The following are my comments and reflections on the article by Anne Ruderman ’01 about We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861, by William J. Cooper ’62 (Alumni Scene, Oct. 24). I read it with great interest for two reasons. First, my great-grandfather, a native of Staunton, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, served on the staff of Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry during the Civil War. Second (not surprisingly, as history repeats itself, and may we learn by that!), I found the narrative strikingly similar to the state of our nation during this election year and the great philosophical divide between the two competing political parties.
If one replaces references to “Abraham Lincoln” with “Barack Obama,” “the South/Southern” with “Republican/conservatives,” “wealthy slave owners” with “fat cats on Wall Street,” “immense plantations” with “Fortune 500 companies,” “most Southerners owned few slaves, if any” with “small business entrepreneurs,” and “hotheads” with “Tea Party activists,” you could get the following narrative describing today’s state of affairs.
Barack Obama fundamentally misunderstood Republican conservatives. He had never worked in private business nor served in the military, had no conservative friends, and conferred with few Republican colleagues. His ignorance helped drive the country into a political conflict where the tradition of political compromise failed to work.
Obama didn’t see how his rhetoric inflamed Republican conservatives, and/or how his actions were interpreted. With a two-dimensional view of conservatives as a collection of fat cats on Wall Street with Fortune 500 companies, Obama did not realize that most Republican conservatives were small-business entrepreneurs. Yet the capitalist ideals were critically important to Republican conservatives. He couldn’t conceive of a Republican Party where small-business entrepreneurs, the bulwark of the middle class, would defend free-market capitalism.
Political compromise failed to work for several reasons. The progressives were one of the reasons. Obama’s election was based on liberal bastions of the West Coast and New York/New England. As president-elect, he did nothing to quell Republican conservatives’ fears that his administration had no place for them. And third were radical reactionaries, self-described as Tea Party activists within the opposing party, who overreacted to Obama’s election. There were conservatives who did not want the Obama administration to succeed and refused to participate in any effort to do so. Republican conservatives thought that a move toward any sort of compromise would mean evangelicals would leave their party and it would fall apart.
Ultimately, this great divide happened because of individual politicians and the choices they made. At any point before the contentious 2012 election campaign, this great divide could have been avoided if the key groups had been willing to give a bit.
During Obama’s current term, the Republicans controlled the Supreme Court and, since 2010, the House. However, different from pre-Civil War days, Obama has been able to effectively get his way without Republican approval by bypassing the Constitution through extensive use of executive orders (923 to date), selectively administering the laws of Congress (border control, welfare-work mandate, etc.) and actively enhancing/expanding regulations (energy, health care, financial). “While Lincoln believed that states had the right to allow slavery within their borders,” Obama believes that states have little if any rights to secure their own borders. In some ways, the 2012 election is more important that the lead-up to the Civil War. The election is on the fundamental direction of the country, which now sits on the brink of bankruptcy – a socialist, centrally controlled economy based upon redistribution of income, compared with a capitalist system enabling more economic freedom and opportunity.