Staying the Course in the Quest for Social Justice
I have been struck in recent days by the similarity of today’s national events and news and that which confronted Abraham Lincoln as he embarked on his campaign for the Senate in 1858. As Lincoln observed in a now famous nomination acceptance speech, the nation then stood at a juncture concerning whether it would honor the avowed tenets of its founding or would fall to the tyranny and abrogation of rights represented by the continuation and extension of slavery:
We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.1
While the United States today is not confronting the question of whether to enshrine, expand or reinstall slavery, it does nonetheless stand at a crossroads concerning whether it will permit wholesale discrimination against minorities in its midst, the cheapening and undermining of the rule of law by its elected leaders and a companion willful acceptance of a parade of charlatan’s lies by a share of its population. Just as in Lincoln’s day, the country stands on the cusp of choosing between autocracy and democracy. Ishaan Tharoor neatly summarized this situation following the GOP congressional primary elections in Wyoming and Alaska last week, which saw shrill and deeply mendacious pro-Trump candidates prevail:
If it wasn’t certain before, it’s crystal clear now. Former president Donald Trump has a viselike grip over the Republican Party. No allegation of impropriety or illegality, no concern over stoking extremism and violence, no documented trammeling of the rule of law can cut away at his seeming dominance over the American right. Trump’s hold over the Republican Party has led to the rise of a new crop of potential Republican lawmakers who parrot the former president’s 2020 election lies. That has profound implications for the country’s electoral processes: According to an analysis published by my colleagues this week, nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with authority over future elections involve candidates who embraced falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the previous one and deny its legitimacy.2
Republican Party willingness to adopt Trump’s lies, xenophobia and racism because they are “popular” with its disproportionately rural base of supporters, hardly an ethical or moral rationale for their acceptance, has placed the Republic in peril. Many of those GOP partisans pursuing election to public office have embraced steps to ensure one-party rule in the name of those lies, including voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering and, as Tharoor argued, those individuals appear willing to accept any corruption or wrongdoing on Trump’s part if Republican supporters countenance it and it appears that doing so will secure them political power.
What is interesting and distinctive in the present context, compared to the Civil War era, is not social fissuring per se, but the especially widespread acceptance of conspiracy theories and lies as a rationalization for hatred and division. Trump and his Party’s answer to every evidence of their corruption, fearmongering and duplicity is that those are the fault of the “radical socialist Democrat Party,” which somehow magically manages to corrupt judges, elected officials and previous Trump appointees alike in conspiracies they alone can discern to undermine them. Those claims are manifestly absurd, when analyzed, but nonetheless consistently widely accepted by GOP faithful because of Trump and the Party’s successful efforts to paint other U.S. citizens and elected leaders not simply as possessing different views, but as enemies culpable for all the ills they may perceive to be befalling them. I used the adjective “especially” above to describe the current social context because political lies and conspiracy mongering were hardly unknown in the Civil War era. What seems different now is how easy it is for those willing to be credulous for whatever reasons to remain so in the face of the facts by hiving themselves off from alternate sources of information that might challenge those to which they are now otherwise persistently subject via their chosen information outlets. More, it also appears that modern forms of media not only allow, but actively encourage that possibility, as it results in those firms’ profitability.
Notably, leading market actors in Lincoln’s day—read plantation owners—and those who also relied on their crops and success for livelihoods and profit, pressed all sorts of specious arguments concerning the purported “naturalness” of the inequality and social hierarchy slavery represented and the supposed inhumanity of those held in chains. They did so ultimately to preserve their economic advantages, perquisites and lifestyles. A share of elected officials followed suit, to the point that the country, then, as now, nominally devoted to human rights and freedom, fell into a brutal war concerning whether a share of its residents should continue to be enslaved for the profit of a tiny cadre of white citizens. Put plainly, Southern elites used a range of arguments concerning the alleged appropriateness of the degradation of slaves that sought systematically to appeal to less well-off Southern whites particularly. They did so not based on preserving an unconscionable and profitable market system that provided them riches, but on grounds of maintaining a supposed “natural” way of life that kept an entire population brutalized and in chains. Plantation elites advanced social tenets aimed at preserving an overarching capitalist status quo. Market elites successfully mobilized tens of thousands of individuals who were fearful of losing their already tenuous status in society by arguing that supporting slavery would ensure that at least those of color would continue to be “less than” they were in a rapidly shifting and rapacious capitalist economic system.
