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The New Civil War

November 23, 2004
By Ted McClelland

A hundred and forty years after the last Civil War ended, a new one is brewing, at least in the minds of Yankees on the losing end of this month's presidential vote. The week after the election, ABC news correspondent Carole Simpson drew the parallel between Blue versus Gray and Blue versus Red during a panel discussion at the National Press Club.

"I got a little map here," Simpson said, "of pre-Civil War free versus slave states. If you look at it, the Red states are all down in the South, and you have the Nebraska Territories, the New Mexico Territories, and the Kansas Territories. But the Pacific Northwest and California were not slave states. The Northeast was not. It looks like the map of 2004."

At the same time, a screed titled "Fuck the South" was making the rounds of in-boxes.

"Get the fuck out," it ranted toward Southerners. "We're not letting you visit the Liberty Bell and fucking Plymouth Rock anymore until you get over your real American selves and start respecting those other nine amendments. Who do you think those fucking stripes on the flag are for? Nine are for fucking blue states."

All over the Internet, disenfranchised liberals were baying for secession as stridently as the cotton planters of 1860. Three people sent me a map dividing North America into two new countries - the "United States of Canada," encompassing Canada and the Blue States, and "Jesusland," a rump republic of Red States.

These folks have their fingers on something. The cultural and regional divisions wracking this nation are the latest flare-up of a persistent conflict in American politics. But it's more than just a rematch of the Civil War. It's even deeper than that. It goes all the way back to Britain, where the ancestors of today's Northerners and Southerners didn't get along, either. The colonists brought their squabbling cultures to North America, where the fight continues to this day.

The ancestral homeland of today's Democratic Party is a place called East Anglia, in the lowlands of southeastern England. Its people were mostly Saxons, and they governed themselves through councils called "folkmoots," which became the model for the New England Town Meeting. Many East Anglians were middle-class artisans, and their literacy rate was twice the rest of England's - Cambridge University is located here. They were also anti-aristocratic - during the English Civil War, they sided with Oliver Cromwell in his fight to defeat Charles I and the Divine Right of Kings.

The East Anglians brought their book-learning ways to New England, where they founded Harvard. To this day, New England has higher levels of income and education than any other part of the country. In his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in North America, Fischer describes their philosophy of government as "ordered liberty," which is another way of saying "liberalism."

"The people of Massachusetts employed the word 'freedom' to describe a collective obligation of the 'body politicke,' to protect individual members from the tyranny of circumstance," Fischer writes. "The Massachusetts poor laws, however limited they may have been, recognized every individual should be guaranteed a freedom from want in the most fundamental sense."

That's why John Kerry, a descendant of the Massachusetts Puritans, promised to protect Social Security. "Ordered liberty" also meant accepting restraints on one's behavior to preserve social harmony. In modern terms, that means gun control, sexual harassment laws, and environmental regulations. It's also why you see so many small cars in New England.

Virginia was settled by the Cavaliers, the Puritans' royalist enemies in the English Civil War. They came from southwestern England, which was Norman-influenced and aristocratic.

Virginians believed in hierarchy. Their laws were designed to preserve the power of masters over servants. In a New England town, the cop was an elected constable. In a Virginia county, it was a sheriff, appointed by the king. Executions were common, but only for poor folks. Gentlemen were often let off with a brand on the thumb.

You can't be a lord without someone to lord it over, so Virginia imported slaves from Africa.

"Virginia's ruling elite ... required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination," Fischer writes. "The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat."

The very first contested election for president was a tilt between Massachusetts and Virginia: in 1796, John Adams, the Boston lawyer with the Harvard degree, defeated Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia slaveholder.

There were two other important regional cultures: the Quakers of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, and the Borderers. The Borderers were Celts from northern England, Lowland Scotland and Ulster. Their society was male dominated, clannish, superstitious, and militantly Protestant. They lived in a constant state of warfare, with each other, with the English, and with Irish Catholics. William Wallace, the hero of "Braveheart," was a Borderer. By the 18th century, when they fled Scotland's crop failures and Northern Ireland's religious wars, the coast was taken, so they moved inland, to Appalachia. Some people call them the Scotch-Irish. Others call them hillbillies.

"They are a culture founded on guns, which considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct," writes James Webb in his ethnic study Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. "It is not hyperbole to say that Al Gore lost the 2000 election by going against them on this issue, causing Tennessee and West Virginia to vote for George W. Bush. And they are they are the very heartbeat of fundamentalist Christianity, which itself is largely derived from the harsh demands of Scottish Calvinism. As such, they have produced their share of fire-and-brimstone spiritual leaders, whose conservative views on social issues continually offend liberal opinion-makers."

After the Revolution, these cultures spread out across America. The New Englanders settled in upstate New York, the Western Reserve of Ohio, and then moved onward to Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, northern Indiana and northern Illinois. In his book The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America, historian Kevin Phillips calls this region Greater New England. It was a world of middle-class farmers, liberal arts colleges and abolitionism. Eventually, it came to encompass Washington and Oregon as well. This part of the country voted overwhelmingly for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and strongly supported the Union during the Civil War. Today, it's Democratic turf. Six generations later, Greater New England, added to the Delaware Valley, is an almost perfect overlay of John Kerry's Blue States.

