My blogging colleague, The Erstwhile Conservative, posted a summary of provocative statements and positions by conservative candidates, one which, to me, begs the question,
“Why should serious contenders for the Presidential nomination be so far outside the mainstream of political thought?” Briefly, the positions were:
1. Gingrich: Warned of a secular atheist country in 50 years dominated by Islamists.
2. Santorum: Wishes to ban not only abortion but contraception.
3. Huntsman: Promotes the “Ryan Plan” which would, in effect, scrap Medicare and Medicaid.
Two of the three positions would appear to be inspired by religious concerns. Do they seem extreme to you? They do to me, but I think I understand why. I think they derive from the need to appeal to the party’s more extreme members because it is a primary campaign. If those can be won over, then likely the moderates will follow. After all, hasn’t the same thing happened in the Tea Party Congress? The Tea Party has been the tail that wags the dog, particularly during the recent debt ceiling crisis.
In looking for a precedent for such extremism, I found one in the politics leading up to the Civil War. Then as now, sections of the country were polarized by issues of religion as well as economics. There were elements of “class warfare” then as well.
Wikipedia has an excellent section on Origins of the American Civil War that I had not read previously. Consider, please, this excerpt (emphasis supplied):
There were many causes of the Civil War, but the religious conflict, almost unimaginable in modern America, cut very deep at the time. Noll and others highlight the significance of the religion issue for the famous phrase in Lincoln’s second inaugural: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
The account concludes that the North lost the Biblical argument over slavery – there are numerous references in the King James Bible to the acceptance of that institution and none showing that Jesus ever took a stand against it. Thus, the matter was resolved by shooting, and we all know how that came out.
The literature of the time reflected how how religious and social memes were rationalized to reflect the dichotomy between America’s split societies:
Latent sectional divisions suddenly activated derogatory sectional imagery which emerged into sectional ideologies. As industrial capitalism gained momentum in the North, Southern writers emphasized whatever aristocratic traits they valued (but often did not practice) in their own society: courtesy, grace, chivalry, the slow pace of life, orderly life and leisure. This supported their argument that slavery provided a more humane society than industrial labor.
In his Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh argued that the antagonism between labor and capital in a free society would result in “robber barons” and “pauper slavery”, while in a slave society such antagonisms were avoided. He advocated enslaving Northern factory workers, for their own benefit. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, denounced such Southern insinuations that Northern wage earners were fatally fixed in that condition for life. To Free Soilers, the stereotype of the South was one of a diametrically opposite, static society in which the slave system maintained an entrenched anti-democratic aristocracy.
The Wikipedia section on “Southern Culture” is germane, beginning,
Although there was only a small minority of free Southerners that ever owned slaves (and, in turn, a minority of similar proportion within these slaveholders who owned the vast majority of slaves), Southerners of all classes nevertheless defended the institution of slavery – threatened by the rise of free labor abolitionist movements in the Northern states– as the cornerstone of their social order.
The rest of the section on culture is worthy reading, but the point is that memes rooted in tradition, ambition and instinct are not easily overcome by rational argument and can be effectively resourced by politicians.
I see parallels between ante-bellum history and current thinking and a reason, for example, why our relatively poor section of the country consistently retains its traditional conservative bent. Republican appeals to religion and free-market economics resonates with powerful memes in the the body politic, just as did the memes of Southern gentility and prosperity to which all Southern citizens aspired. The currently effective memes, I think, are:
1. Capitalism good, socialism bad.
2. Christians good, others, not so much.
3. Hard work good, welfare bad.
Appeals to these resonate with the body politic, even though religious, economic and cultural issues often involve serious complexities that make such generalizations dangerous. One example is that Social Security, probably the most successful social program in the nation’s history, is in fact a form of socialism. Another, which belies the current much-hyped theme of self-reliance in Joplin’s recovery, is the massive role played by outside forces like the federal government, e.g., FEMA, and inflows of charity and state aid. Yet another is that competition for very large companies, such as drug companies, is not at all like competition among small businesses, and is often fraught with political chicanery and legal manipulation.
When the primary nominee is determined, will he or she then moderate their views? Ordinarily I would predict in the affirmative, but in this contentious year I’m not sure at all. It’s easy to see why the Civil War came down to shooting, is it not? But then, that brings up another thought. If one of the more extreme GOP candidates should win the election, would that President be more prone than a moderate to commit the nation to a war, say, with Iran for example? The possibility does seem redolent of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, a time when a President allowed religious outrage and a passion for retaliation to overrule a careful examination of the reasons for going to war.
“The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism – as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion