By James Taranto, Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2017 3:40 p.m. ET
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Historian Allen Guelzo says the nation is more bitterly split than ever—with the exception of the Civil War era.
If there’s one thing Americans of all political stripes can agree on, it’s that the country is divided—bitterly, dangerously, perhaps irreconcilably riven. “It shows up in very cinematic fashion, in things like the Scalise shooting,” says historian Allen Guelzo. “So we jump to the conclusion: Oh my goodness, does it mean we’re on the brink of civil war?”[JB emphasis]
No, answers Mr. Guelzo, director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. The Civil War was singular and is almost certain to remain so. But he does see continuities, some of them surprising, between then and now. And he thinks today’s divisions are worse than those of any time in American history except the 1850s and ’60s.
Today “there are a lot of unhappy personalities, and there are divisions of cultural values,” Mr. Guelzo tells me over dinner at the Union League of Philadelphia, where he’s been a member since 1983. That was also true when the country was young, “between Jefferson and Adams, and between Jefferson and Hamilton,” and later with “all kinds of acidulous political and cultural divisions—over Masons, Catholics, John Calhoun, nullification, tariffs, Andrew Jackson. You go down the list, and it’s one thing after another. But it didn’t drive us to civil war.”
What did was the combination of slavery and secession, “and the two of them are really bound together.” Both are “very absolute questions,” Mr. Guelzo says. Lincoln’s observation in 1858 that “this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free” was born of the failure of repeated efforts at compromise—most recently the Supreme Court decision that made Chief Justice Roger Taney infamous.
“When Taney wrote Dred Scott in 1857, it wasn’t because Taney was the most vile pro-slavery ideologue in the country,” Mr. Guelzo says. “He wasn’t—I mean, the man had actually emancipated his own slaves. And while he certainly wasn’t friendly to abolitionists, that’s not why he wrote Dred Scott the way he did. He did it because the situation in 1857 seemed to have demonstrated that neither the legislative branch nor the executive branch was capable of arriving at a solution for the slavery question. So who steps up into the batter’s box? The judiciary—we will settle this.”
“Do we have that today?” Mr. Guelzo asks. “No. I mean, you have California talking about seceding. But then again, California talks about all kinds of crazy things.”
Americans on both sides look across the political divide and see crazy people espousing destructive ideas. From his historian’s vantage point, Mr. Guelzo sees something deeply durable. “If you look at Democrats and Republicans since the middle of the 19th century,” he says, “the political culture of the parties has not changed all that much.” Their policies may be drastically different, but “that’s the tip of the iceberg. What you want to look at, as far as historical continuity, is the seven-eighths of the iceberg below the water.”
He pulls out a small notebook in which he has drawn a comparative chart listing seven “cultural components” of each 19th-century party. Democrats’ orientation, he says, has changed in only two of them: They used to tend toward “agrarian” occupations and “patriarchal” families, both anachronisms now. Republicans, though, still favor “commercial” work and “companionate” marriage.
The other components pairs do seem continuous for both parties, as Mr. Guelzo says. Morals: Democrats, “individual”; Republicans, “collective.” Economic system: Democrats, “static”; Republicans, “dynamic.” Philosophy: Democrats, “Romantic”; Republicans, “Enlightenment.”
This cultural taxonomy predates the GOP’s founding in 1854. Mr. Guelzo credits fellow historian Daniel Walker Howe with inspiring the chart by observing, in “The Political Culture of the American Whigs” (1979), that “the Whigs proposed a society that would be economically diverse but culturally uniform; the Democrats preferred the economic uniformity of a society of small farmers and artisans but were more tolerant of cultural and moral diversity.”
Two of Mr. Guelzo’s components seem especially salient today. The first is political style, a cousin of philosophy: “Democrats love passion, Republicans love reason.” He cites Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas : “With Douglas, it was always a big show, and if you listened to Douglas for five minutes, you were captured by him.” By contrast, “Lincoln is as reasonable as a Vulcan with Asperger’s,” Mr. Guelzo says. “If you listened to him for five minutes, you weren’t impressed. If you listened to him for 25 minutes, he had you, because you couldn’t argue. He had done all the work.”
When I observe that President Trump doesn’t quite fit this mold, Mr. Guelzo acknowledges the point. “Then again,” he says, “he’s not been a Republican all of his life, now has he?” Mr. Guelzo’s theory would explain why many conservative Republicans found it harder to stomach Mr. Trump than Mitt Romney, notwithstanding Mr. Romney’s ideological heterodoxies, and why Mr. Trump had crossover appeal to traditionally Democratic voters.
The second salient component is what Mr. Guelzo calls a party’s “political center.” For Democrats, it is “local”; for Republicans, “national.” At first glance, this seems like a discontinuity: In recent decades the GOP has been the party of states’ rights, while the Democrats have sought to centralize power in Washington.