The Bush family has gotten a lot of mileage out of New England-bashing, which is ironic, since that's where they come from. In 1988, the first President Bush sneered at Michael Dukakis as the "llllliberal governor of Massachusetts." Massachusetts is shorthand for everything the Bushes' Southern followers despise: high taxes, Ivy League elitism, no death penalty, and wimpy Protestant denominations, like Unitarianism.

This year's elections completed the South's shift from an all-Democratic region to Republican bulwark. The Old Confederacy gave all its electoral votes to Bush, and elected five new Republican senators, giving the GOP an 18-4 majority there.

Realizing the South had become enemy territory, John Kerry tried to win the presidency with a Northern Strategy, ignoring the South and attempting to pick off Ohio and Florida. He was thwarted, because Southern voters in both states rallied to Bush. Southeastern Ohio was settled from Appalachia. During the Civil War, its people sympathized with the Southern cause. The Ohio Valley was "the soft underbelly of the Union." It was also the soft underbelly of the Kerry campaign. Despite unemployment rates as high as 12 percent, southeastern Ohio voted for Bush, because he shares their cultural values.

Kerry also had demographics working against him. If Hubert Humphrey had won Kerry's Blue States in 1968, he would have beaten Richard Nixon. If Gerald Ford had won them in 1976, he would have beaten Jimmy Carter. Since then, the population has shifted to the Sun Belt. The Blue States are now worth 252 electoral votes, 18 short of a winning total. Kerry was running in the wrong decade.

The North has not abandoned the Republicans as quickly as the South ditched the Democrats, but the North is turning bluer. The Democrats have a geographic base, which wasn't there during the blowouts of the '70s and '80s. Kerry won 19 states. All but one has voted Democratic in the last four elections. Elderly northern Republicans who still think they're in the Party of Lincoln are dying off. Their grandchildren are voting Democratic. No state illustrates this better than Vermont. Vermont was once the most Republican state in the Union. It never voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it didn't send a Democrat to the Senate until 1974. Now, its congressman is an independent socialist, and its last Republican senator, James Jeffords, quit the GOP in 2001 to protest its rightward course. Vermont's ex-governor, Howard Dean, was the champion of anti-war liberals during the Democratic primary. Dean is the son of a Wall Street banker who was a "Rockefeller Republican," a breed now as rare as a Dixiecrat. Vermont also gives the lie to the notion that America's partisan split is purely urban-rural. The state's biggest city is Burlington, population 38,000.

During this year's Democratic primaries, the anti-tax group Club for Growth ran an ad advising Howard Dean to "take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs." It was pure regional bigotry, just as much as, say, the ACLU telling Trent Lott to haul his gun-totin', sheet-wearin', Bible-thumpin' ass back to Mississippi.

The Southern Conquest is the reason so many northern Democrats are feeling like strangers in their own country. It's why the Canadian immigration website is getting a record number of hits. For the first time since the pre-Civil War era, the South dominates the federal government. And if the most militant Southern conservatives have their way, that would mean more restricitions on abortion, fewer rights for homosexuals, looser gun laws, less protection of unions, tax laws favoring the elite, lower environmental standards, and more religious displays in public schools and government buildings.

With the South in command, get ready for enough wars to keep the VFW in business for generations. The regions diverge strongly on the use of violence. The Cavaliers and the Borderers brought with them an honor culture, in which duels and feuds were acceptable ways to avenge insults. Andrew Jackson, the first Scotch-Irish president, once killed a man in a duel. In New England, writes Fischer, "for more than three centuries, town schools have taught children not to use violence to solve their social problems." As Webb puts it, "There's an old saying in the mountain South. Insult a Yankee and he'll sue you. Insult a mountain boy and he'll kill you." As a result, the murder rate in the South is 7 per 100,000. In New England, it is 2.4.

The differences extend to war. Any military recruiter will tell you that the job is easiest in the South, toughest in New England. Our last three Texas presidents have gotten us into shooting wars, all vigorously opposed by Greater New England.

"(The South) strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against," Fischer writes. "Southern ideas of honor and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1941, 1950 and 1965." And, he could add, in 2003.

The South has not yet achieved permanent cultural and political dominance of this country. There is still middle ground between the conservative South and the liberal North - the last two presidential elections have been decided by one state. There's a good chance the South will push its advantage too hard, and do something to piss off moderate America. The last time the South was in charge, they screwed themselves with the Dred Scott decision, which extended slavery into free states. A repeal of Roe v. Wade would certainly be a modern counterpart to that.

The bitter deadlock could also end with the rise of what Fischer calls an "omnibus candidate" who unites every region in a time of crisis. The greatest omnibus candidate of the 20th Century was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once he left office, the nation lapsed back into its regional sniping.

But if the South solidifies its hold on the government, no great leader emerges, and we're faced with 100 years of domination by Dixie, then, yeah, the United States of Canada sounds like a good idea to me.

Ted McClelland is a writer in Chicago. His work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, In These Times, Mother Jones and Salon.com.

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