While Rush Hannivine (a conglomeration of Rush, Sean, and Mark) bemoan the federal government’s shut down of war memorials (and closing them to veterans), John Judis likens the Shutdown to one of the worst crises in American history. Since (all about) I am in the middle of a course on the Civil War and how Americans remember it and conjure its meaning, I was taken aback by any comparison of the current dysfunction in Washington (though it is constitutional dysfunction since the Constitution was designed with built-in dysfunction) to a war that took 640,000 lives and that forever underscores the dysfunctions of the founding (as in states vs. federal prerogatives or the legality of slavery). For all of the memorials that Americans have funded, built, and maintained, they don’t seem to be very adept at remembering arguably the bleakest part of U.S. history.
But Judis sticks to his comparison:
There is no simple explanation for why this is happening now, but there are precedents in American history for the kind of assault on government that the Republicans are mounting. First, there is the South of John Calhoun, which Sam Tannenhaus wrote about in The New Republic. Calhoun developed the doctrine of nullification—that states, claiming a higher Constitutional authority, could refuse to obey federal laws—in order to justify South Carolina’s opposition to tariffs adopted in 1828 and 1832. Calhoun’s doctrine became the basis of the state’s rights argument against attempts by the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery and a century later to enforce racial desegregation.
Secondly, there is the rise in 1937 of a conservative coalition of conservative Southern Democrats and rural Midwestern Republicans to block and repeal the New Deal through parliamentary maneuvers and investigations, which I wrote about two years ago. Calhounist nullification anticipates the anti-federal tactics of today’s Republican right. The conservative coalition of the late 1930s anticipates the composition of today’s Republican coalition and its grievance: the expansion of the federal safety net. Both of these older movements cited the United States Constitution as their authority for attempting to defy or dismantle the federal government. Like today’s Republican rightists, both older movements claimed to represent tradition and morality against a decadent modernity. They looked backwards. They were reactionary rather than conservative movements.
What happened to these movements gives some indication of what could happen to today’s Republican intransigents. The Calhounists precipitated a civil war, in which over 600,000 Americans died. The conservative coalition, on the other hand, faded temporarily from view and only reemerged in the last decades. That was because in 1941 Americans went to war against Nazi Germany and Japan. World War II unified Americans. In modern wars, the national government has to call upon all its citizens to do their part and to submerge their differences. Business made peace with labor; blacks served alongside whites. And that spirit of national unification lasted for 15 years after the war. It helped to give rise—although not without conflict—to a social compact between business and labor, an end to racial segregation and the preservation and expansion of New Deal programs like social security. If World War II had not intervened, it’s very likely that the conservative coalition would have grown stronger, and would have been able to stop the expansion of, if not undermine, social security.
Dismissing these rebellious Americans as reactionary is one way to make sense of U.S. history, but it stumbles and breaks its neck when U.S. administration after U.S. administration supports rebel groups in places like Syria and Egypt. Had a U.S. administration in 1861, say, opted for a two-state solution to the U.S. — which is what many Americans support in Israel — the South may have had the U.S.’s blessing in secession. In other words, Americans on both the left and the right are remarkably selective in how they celebrate freedom fighters, independence, and resistance to tyranny. What is still lacking is some kind of metric that says Muslim rebels are better than Christian southern rebels who are both inferior to deist Tea Party (original) rebels. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no advocate of rebellion at all times and in all places. But I do tire of making the South the whipping boy for defenders of the federal government when America has a long tradition of resisting the consolidation of power in the hands of centralized (national) authorities. If folks like Judis can seen the problem with Hitler or Assad, how about the NSA under Bush and Obama?
The other annoying part of Judis’ comparison is to suggest that the Shutdown may turn the U.S. into the Weimar Republic.
The civil war, as Marx once wrote, was a revolutionary clash that pitted one mode of production against another. Nothing so momentous is at stake today. It also pitted one region against another, and it was fought with rifles and men on horseback. The largest effect is likely to be continued dysfunction in Washington, which if it continues over a decade or so, will threaten economic growth and America’s standing in the world, undermine social programs like the Affordable Care Act, and probably encourage more radical movements on the right and the left. Think of Italy, Greece, or Weimar Germany. Or think about what the United States would have been like if World War II had not occurred, and if Europe, the United States, and Japan had failed to pull themselves out of the Great Depression.
This is the Chamber-of-Commerce take on the Shutdown — it’s bad for business and all those programs that the economy funds through taxation and regulation. What Judis seems to forget (again) is that if you want economic growth, at least the kind we now “enjoy” with a stock market that rises seemingly independent of employment rates, property values, manufacturing, or agricultural output, a civil war may be what the Chamber ordered. Here is a reminder from Allen Guelzo:
Northern financiers benefited in even more remarkable ways [from the Civil War]. The seven Democratic administrations that straddled the first six decades of the nineteenth century gave little if any encouragement to the development of American finance by holding the government’s role in the economy strictly to exchanges of specie. A good deal of the capitalization of American industry in the 1820s and 1830s had to be imported from abroad. But the war and the Republicans changed that: First, the threat of the civil war drove foreign investors off the American securities market, drove down demand, and allowed American investors to step into the vacuum; then, the Republicans dismissed the Democrats’ abiding suspicion of the financial markets and took the nation off the gold standard; finally, the immense amounts of money needed to carry on the war crated a new class of financiers — bankers, insurers and brokers such as Jay Cooke — who dealt in unprecedented volumes of cash and securities. The creation of the national banking system in 1863, and the subsequent disappearance of state bank currencies from Northern circulation, helped to further shift massive new amounts of financial power in the hands of financiers.
But there was a downside, one that may still be fresh in our memory:
Northern finance quickly outstripped the capacity of the Federal government to oversee and regulate it, and the financial community soon found itself agitating for a return to the gold standard, to to restrain the freewheeling dealings of the financial markets, but to slow down currency inflation and attach the markets to a standard independent of federal control. This meant, in effect, returning the United States to its dependence on the international flow of specie, especially through the hands of British financiers, and when the British financial markets failed in 1873, they carried Jay Cooke and other American financiers down with them.
The most important change in the shape of the postwar American economy was organizational rather than industrial or agricultural; . . . Before the Civil War, only about 7 percent of American manufacturing was organized in corporations. . . . By 1900 corporations accounted for 69 percent of all manufacturing. . . “Now,” warned James A. Garfield in 1874, “a class of corporations unknown to the early law writers has arisen, and to them have been committed the vast powers of the railroad and the telegraph, the great instruments by which modern communities live, move, and have their being.” (Fateful Lightning, 519-21)
The lesson very could well be that original notion of too big to fail came with a refusal to allow the South to secede and thereby reduce the size of the U.S. By insisting on perpetual union and continuing to mock those who dissent from the federal government’s demands for uniformity and standardization, the U.S. has become the sort of imperial power against which its founders rebelled.