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
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
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
"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
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
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.