But Mr. Guelzo isn’t talking about policy. His argument is that Republicans think of themselves as Americans first, whereas today Democratic localism takes the form of subnational identity politics. “A sense of belonging to an American nation is much more attenuated,” he says. “Do you identify yourself as being a woman, transgender, black, Latino—you go down the list—or do you identify yourself as an American? That has actually now become an issue. This would have been unthinkable two generations ago.”
It is in this regard that Mr. Guelzo thinks the divisions of the current era are the second-worst in American history: “The Civil War is really the only other time I can find where people are willing to sacrifice—completely sacrifice—national identity for local.”
As an example of the decline in national solidarity, Mr. Guelzo cites Nancy Pelosi’s and Harry Reid’s public assertions—as leaders of congressional majorities during the later Bush administration—that the Iraq war was a failure. No political leader would have said such a thing during World War II. Even in World War I, which was much more contentious, “the United States wasn’t the issue. The question was: Are we looking at a casus belli being provided by Germany?” he says. “For Pelosi and Reid, who said that while the war was in progress—to announce while things are still going on, while they’re still shooting—that is simply unimaginable, and yet there they were. And they were doing it not because they really had a lot of military expertise. They were doing it to score political points.”
Wasn’t there a precedent in the Vietnam era? No, Mr. Guelzo says, at least not in Congress: “You didn’t see Mike Mansfield ”—the Senate majority leader and a critic of the war—“do that kind of thing during Vietnam.”
But the Civil War era was far worse. In the 1850s, “you had brawls on the floor of the House of Representatives. One of the most precious ones was when William Barksdale from Mississippi got into a flying fistfight with a Northern representative, and one of them reached out to grab him by the hair and pulled off his wig.” That was in 1858.
The story reminds me of this year’s riot at Middlebury College, and that’s what Mr. Guelzo has in mind. Colleges, he says, “have become the stages on which violence has been acted out.” He describes today’s social-justice warriors as “ideological lynch mobs” and pointedly compares them to the real thing. “The people who always wanted to silence others, always wanted to have the lynchings, were the pro-slavery people,” he says. “It surprises my students, as it should, that Southern postmasters were given free rein to censor the mails coming into Southern post offices. They could take material that might be suspected of being abolitionist in nature; they were allowed to destroy it—because you didn’t want a slave who might turn out to be literate to read any of that, now did you?”
But the comparison goes only so far. The violence “doesn’t make things happy for us in the universities, believe me,” Mr. Guelzo says. Still, “it’s better than happening in Congress.” Further, campus mobs are a far cry from an army, and their selection of enemies betrays a certain incoherence—one day a libertarian conservative like Charles Murray, another a leftist like Evergreen State College’s Bret Weinstein.
Which brings us back to the central premise of Mr. Guelzo’s assurance that America is nowhere near a civil war. “There is a lot of contention about culture; there’s a lot of contention about politicians and individuals. But there’s no flaming, absolute issue that draws people out of themselves—which is to say, draws them out of responsibility to each other—and pits them at each other’s throats.”
In the 1980s, he says, he wondered “whether abortion was going to constitute an issue like that, because there’s no way you can be mildly for or mildly against—you’re either for it or against it.” But he concluded it probably wouldn’t happen, because abortion lacked the “sectional identity” of slavery circa 1860.
Thus another counterfactual: “If you had, let’s say, 21 contiguous states in the union where abortion was legal and 29 where it is illegal, then suddenly you have created a political standoff, and people will start to think in terms of us versus them, rather than the nation,” he says. “You just do not have that in the atmosphere right now.”
Abortion laws did vary by state before 1973, when the Supreme Court imposed a nationwide regime of legalization. But pro- and antiabortion states “hadn’t begun to conceptualize themselves that way,” Mr. Guelzo notes, before Roe v. Wade elevated the question into a national one. Today it’s not hard to imagine what Mr. Guelzo’s scenario of a country divided over abortion might look like—see the 2004 or 2016 election map.
When the high court effectively upheld Roe 25 years ago, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a three-justice plurality proclaimed that the 1973 ruling carries “rare precedential force” because it “calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.” The three justices claimed this was something the court had done only once before “in our lifetime,” in Brown v. Board of Education.
But it sounds very much like what Mr. Guelzo thinks Chief Justice Taney was attempting in Dred Scott. The question arises: Did Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter succeed where Taney had failed—if not in uniting the country, at least in keeping the peace?
Maybe so, Mr. Guelzo answers with a hint of reluctance: “By getting it out of the states, it’s removed an opportunity for it to become that kind of sectional issue. I’m not saying that as a fan of Roe v. Wade, but at least we haven’t gone to war over it. And given the absolutism of the issue, it had plenty of combustibility for that. Still does.”
Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor.