I’m writing this on the eve of Tuesday’s dreaded midterm election. In the weeks before Nov. 8, John Nichols, The Nation magazine’s national affairs correspondent who was invited to speak at Third Unitarian Church in nearby Austin last month, had described the election as the most important in history and possibly the last in which the country operates as a functional democracy (if it ever was one).
“What’s at stake in 2022 is electoral democracy as we know it,” Nichols wrote in a Nov. 2 piece for Common Dreams. “That makes this the most consequential midterm election since 1862, when Congressional majorities aligned with the narrowly elected President Abraham Lincoln. In that distant election year, Lincoln acknowledged, ‘The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.’”
Regardless of Tuesday’s result, what Lincoln said still applies to our own stormy present — in fact, much more so.
There are a few ways in which America’s Civil War years seem downright optimistic compared to now.
Consider that the Republican Party was founded in 1854, directly as a result of the passage of Sen. Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act, which threatened to expand slavery into the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
Within six years of its founding in Ripon, Wisconsin, the party had its first president, Lincoln, and two years later, after the 1862 midterm election — which was conducted during the War — a solid majority in the Senate.
In other words, a singular issue, slavery, had radicalized politicians who had erstwhile strained neutrality on the issue up until it became impossible to avoid and demanded new political coalitions. The party system actually worked. War was not avoided, but American governance and the electoral and political system underlying it continued apace.
Once firmly in power, the Republicans, at the time a party concentrated in the North, laid the groundwork for modern America and our current idea of progress.
As Matthew Rosza wrote in Salon in August, Lincoln and his party of former northern Democrats and former Whigs dismantled the system of chattel slavery, passed the Reconstruction Amendments, created the Department of Agriculture, funded the transcontinental railroad, created the first national parks and land-grant colleges, and passed the Homestead Act, which “made millions of acres of government-held land available at very low cost.”
By 1870, less than a decade after Appomattox, Civil War veterans like William T. Nichols — who fought for the Union at Gettysburg and led a regiment that famously repelled Pickett’s Charge — were thriving. Nichols moved from his native Vermont to Illinois to form a development company that would turn into my hometown of Maywood.
The Civil War, and the bloody years preceding it, undeniably constituted a national crisis, but ironically the young nation was economically dynamic and growing, pregnant with possibility.
You might even think of the Civil War as a crisis conceived in success. Indeed, there would have been no need for North and South to compromise over slavery had the nation not been expanding its landholdings through conquest and genocide, and its population of white settlers, many of them slave-owners, had not been booming and settling further and further North and West.
What’s more, the national project of white settler colonialism was never in doubt. Despite fears by southerners of “Black Republicans,” so-named for the new party’s anti-slavery stance, white supremacy was the supreme law of the land — North and South.
Take, for instance, the stance of Rep. David Wilmot, well-known for his famous 1846 proposal to ban slavery from lands the country took from Mexico after the Mexican-American War. The proposal, called the Wilmot Proviso, failed but it helped heighten the national tensions that would ultimately lead to the Civil War.
Proviso Township proudly takes its name from the Wilmot Proviso. Today, the township shares some of that history on its website. What is omitted from that online history, however, is the principal reason why Wilmot and other prominent white men like him objected to slavery.
“As Wilmot explained,” historian Douglas R. Egerton writes in Year of Meteors, “he felt ‘no morbid sympathy for the slave.’ Rather, his objective was to ‘preserve to free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and color, can live without the disgrace which association with negro slavery brings upon free labor.’”
That, in essence, became the new Republican Party’s core platform from its formation, which “suggests the depth of racism among party organizers,” Egerton explains, before quoting a Republican minister who relocated to the territories to fight against slavery: “I kem to Kansas to live in a free state … and I don’t want niggers a-trampin’ over my grave.”
In many ways, this is the same country. Capitalism is still dominant and the white supremacy that animated white southerners and northerners alike in the 19th century is still regnant and rampant — but recently, capitalism’s power as an unquestioned hegemonic force has been seriously challenged and the global project of white settler colonialism that stretches from the 1452 Doctrine of Discovery to now may be coming to its logical conclusion.
Our empty politics
The American philosopher Nancy Fraser writes that hegemony “is a term for the process by which a ruling class makes its domination appear natural by installing the presuppositions of its own world view as the common sense” of the whole society.
The organizational counterpart of hegemony, Fraser adds, is the “hegemonic bloc: a coalition of disparate social forces that the ruling class assembles and through which it asserts its leadership.”
Since at least “the mid-twentieth century in the United States and Europe,” Fraser writes, the two blocs competing for capitalist hegemony have “been forged by combining two different aspects of right and justice — one focused on distribution, the other on recognition.”
The two competing hegemonic blocs, reactionary neoliberalism and progressive neoliberalism, have in common the neoliberal politics of distribution centered on “finance, military production and extractive energy, all to the principal benefit of the global 1 percent.”
But they have different politics of recognition that render their distributive politics palatable for their respective bases. For reactionary neoliberalism, recognition is based on “an exclusionary vision of a just status order: ethnonational, anti-immigrant, and pro-Christian, if not overtly racist, patriarchal and homophobic.”
Progressive neoliberalism’s politics of recognition is rooted in “a real and powerful alliance of two unlikely bedfellows: on the one hand, mainstream liberal currents of the new social movements (feminism, antiracism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights); on the other hand, the most dynamic, high-end, ‘symbolic,’ and financial sectors of the U.S. economy (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood).”
In the 1990s, progressive neoliberalism arose to dominate American politics, Fraser observes, adding “only when decked out as progressive could a deeply regressive political economy become the dynamic center of a new hegemonic bloc.”
But now that hegemony has collapsed, hollowed out by deindustrialization, predatory debt, declining living standards and “the proliferation of precarious, low-wage McJobs.” Right now, “a sizeable segment of the U.S. electorate — victims of financialization and corporate globalization” are without a natural political home.
Authoritarians like Trump and the current Republican Party are taking advantage of this national rootlessness. But unlike in the more economically and politically dynamic 1800s, the party system has, so far, failed to counter the authoritarian threat.
A Gallup poll published last month showed that 56% of Americans believe the major existing political parties “do such a poor job that a third major party is needed.” But the most obvious counterhegemonic bloc that presents a viable alternative — what Fraser describes as a “robustly egalitarian politics of distribution” coupled with a “substantively inclusive, class-sensitive politics of recognition” — doesn’t appear to be in the offing.
Earlier this year, some neoliberal Republicans and neoliberal Democrats united by Andrew Yang launched the Forward Party, which apparently has no platform or purpose beyond defeating partisanship.
They remind me of the Constitutional Union Party, one of three parties the Republicans defeated in the 1860 election. During the Constitutional Unionists’ convention that year, one delegate pointed out the new party’s chief flaw, Egerton writes.
“They believed ‘that political salvation so devoutly to be wished for’ might simply be achieved ‘by ignoring all the rugged issues of the day.’”
That’s where American politics is at now. Stuck in an “empty, unoccupied zone,” Fraser writes, where the old is dying and the new cannot be born.