other values, and these can never be justified through ratiocination, that is, through reason alone, and our suggestions to the contrary always rely on a kind of circular reasoning or they are ex cathedra, based on some authority (e.g., faith in Scripture) rather than founded in logic or empirical findings. Thus, reason can help us achieve our ends, but our ends, in the final analysis, represent our desires quite apart from anything mandated by reason. What this means is that politics is at its roots essentially an emotional business insofar as political ideals go (e.g., liberty, equality, caring for the weak, peace, even survival of the species). It is about the kind of world we desire, not something commanded by reason. It is impossible to argue for these ends with logic and facts, because the reality is that logic and facts have little to do with them. That Humean outlook is unsettling to many, though I find no reason to think he was wrong, and philosophers struggle today to find a way around it, but as far as I have observed, without any success.
Then there is the matter of the group to which we belong, that is, the clan or tribe that shares our worldview, perhaps those who share our background and culture or of what we aspire to have–––the group that gives us the sense of belonging and, most importantly, confirms our own beliefs and, in this case, our preferred state of affairs, a shared outlook on what the world ought to look like. The world the neo-Confederate desires and the one desired by liberal cosmopolitans are simply not the same. It is commonplace to say we all desire the same thing; it is the kind of thing one hears from politicians seeking to mediate between competing views–––“we all want the same thing,” but it is untrue, for we really don’t. I’m sorry, but coming from a white trash background myself, I can say with some authority, many among what the cosmopolitan elites perceive as the “rabble” actually prefer their rabbling ways, and have little or no interest in the things that float the boats of liberal cosmopolitans. And the ultimate vulgarian now residing in the White House exemplifies some of those very preferences. Indeed, what liberal cosmopolitans often fail to acknowledge is that there is equal contempt for one another’s worldview. I learned long ago as a young social activist of the left not to take seriously the left’s insincere call for “power to the people,” for the people imagined are a mere abstraction, and often not really how “the people” are at all. With that said, though, there are certainly shared interests among all, and these are the interests that can serve to bring us together, to ameliorate tensions, and at least begin the process of conversion via group identity. In other words, we must grow the tribe to change things.
We human beings are naturally tribal. Our social habits are firmly ingrained, hard-wired over many millennia of evolution since our earliest primate ancestors lived in trees. However, reason does allow us to overcome some of these tendencies. The biggest tool we have is language and the ability to communicate. We are not going to change our nature or the nature of those we oppose by argument, because our political desires, on both sides, are not ultimately based on facts or logic, but on feeling, no matter how we gussy them up with rational window dressing. We will not cause others to abandon their tribe and join ours by logical analysis, notwithstanding how we perceive their interests. Here’s what I am driving at: we must appeal to their preferences to the extent that is possible, that is, appeal to their emotional needs. This is something Trump understood, though in his case his understanding of demagoguery is at some intuitive or instinctive level rather than a cerebral one. Sometimes our preferences versus those of others are sufficiently outweighed by differences such that conversion is a lost cause. I suspect a portion of the neo-Confederacy (which I am guessing is about 30% of the electorate) is intractable. Let us say it is half or 15%. That is a manageable number. If we can broaden the cosmopolitan tribe to 85% of the electorate, in a generation or so we can further marginalize the minority of fascistic neo-Confederates. I must add, though, that a liberal cosmopolitan is not necessarily a partisan, though philosophically the Democratic Party may be closely aligned to her outlook.
I am temperamentally ill-suited for politics as a practitioner; however, I know as an analyst, recognizant of our tribal nature, that to defeat the neo-Confederates we must both expand the number of liberal cosmopolitans and motivate those already among us who are apathetic into political action. Democrats must play the key role, I believe. There are four major tactics we must employ to conquer the neo-Confederacy once and for all. First, we must motivate the unaligned and the young to vote and to work to defeat Trumpism as an immediate objective. Many independents are suspicious of or outright against both Trump and many of the defining characteristics of the neo-Confederacy, and recent polls show that the young reject Trumpism overwhelmingly. The young are who we need to grow the Democratic Party, and represent its best hope for the future. We must convince the independents to align with us, even if temporarily, and the latter, our youth, to go to the polls in all elections and vote their beliefs, which are for the most part aligned with the Democrats. Second, we must convert the softer neo-Confederates by appealing to as many emotional interests that we have in common–––desires and preferences–––to the degree practicable, all the while without sacrificing our most important principles, which is to say, the most vital ends of our worldview (justice, economic opportunity for all, tolerance, equality under the law, etc.). From a practical perspective, this is going to mean emphasizing more parochial issues that will vary by locality–––kitchen table, pocket-book issues–––and not just grand, national social themes. Third, we must get all those who presently identify as Democrats to vote! It remains the majority party, but has embarrassingly shameful and lackluster performance in attending the polls, and as a consequence its political power has been materially diminished in recent decades. And fourth, once in power, Democrats must work in state legislatures and in the courts to put a stop to the gerrymandering of congressional districts by establishing non-partisan commissions, even if that sometimes works against them. And of considerable importance, the Democratic Party must reinvigorate itself and put special emphasis on improving economic prosperity and security; providing healthcare and education for everyone; and of particular importance, rekindling hope in the possibility of upward mobility, this being a defining characteristic of the American Dream since its founding, one that has been diminished in recent decades. In other words, if we want to end this seemingly interminable war, we must defeat the neo-Confederacy by shrinking it and expanding our tribe, and not simply by condemning the former, but by making the latter the obvious choice. We must do so by appealing to our shared interests––––our preferences and desires for the kind of world we want to live in–––and motivating people to act on them at the ballot box.
Finally, I would like the Democratic Party to be the dominant party, much as it has been for decades, which is not to say that I want it to be a unitary power. I would also like to see a vibrant, responsible center-right party, a loyal opposition, for I know Democrats do not have a monopoly on good judgment, and it is good to have a check on the power of any one institution to protect the interests of all, particularly minority interests. The Republican Party can no longer be considered to be either “responsible” or “loyal”–––or even a center-right party. It has many fascistic overtones, and fascism transcends and stands apart from traditional right-left classifications. The GOP now harbors views and practices that are antithetical to the American ethos or the kind of country that so many of our forebears aspired to create, ideals for which many have sacrificed and suffered, indeed, have even given their lives to defend. The Republican Party has cynically dabbled in supporting our enemies by either enabling or ignoring the nefarious activities of those who directly do so. It is as far removed from being the party of Abraham Lincoln or Charles Sumner as the modern Democratic Party is unlike the party of Stephen Douglas or Jefferson Davis. I don’t know if the Republican Party can recover its bearings, but I rather doubt that it will or that it even can. To my mind, now is time for the remaining responsible elements of the GOP and unaligned conservatives to form a new party, one that represents true conservatism, as opposed to the fascistic and neo-Confederate strains that have spread like a malignant cancer in the GOP––––a conservatism that in its modern incarnation is but another species of a liberal democratic outlook, an outlook that seeks to optimize individual liberty and prosperity, one where everyone has a say, and with justice and equal treatment under the law for all–––the kind of conservatism once promoted by William F. Buckley and promoted today by the likes of George Will and Brett Stephens And along with Democrats, together, we might finally realize the original intention of Abraham Lincoln, and while respecting our several differences, consign the seeds of hateful discord and the emotional militancy that polarize us today to the dustbin of history.
Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. A longtime Californian, he and his wife have live happily in retirement in Colorado.