Though America had its civil war 150 years ago, to say there’s a civil war in a country like America now seems at the very least strained, hyperbolic, intemperate or melodramatic. But after a couple of decades of evolving conservative radicalism and growing extremism, concurrent with its absorption into one of the two major political parties, I don’t know what else exactly to call it.
Having just witnessed something unprecedented in the United States of America, an elected, sitting American president compelled, in the face of a radical conspiracy theory elevated to political and media prominence, to take extraordinary measures to prove his own American citizenship, anything short of admitting that something has dramatically changed is manifestly inadequate. We have reached some notable landmark here, one no thoughtful American can possibly dismiss.
There is no question that race played a prominent role in this. The historical path to this moment is quite clear. From the Fifties and Sixties when the New Deal Democratic coalition of northern industrial workers, Midwestern farmers and rural Southerners dissolved, first through the splintering off of conservative southern Democrats into the segregationist, anti-civil rights Dixiecrats, and finally the gradual assimilation into the Republican party of that component, and eventually others alienated by Democrats’ push in the mid-Sixties for civil rights, the racial bifurcation in American politics was for all intents and purposes set in stone.
Republicans have always traded in cutie pie euphemisms for their racial strategies. Initially, opposing civil rights wasn’t racially motivated: it was all about “states’ rights”. Then Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan had their “Southern Strategy”. The rhetorical crusade against “welfare queens” was more cutesy racialist winking, while the facile insistence that the Willie Horton ads were not scuzzy race baiting but just a totally respectable concern about the “crime issue” never could pass a smell test. Not only is the Republican Party happy to take the votes of racists, it depends upon them.
So, it’s hardly shocking that something called the Tea Party, which itself now sets the ideological and political agenda for the Republican Party would be remnants of the same Dixiecrats, an older, entirely white demographic not ashamed to publicly display racially crude signage depicting the president at their Tea Party rallies. Only the cynical right or the hopelessly credulous would assert that the current campaign of suspicion and slander regarding the President’s origins would have transpired, or even been possible were he not black. It is simply no longer possible for those in the Republican Party who claim to be “moderate” or “thoughtful” or “respectable” to persuade anyone but themselves that the Republican Party is not a racist party.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the severity of the country’s divide there is a great deal more. One of the nation’s two major political parties cannot embody the radicalism today’s Republican Party in fact does, on the scale it does, with an ideological absolutism and insistence on governance under one dogmatic reality it does, and be engaged in anything other than revolt in all but name only. Obama is not the first President of the opposition party to undergo the same brazen attempt at delegitimizing.
President Clinton, the previous Democratic president was the first: full-scale attacks on every conceivable front went far beyond any previous political blood sport and were indisputably an attack on the legitimacy of his presidency. It was targeted at the man, but was, with no effort to disguise it, repudiation of his political party as legitimately able to govern the nation.
The attempt to delegitimize Bill Clinton was undertaken in concert by interconnected groups of highly placed, highly influential, abundantly financed Republican political and legal operatives. As early as the 1992 presidential campaign, a trip by the president to the Soviet Union while a student at Oxford began to be characterized and promoted as suspicious, a public insinuation, never repudiated by George Bush, that Clinton may have betrayed, and continue to be betraying his country. As with Obama, the essence of his Americanism was cast as questionable. He was accused by influential and prominent conservatives of running drugs and even murder while governor of the state of Arkansas. Later, a Republican led House committee launched an investigation attempting to establish a tie between campaign contributions to Democrats and the selling of sensitive electronics to China, the accusation being that Clinton was actively betraying the country. Such accusations, sounding fringe-like, weren’t coming from anything previously considered the fringe at all: they were coming from elected Republican officials and influential conservatives.
And eight years later, with the assault on the legitimacy of Barack Obama not a single beat has been skipped: Now it’s a pattern: presidents of the Democratic Party no longer are considered legitimate by the Republican Party. Elected officials and unofficial spokespersons for the party openly welcome and openly advance presidential failure, insisting on all but sovereign immunity from the powers of the presidency under President Obama, if not legally every other way. And accordingly, by extension of course neither are the rank and file members of the president’s party legitimate. This is no longer politics; this is a break from politics.
Once you’ve begun to actively and protractedly distinguish the “real Americans” from the others, and the “real America” from the one that presumably isn’t, once you’ve begun a campaign of delegitimizing large swaths of the population, and the political opposition, once a majority of your party’s membership doubts the very citizenship of the president of the United States, doubts his very right to serve as president, and hence does not accept him as the legitimate president of the United States, find any euphemism you favor to describe that state of affairs, but I cannot describe this material reality as anything other than a genuine disruption of America’s civil society.
And it isn’t only a break from civil society. It’s a break from what for most Americans had been a shared material, concrete and physical reality. For the American right and its flagship political party, facts as we have known them, even the concept and designation of objective facts no longer pertain. These concrete or material facts no longer are required, entirely irrelevant to our national discourse. That’s not a rhetorical statement, but yes, a statement of fact.
It does not matter what climate scientists say about climate change, the consequences, the ramifications don’t matter either, because of course the climate isn’t changing if you say it isn’t and if you say the experts saying it are quite corrupt. It doesn’t matter that three decades of economic data show that every time taxes are cut, in accordance not only with a long-understood economic verity but simple common sense revenue to the government has declined, and significantly so, the bulk of Republican politicians and elected officials and conservatives everywhere insist with utter conviction that cutting taxes increases government revenue. And then there’s the President’s “questionable” birth.
Again, there is no backing away by Republicans who consider themselves “respectable” or “moderate” or “thoughtful” from what this political party plainly has become. Calling this historical moment an American Civil War is not something commonly done on the left side of the political spectrum and admittedly, doing so does risk seeming and even feeling intemperate, hyperbolic and all the rest. But on the right side, what is currently underway is conceived of as just that, a civil war, Republicans and conservatives conducting themselves, comporting themselves and conceiving of themselves as at war.
It no longer is honest or accurate for media or anyone else to continue to insist on representing this reality as merely two sides of an intensely sharp political divide. This stopped being a philosophical and ideological contest about the time William F. Buckley Jr. retired his “Firing Line” show and subsequent Firing Line Debates. Those debates and the political disputation surrounding them were in fact about ideas, about philosophies. What is happening now is not about ideas. It is not about philosophies. It is about who belongs and who doesn’t. Who is American and who is not. One party or the other. But not both (or neither).
Of course, this isn’t a shooting war, and anyone who objects that something can’t be designated a war without shooting has a fair point. But I have to say that as alien as it seems to describe America as in the midst of a civil war in the present time, not long ago it would have seemed similarly alien, and I would not have believed it if you had told me a sitting President of the United States in the near future would be under strong pressure to produce proof of his citizenship, or that the consensus of scientific opinion on a critical scientific issue would be challenged in its totality and rejected, with an alternate theory based upon nothing but political and ideological dogmatism.
This is not to go so far as to say crazier things have happened than another burgeoning civil war, but to say, pretty crazy things are happening. All I can communicate to other Democrats and liberals is that politically, I am recognizing the fight that has been brought to me and the stakes the other side has laid down. I really see no legitimate excuse for anyone in the Democratic Party or on the left generally for failing to do likewise.