I lived in the USA for many years – in Boston, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Nashville and Raleigh, North Carolina. And while the closest I got to the deep mid-west and south is Chicago and Nashville, I travelled extensively too, so I think I can make a case for a better understanding of American culture than many ‘foreigners’.
When I lived there, and since, I studied both the War of Independence and the Civil War. The books, ‘A New Age Now Begins’ by Page Smith and the three volume ‘The Civil War: A Narrative’ by Shelby Foote became very informative and thought-provoking companions on my journey of discovery alongside copious visits to historically significant locations like Bunker Hill in Boston and Chattanooga in Tennessee.
It became clear to me after studying the period before 1776 and after that the Civil war about 85 years later was an inevitable outcome. The culture of the South with its reliance on slavery to sustain is agrarian economy as compared to the North with its industrial base (and the influx of poor white labour immigrants from Europe) was a start. This coupled with the ingrained desire of Southerners living on acres of plantations to control their own way of life (States’ rights if you like) versus the willingness of Northerners to subsume individual rights for the greater good of the community was another fundamental cultural difference. Both attitudes were driven by the underlying economic fundamentals.
It took four generations for positions to harden and in 1861 the Civil War erupted.
Like today, in 1860 the politics of the day were volatile. The established two-party system of Whigs and Democrats was breaking. The Democratic party was divided between factions in the North and South and the Whig party had morphed into the Republican party (the Republicans were seen as both anti-slavery and supportive of industry).
The presidential election of 1860 pitched Abraham Lincoln (representing the new Republican Party) against Stephen Douglas, a Northern Democrat. Additionally, the Southern Democrats were running John C. Breckenridge and John C. Bell was the conservative Whig’s Constitutional Union Party candidate.
Lincoln won the North, Breckenridge the South, and Bell the border states. Douglas won Missouri and part of New Jersey. But Lincoln won the popular vote, and most importantly 180 electoral college votes.
Soon after Lincoln’s election, seven Southern states seceded from the Union (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas), unable to contemplate living under a Northern Republican government that they believed would put Northern interests first and favoured the abolition of slavery, the engine of prosperity in the South.
These states assumed control of local military installations and one-quarter of the US army surrendered in Texas without a shot being fired. The rest is history.
Which brings me to today.
The political system in the USA is every bit as volatile as it was in 1860 with fundamentally different sets of cultural values on display. If you believe the polls (granted, their reliability is questionable), there are reasons to conclude that Joe Biden will not be re-elected in 2024 (assuming he runs) and that both houses will come under the control of Republicans (with or without Trump). The Republicans appear to have morphed once again – from Lincoln’s party to one that more closely resembles a fascist organisation. Perhaps this is why hard-right Republicans rail against ‘Antifa’ even though this is more an imagining of the far right than a co-ordinated political body (a sign of the times: Carl Paladino, a congressional candidate in New York endorsed by House Republican leadership, said in a 2021 interview that Adolf Hitler was “the kind of leader we need today”).
If the Republicans obtain such a clean sweep, it is legitimate to ask whether California in particular and other Democratic-leaning states on the east and west coasts, will tolerate a likely swathe of legislation that is morally and economically opposed to their own positions and interest. Conversely, and perhaps of more concern, if the Republicans fall at this hurdle, we have about one quarter to one third of the population of the USA, avowed closed-mind Trumpists, armed with more guns than any similar sized society has ever seen in the world who may decide to act to finish what the 6th January insurrection failed to achieve.
Although secession from the Union would require a US Constitutional amendment approved by two-thirds majorities in the US House of Representatives and the Senate then ratification by 38 state legislatures, the last six years has seen an increased willingness – especially on the part of Republicans – to disregard both established norms and the rule of law. So, while most consider a State’s secession improbable, it is not impossible (for example, see: bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-11-28/max-hastings-texas-or-california-seceding-it-s-not-that-far-fetched).
Are we be about to witness the beginning of the break-up of the United States of America? And what would that mean for the world order?
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