by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
October 4, 2012
HOPE HAS NOT LEFT THE BUILDING
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Sept. 27, 2012 -- As our nation marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it seems more than a little ironic that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln that settled the issue of slavery in that bloody war, has completely given itself over to the forces that the party's founders defeated a century earlier.
Ever since the 1960s, when the GOP decided to respond to the civil rights movement by becoming the official political party of the angry white Southern male, the Republican Party has totally transformed itself into the modern equivalent of the Confederacy.
It is right there in its party platform: "The Republican Party ... stands for the rights of individuals, families, faith communities, institutions - and of the States which are their instruments of self-government."
But that is not what our nation was founded upon. Our Constitution begins with the words "We the People." And the instrument of self-government that we, the people, use to govern ourselves is a strong national government that operates in the best interests of all its citizens.
It almost seems like the Civil War never happened. However, the ascendancy of a particularly brutal and anti-democratic strain of Americanism to control one of our two major political parties is no accident.
Historian Michael Lind once wrote that our nation's history, economics, and culture have been dominated by two particular factions of the ruling elite. For most of our history, the faction that held control was the New England Yankee. The descendants of Puritan founders of the first colonies, these people were steeped in the idea that those who possess wealth and power are morally obligated to use it for the common good.
The Yankee Brahmins weren"t all angels, but on the whole, they managed to transmit their values from generation to generation, with the nation as whole benefiting.
These were people who valued education, who saw public service in war and peace as noble, and who believed that giving to others is the right thing to do - not just to burnish one's legacy, but to also create a better society for everyone.
Then there is the other faction - the plantation aristocracy of the South which, in the words of AlterNet.org writer and editor Sara Robinson, "has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain 'order,' and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God."
These are the people who have always feared and opposed universal literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press - and in many cases, still do. A cursory glance at academic achievement puts many states of the old Confederacy at the bottom of the list.
These are people who rejected the Yankee ethos that liberty and authority rested with the community, not individuals. The tradition of the town meeting never caught on in the South.
For Southern elites, liberty had a different definition opposed to the Yankee definition of balancing personal needs against the greater common good.
To the Southerner, Robinson wrote, "the degree of liberty you enjoyed was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy. The higher your status, the more authority you had, and the more "liberty" you could exercise - which meant, in practical terms, that you had the right to take more "liberties" with the lives, rights and property of other people."
In other words, anything that extends freedom to lower-status people amounts to an infringement of the freedom of the higher-status people to do as they damn well please.
If you are still wondering why so much of the South remains anti-union, anti-education, anti-equal rights, and generally anti-progress, it all can be traced back to the regressive thinking of the aristocrats who owned the plantations in the 19th Century.
So, ultimately, the Civil War was not just about slavery or keeping the Union intact. It was a struggle between two competing value systems. And while the North won the war, the philosophical struggle was never resolved.
The war for the soul of America shifted to other battlefields, and it was a century after Appomattox before the political, social, and economic values of the South became the political values of the Republican Party, and eventually, of the whole nation.
Robinson called our current state "Plantation America." Those words seem strong, but what else would you call a nation where, in her words, "rampant inequality is accepted, and even celebrated."
The values that promote economic and social inequality - values that are rooted in the retrograde attitudes of people who have been battling the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ever since those words were penned in 1776 - are unworthy of a great nation.
Chief of AR Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a prize-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.