The parallel to today’s political situation is direct. Trump and the GOP have increasingly and openly embraced racism and xenophobia and used those sentiments to garner support for candidates who today routinely stand for nothing in policy terms except tax and regulatory reductions for corporations and market elites that have done little to assist GOP supporters grappling with the effects of continued rapid technological and climate change and globalization. Today, as in 1858, one principal set of market actors aligned with a major political party has decided openly to attack democratic governance to maintain its social and economic dominance. Secessionists were increasingly willing to tear the nation apart on that basis when Lincoln spoke in 1858, and they soon did. Today’s often extreme GOP candidates are also similarly focused on violent rhetoric on the grounds that social and economic change are purportedly undermining their supporters “way of life,” read social status.3
This sort of rhetoric is self-justifying. It can be characterized as “I believe that you are taking my natural superior social standing from me, and I am therefore warranted in placing you in an appropriately diminished role so that I may feel less besieged.” Capitalist elites and the GOP have consciously fanned this false flame of self-pity and social arrogance in recent decades to gain white votes while doing virtually nothing via governance to assuage its root causes. In lieu of taking such steps, they have instead, as their pro-slavery forebears did, blamed minority groups for using government to “steal stuff” from whites by demanding services “they did not deserve.” While this electoral strategy may be false, morally despicable and innately antithetical to human and civil rights, its implicit social claim has appealed to millions who perceive themselves to be adrift and at risk of emasculation in a rapidly changing social and economic order.
One may consider this situation with despair and give up hope, concerned that it is occurring at all, especially given its foundation in patently absurd lies. But I do not think such is appropriate or necessary. Rather, I am persuaded that what is afoot today is an effort by a Party and its capitalist allies who fear the pace of change on market and social grounds alike and who are working assiduously to control government to slow, if not prevent, its continuation. Oil companies, for example, have pressed decades-long campaigns arguing that climate change is not occurring, to preserve their enormous profits. Coal companies have done likewise, and this list could be extended. These and other elites have fought for deregulation or to prevent regulation on the same grounds for just as long while claiming that to behave otherwise will cost jobs. The upshot is the same: They have funded political campaigns and institutions alike to preserve their profits, social discretion and standing in the face of long-term trends that they believe imperil those.
Few authors have so trenchantly pointed up this scenario as historian Rebecca Solnit who has highlighted the too little acknowledged fact that the present reactionary GOP, like its antebellum counterpart, has arisen in the face of widespread social change. As she observed concerning a conversation with a friend active in the civil rights movement:
My friend’s different from many of his peers, and we talked about the more profound revolutions that had unfolded in our lifetimes [each was born in the 1950s], around race, gender, sexuality, food, economics, and so much more, the slow incremental victories that begin in the imagination and change the rules. But seeing those revolutions requires looking for something very different than armed cadres. It also requires being able to recognize the shade of grey between black and white or maybe to see the world in full color.4
Solnit went on to contend:
Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to recognize milestones and victories and keep working is what the time require of us. … The deeply engaged well know that the particular bit of legislation under discussion isn’t everything we hope for, doesn’t get us all the way there, and also know that it can be a step forward from which further steps can and must be taken, and that change is often made incrementally, not by a great leap from pure evil to goodness.5
In short, the current inflection point in U.S. politics may be read as the result of an attempt to turn back the clock on the achievements of the last several decades in securing greater civil and human rights for millions of American residents, including women, Blacks, Native Americans, those with impairments and others to preserve the standing of a set of economic elites. Alongside globalization, which has hollowed out the opportunity structure for millions, these changes have threatened a share of the population now willing to tyrannize to palliate their personal angst. The nation once more is in the midst of a raucous conflict concerning what story will govern it. One may hope that those in this nation’s majority concerned with our country’s present pass will realize what is at stake, and far from despairing, will follow Lincoln’s example and take solace in all that has been achieved and might yet be realized, and then will redouble their efforts to address and defeat the would-be tyranny now afoot in their land.
1 Knowledge for Freedom Seminar, Dickinson College, Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech,” June 16, 1858, https://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/teagle/texts/lincoln-house-divided-speech-1858/, Accessed August 20, 2022.
2 Tharoor, Ishan. “Trump’s Personality Cult and the Erosion of U.S. Democracy,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2022, https://s2.washingtonpost.com/camp-rw/?trackId=596b668fae7e8a44e7d6eb71&s=62ff0d921930ae1d205661f3&linknum=5&linktot=71, Accessed August 19, 2022.
3 Feuer, Alan. “As Right-Wing Rhetoric Escalates, So Do Threats and Violence,” The New York Times, August 13, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/13/nyregion/right-wing-rhetoric-threats-violence.html, Accessed August 15, 2022.
4 Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 3rd Ed. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2016, pp. 139-140.
5 Solnit, Hope in the Dark, pp.140-141.
August 22, 2022