As I was reading a book about the Civil War, I was struck by the many similarities between the run-up to the war and todays political climate. The Confederate States of America were sparsely populated and dominated by slave-owning plantation owners who resented any interference by the federal government. As one historian said, they likely would have seceded earlier, but it took 6 years for the plantation owners to convince the poor dirt farmers to fight their war for them.
On the other side, the Union was more densely populated with a recent influx of European immigrants. Many of these people had faced persecution themselves in the Old Country, and their religious beliefs were at odds with slavery. Moreover, as a result of the density of population, those in the North tended to understand that regulations and laws were necessary for everyone to thrive. Not just a few.
So the Civil War was as much the result of a conflict of philosophies as it was slavery. This conflict continued when, following the war, many former Confederate soldiers fled westward to get away from the law and order imposed by the victorious North. Unfortunately for them, they eventually ran out of real estate as settlers who believed in the law followed them west. But the philosophies of the former Confederates never entirely disappeared.
Fast forward to today. Our politics are now roughly divided into red states and blue states. The red states strongly oppose any interference by the federal government. And where are most of those red states? In the South and West.
And where are the blue states? In the heavily populated East, Upper Midwest, California and Northwest.
Certainly, there are pockets within the South and West where voters understand the necessary role of government. Those tend to be large population centers. But in the rural areas and smaller cities, government – especially the federal government – is viewed with disdain and suspicion.
Particularly in the West, many people identify with the cowboy mentality of old (not realizing that the term “cowboy” was originally a perjorative akin to calling someone a rustler or bandit). These people see themselves as modern day gunslingers who are standing up for their individual rights. They mostly could care less about anyone else, including the less fortunate. After all, to these people, everyone has the responsibility to pull themselves up by the bootstraps no matter the odds against it.
In the South, the story is somewhat different. Certainly resentment of the federal government continues. But now it’s wrapped in the cloak of religion. The new Christian right stems from churches that believe the Bible is literally the word of God. They selectively choose Bible verses that support their narrow views. They are anti-government (it’s the government that prevents openly Christian prayers in public schools and other public venues), anti-gay, anti-minority, anti-abortion, anti-education, anti-environmentalism, anti-evolution, anti-climate change, etc. If the government is for it, particularly the federal government, they are against it.
So here we are, politically not much further ahead than we were 150 years ago. But at least for the moment, we’re fighting with ballots. Not guns.