America continues be in a state of civil war. Not just a civil war, but the civil war. In the first round, back in the 1860s, the Confederacy lost. Yet now the Confederacy is temporarily on top. The United States remains one country divided by two cultures.
From the start, the US has been a battleground of two competing visions. America’s founding credo was that “all men are created equal.” Yet the founding reality was that white males were far more equal than everyone else. White men owned slaves, denied the vote to women, and took the lands and lives of native Americans.
During the 1861-1865 Civil War, the slaveholding Confederacy, formed by 13 secessionist states, was defeated by 19 northern states and then occupied by the federal government for a dozen years. Yet after “Reconstruction” ended in 1877, the South vigorously practiced systemic racism for almost a century, until the US Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, mainly with the support of northern Democrats. From that moment, Southern white voters deserted the Democratic Party en masse. The Republicans embraced the so-called Southern strategy, based on resisting the rise of African-Americans and other minority groups and opposing legislation that would transfer any funds, status, or power to them.
The Republicans thereby became the party of the South, and the Democrats the party of the Northeast and Pacific West, with the Midwest and western mountain states the swing regions. The industrial Great Lakes region tended toward the Democrats while the Midwestern farm states and mountain states leaned Republican. The Midwestern and mountain states also carried the frontier culture of white settlers suppressing native Americans and Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
Gun ownership marks another divide between Democrats and Republicans. The Republican Party’s gun culture reflects the same cultural forces that shape its anti-minority views. In a brilliant book, Loaded, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us that the “well-regulated militias” mentioned in the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which enshrines the right to bear arms, were groups of white men that raided native American villages and hunted down escaped slaves.
As Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen powerfully argue in their recent book Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics, it is the legacy of slavery and post-Civil War segregation that gave rise to the South’s current political culture. “It is within formerly high-slave areas,” they show, “that whites are the most likely to oppose the Democratic Party, oppose affirmative action, and express sentiments that could be construed as racially resentful.”
Both before and after the Civil War, poor Southern whites accepted their lowly status because they prized their superiority over even more desperate African-Americans. Racial politics thus blocked the emergence of class politics, which would have brought poor whites and poor blacks together to demand more public services paid for by higher taxes on elite whites.
Of the 26 senators representing the 13 former Confederate states today, 21 are Republicans and five are Democrats. Of the 38 senators now representing the 19 northern states of 1861, 27 are Democrats and nine are Republicans (two Independents, Bernie Sanders and Angus King, caucus with the Democrats). President Donald Trump is a geographical anomaly, a pro-southern racist from liberal New York. Trump, a champion of the white male southern culture, is shunned by his home state (59% disapproval as of September 2018). He is more Mississippi than Manhattan.
The cultural divide was on full display in the Senate proceedings that recently confirmed Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. Kavanaugh’s Senate defenders were mainly white men of the South and Midwest who deflected the questioning of Kavanaugh’s white male prerogative to drink and carouse as a young man by instead attacking the nominee’s accusers. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, a former slave state, successfully orchestrated Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the first slave state to secede in 1860, was Kavanaugh’s most aggressive promoter on the Senate Judiciary Committee, describing sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh as “the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.” John Kennedy of Louisiana, another former Confederate state, called the hearings “an intergalactic freak show.”
The Democrats and Republicans are parties not just of different cultures and regions, but also of different economies. The Northeast and Pacific states lead the US in high technology, innovation, higher education, well-paying jobs, and per capita income. The South lags far behind. Not only are the working-class white men of the South and Midwest defending their status and racial privileges; they are also fighting for their jobs in industries where automation and foreign trade have steadily eroded employment.
Working-class southern whites would have much to gain from abandoning the Republicans’ race-based politics in favor of class-based politics. It is, after all, white corporate elites, not poor African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities, who deprive working-class whites of quality public schools, affordable health care, and environmental safety. Southern white male senators play up the culture war in part to shield the Republicans’ mega-rich donors, who feast on corporate tax cuts and environmental deregulation while the party scapegoats African-Americans and Hispanics.
The declining predominance of non-Hispanic whites in the total population has probably widened America’s cultural divide during the past 20 years. And with non-Hispanic whites expected to become a minority of the total population by around 2045, America’s ongoing civil war could worsen. It will not end until working-class Americans of all regions, races, and ethnicities join forces to demand higher taxes and greater accountability of the rich corporate elite.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.