An Uncivil War

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This column from The Weekly Standard was written by Matthew Continetti.
Stung by defeat, puzzled and adrift, Democrats spent much of the past week turning to history, looking back at the great many-colored tapestry of the American past, in order to find where we -- the people -- find ourselves, now that George W. Bush has been reelected. And after consulting textbooks, and opening biographical dictionaries, and talking to some of the most renowned figures in the American academy, they have settled on an answer: America is on the brink of civil war.

"Not since the Civil War," Columbia University professor and noted art critic Simon Schama wrote in the Manchester Guardian on Sunday, "has the fault line between [America's] two halves been so glaringly clear, nor the chasm between its two cultures so starkly unbridgeable."

Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz agrees. He told Dean Murphy in Sunday's New York Times that there are only "two instances in history" when the American electorate has been so divided. "They are kind of scary examples," Wilentz said. "One is 1860, and we know what happened after that one . . ." (Wilentz's second example was the 1896 election, which did not, in case you were wondering, result in secession.)

It's not just noted liberal academics who believe we're about to reenact the Civil War. It's newspaper writers and television pundits. It's Hollywood actors, like Mandy Patinkin: "We were driving around early this morning and saying to each other in the car, I always wondered what it was like, the mentality during the Civil War in America," Patinkin told CTV this week. "Now I know. It's just completely divided."

It's members of the Democratic base, whose warning cries, ringing like fire bells in the night, have flooded local newspapers' letters pages. "This is like the Civil War without the guns," said one letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun. "America is deeply divided. Perhaps another civil war is in order. I do not know," wrote one Ohioan to the editor of the Times of London. "The consequences of having this manipulative conservative monarchy in office for four more years will be nothing short of civil war," said a letter to the editor in the Sacramento Bee.

It's even some Republicans, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: "It's like the 1840s and 1850s," Gingrich told the Dallas Morning News. "This is going to go on and on. This is genuine disagreement over the future of the country. This isn't a divided government -- it's a divided country."

And it's novelists, like Jane Smiley, writing in Slate:

"When the forces of red and blue encountered one another head-on for the first time in Kansas Territory in 1856, the red forces from Missouri, who had been coveting Indian land across the Missouri River since 1820, entered Kansas and stole the territorial election. The red news media of the day made a practice of inflammatory lying -- declaring that the blue folks had shot and killed red folks whom everyone knew were walking around. The worst civilian massacre in American history took place in Lawrence, Kan., in 1862 -- Quantrill's raid. The red forces, known then as the slave-power, pulled 265 unarmed men from their beds on a Sunday morning and slaughtered them in front of their wives and children."

Now it should be said that, well, quantitatively speaking, America is less divided than it was just four years ago. In 2000 President Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000, and won a victory in the Electoral College by only 5 electoral votes. In 2004 Bush won with a margin of about 4 million popular votes and 34 electoral ones. And there wasn't a civil war after the 2000 election, in case you were wondering. There wasn't even much talk of today's divided America resembling that in the Civil War.

Oh, wait. Actually, there was. If you look at a map of the 2000 election results, RNC operative Tom Cole told the Orlando Sentinel on November 12, 2000, you see "the most regionally divided America since the Civil War." Two days later, the Reverend James Merritt, a Baptist preacher from Georgia, told the AP: "I believe this nation is more divided than it's . . . been since the Civil War." Then president-elect Bush spoke often of America being "a house divided" -- echoes of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, if you live in a two-party democracy, then you live in a divided society. That's the way it works. One party wins; the other loses. And just because one party is out of power doesn't inevitably mean that the states who voted for the losing candidate need to start thinking about secession -- especially since the losing candidate won his states by a smaller margin than the loser before him, Al Gore. So what is going on here?

Jane Smiley's noxious essay suggests an answer. As David Brooks pointed out in Saturday's New York Times, after every election, political types come up with a storyline to explain the results, and every storyline has two components: "First, it has to be completely wrong. Second, it has to reassure liberals that they are morally superior to the people who just defeated them." It should be plain that any storyline which says the Red America/Blue America divide resembles the antebellum Slave State/Free Soil divide fulfills the first criterion. If you think the United States is headed toward Civil War, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that you might be interested in buying.

And this new storyline also fulfills Brooks's second criterion. By suggesting that the closest historical parallel to our current situation is the Civil War, by comparing Red America to "the slave power," by suggesting that Republicans win because they've concocted some magical witches' brew of ignorance and bigotry that the American public laps up like ice cream, writers like Schama and Wilentz and Smiley cast themselves as spokesmen of progress and reason and industry. This results in an historical irony: In the liberal's fantasy of a new Civil War, the Union armies would do the seceeding. In other words, they're the Union, and Republicans are the Confederacy. They're General Grant, and George Bush is General Lee. They're the winners, and Republicans will be the losers... eventually.

Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

By Matthew Continetti