Friday, December 03, 2004

The Late Unpleasantness

Election Day 2004 looks like Election Day 1860 in more ways than most people realize. That, if I'm right, is not good news, considering the blowback from the 1860 vote.

The regional schism on this year's red-blue map has been noted and compared to that of 1860, of course. ("Jesusland" is not "Jeffdavisland," of course, and the comparison was over-emphasized in some quarters, but there's an undeniable likeness.) Like 2004, the presidential vote of 1860 followed a presidential election where the winner had carried less than half the popular vote. Democratic leaders stoked popular fears of resentment of the monopolistic power of a few corporations which had frighteningly close ties to the government and literally bought influence for the sake of continuing their economic dominance. Masses of voters cast ballots against their economic interest, but in the name of "values," or out of fear of religious fanaticism. The political landscape even featured a galvanizing act of violence, in some ways comparable in impact to Sept. 11, in the Harper's Ferry raid.

But while many of the forces at work in the 1860 election churned in the nation this year, too, their distribution among the two parties is different in some cases.

The parallels of the two divisive elections also are somewhat obscured by differences that, ultimately, don't amount to much. For instance, whereas in 2004 the national division straddled several issues -- Iraq war, terrorism, gay marriage, abortion, -- in 1860 it was concentrated in one: slavery. But the components were essentially similar: ageing Supreme Court justices, the power of Washington to overrule diverse state institutions, the rights of a minority to equal treatment, and the extension of the federal government's military power into dubious legal territory.

Another fact that obscures the parallel is the split in the 1860 Democratic Party, which fielded two candidates. But this was a non-issue in terms of the outcome; Lincoln would have won even if all the non-Lincoln votes were rolled into one opponent.[*] The double candidacy of Douglas and Breckenridge in 1860 was the alternative to a single candidate with a "flip-flopping" platform. John Kerry's reversals this year were over-emphasized because they made easy headlines and made a useful weapon for his opponents, but the trope is sufficiently true that he could be portrayed, as political cartoonists often painted him, as two distinct candidates.

1. Flip-flops and radicals

The range of views in the modern Democratic Party may be as great as it was in 1860. Part of the party is practical, centrist, and in touch with the broad base of the electorate. But much of it is cloistered in castles on a hill, obsessed with the religious wolves howling in the Republican night.

Hollywood and the universities and San Francisco are the dens of the modern-day fire-eaters: Intemperate speakers who say the whole nation is rotten and they wish they were out of it (even while claiming to be the real patriots and to represent the true vision of the Founders). Like South Carolina and the Deep South of 1860, they are too important for the party to disown but an embarrassment to moderates in places where only moderation would carry the vote.

Just as the Michael Moore Democrats and the commercials grabbed the microphone from reasonable people in the party, the incendiary speeches of Yancey, Rhett, Ruffin and their like filled the columns of hostile newspapers in the North in 1860. In the South, meanwhile, the words of Northern men like Thoreau, who all but deified John Brown, were read and remembered long after the majority of Northern voices who condemned Brown's terrorism were forgotten.

In 1860, those Democrats who could not split themselves in half, as the national party had done, labored to avoid saying anything to alienate either wing of the party. In his silence on key issues of the day, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Henry D. Foster was mocked by Republican editors in Philadelphia as a "prince among political trimmers" and "the mum candidate."

2. They want to take away your rights

1860 was a time of economic dislocation. The Democrats, who had been in power for two administrations, bore the blame when the economy staggered. But that was just the base of the voters' wrath against them, and the Republicans cleverly galvanized that resentment with slavery issues such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision.

Most in the North had no sympathy for Abolitionists. The prejudice against blacks was as strong, if not stronger, in the North than in the South. Yet by turning the issue of slavery into one of "Slaveocracy" -- the supposed bid by Southern leaders to impose their will on the people of the North -- the Republicans swung the voters of the North behind their drive to capture the White House.

A reading of historical trends well-documented in 1860 would show that Southern power was rapidly waning in the growing nation, and even with the three-fifths rule, the sun had set on the era when the South and the North would balance one another. Yet the Republicans managed to convince their constituents that the South held Washington in a tight grip, and the "Slave Power" oligarchs intended to use it to impoverish the working people of the North.

When the Covode committee report on patronage corruption in the Democratic Buchanan Administration came out in the spring of 1860, it revealed, as one historian put it, "practices common to every administration since the days of Andrew Jackson." But the Republicans touted it to Northern voters as evidence of a party in thrall to slave power.

The Southerners, for their part, gave the Republicans ample ammunition. Horace Greeley said the Kansas-Nebraska Act had made more abolitionists in two months than William Lloyd Garrison had in 20 years. The Dred Scott decision, meanwhile, not only determined that one class of Americans was to be excluded from the civil rights supposedly available to all free men, it also opened the question of whether any state, new or old, could bar slavery at all. These two incidents formed the core of hundreds of stump speeches across the North in 1860.

3. Voting against economic interest

With the populace whipped up into an emotional furor, the Republicans turned their manipulative political skill to forging a link, in the minds of voters, between the interests of the common man, on one hand, and tariff protection and a homestead bill to open up Western land to exploitation.

Northern industrialists convincing their workers that the tariff was vital to the working man's interest, even though it was no longer needed for protection of industry and only lined the pockets of the manufacturers at the expense of everyone. They rallied the people to demand the government sell off Western lands at low prices -- even though the main beneficiaries of that policy turned out to be land speculators and railroad investors.

In the South, the fire-eaters succeeded in their bid to fuse, in the popular mind, the protection of slavery to the liberty of all Southern whites.

4. Swing states and values voters

There were no opinion polls in those days, but politicians studied the local and state level elections intently and knew roughly where each voting district stood and what would appeal to the voters in each place. Republicans ignored most of the nation and concentrated on three lower North states with Southern sympathies -- Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. If the term "swing state" had been invented then, it would have been applied.

The GOP was a broad and loose coalition of factions that had little in common besides a common opponent, and whose agendas at times even crossed purposes. Conservative former Whigs felt especially irritated by the radicalism of some of the other wings of the party. The 1860 platform had something for everyone, including some severely unpleasant and discriminatory planks.

Throngs of recent Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish and German, had swelled the Democrats' ranks in the cities, but this provoked a backlash. At first the anti-immigrants formed their own party and vied to be the main opposition to the Democrats, but by the late 1850s the anti-immigrants and the anti-slavery men had merged into the new Republican Party.

Anti-slavery leaders in the Republican Party, like Chase and Seward, were far more radical than the mass of voters who backed them. But they managed to turn voters' attention away from that fact. Democrats were astonished that native-born Northern whites, who essentially shared their views of race relations, would cast their lots with such mad fanatics.

The degree of evangelicalism in the Northern reformers is easy to overlook today, when such Protestant intensity has so thoroughly drained out of New England. Yet to the abolitionist minority among the Republicans, anti-slavery was very much a "values" issue.

[*]For some reason, history professors keep teaching otherwise. Something in the prevailing paradigm must require them to insist that Southern Democrats were to blame for Lincoln's election in 1860. I laid out the math here, but I still get e-mails from history professors at colleges and universities whose names you've heard no doubt, insisting that, numbers be damned, the South held the power and only its internal split allowed Lincoln to win election with 39 percent of the popular vote.

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