Review: Archie Henderson
How the South won the Civil War, by Heather Cox Richardson (Oxford University Press)
American politics can be baffling to an outsider, what with filibusters, gerrymandering, plenums, PACs and pork barrel politics. It’s not just the language, it’s the people who speak that language, many of them as hard to understand as their national political jargon.
In 2016, almost 63 million of them voted in the US presidential election for Donald Trump, an Olympic-class narcissist, a misogynist who is also disrespectful of national heroes and an unashamed cheat – on his taxes and his wives. Even more difficult to figure out is how he won when his opponent, Hillary Clinton, got 2 million votes more. It was the fault of the electoral college, another oddity which is meant to be a safeguard against electing a buffoon as US president. It didn’t work.
Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College (the one in Newton Massachusetts, not Johannesburg Gauteng), attempts to explain such bizarre anomalies in American politics. Hers is an accessible book of just over 200 pages that covers the past 150 years of US history (almost 250 when you consider that Richardson’s theory of the “American paradox” begins with that nation’s founding in 1776).
Her actual starting point is 89 years after the founding with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the greater of America’s only two great presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt being the other). With Lincoln’s death soon after the North’s victory in the American Civil War, things began to fall apart.
Lincoln had freed the slaves, and insisted on “all men are created equal” as expounded in the Declaration of Independence rather than the mealy-mouthed ambivalence of the constitution. This is where Richardson fits in her paradox: all people being created equal depends on the idea from the beginning that not all people were equal. Many of those Founding Fathers (always capital Fs in American writing) had people in bondage, especially the revered Thomas Jefferson.
This paradox theme runs throughout Richardson’s book. Despite slaves being freed on January 1, 1863, when the Civil War was at its height and a northern victory far from assured, it took the United States another 100 years for full civil rights to be granted to people who were not white, especially African-Americans.
Along with her paradox is irony. It’s hard to believe today that Lincoln was a Republican who wanted to make sure that every American had equal rights and had the right to vote. Today’s Republicans want the opposite and in many ways – gerrymandering voting districts among them – are working on ways to prevent African Americans, Latinos and any person of colour from casting their ballots.
Today’s Republicans, or the dominant element that favours Trump and his ilk, would like to return the US to the antebellum south when white men ruled the roost. They are out of power for the moment, but in November’s mid-term elections, held every two years when some Senate and House of Representative seats are to be contested, they are expected to recapture the former and perhaps even the latter. Taking over Congress would emasculate Joe Biden’s presidency and might even lead to a return to the White House by Trump in 2024.
These Trump Republicans are weird and don’t resemble the sensible Republicans of Dwight Eisenhower or Teddy Roosevelt whose administrations set the tone for a better society (Eisenhower desegregated the US military, for example). Trump’s Republicans are the inheritors of a dogma espoused by people like Barry Goldwater, who although he lost to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide in 1964, was a precursor to Ronald Reagan, whose policies of deregulating banks contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.
The Republicans of today want to turn rich men loose on the economy to create what they believe will be ever-expanding prosperity. That won’t happen. The wealthy will pay lower taxes and become richer than Croesus while the rest will suffer and poverty will grow. It will take the American electorate a long time to realise their error – unless they are forewarned.
Reading Richardson’s book would be a good start.