Commentary / World

The U.S. Civil War continues

by Stephan Richter

A big hoax of American history is that the Civil War ended in 1865. Unfortunately it has not ended yet. What was achieved then was more of an armistice.

As the current logjam in the U.S. Congress makes plain, the Civil War is still present in today’s America — and with virulence that most other civilized nations find as breathtaking as it is irresponsible.

Plenty of U.S. commentators are trying to make light of the current situation. They argue that it is just a bunch of tea party Republicans who are causing the current mayhem. Such an interpretation underestimates the forces of history and the continuing deep divisions of American society.

The reason why the Civil War was declared finished was the military defeat of the South. But can anyone seriously doubt that, culturally, the same anti-Union spirit is still heard in the halls of the U.S. Congress today?

The fight against the Affordable Health Care Act — which Republicans have labeled “Obamacare” — is cast by Republicans as fighting the authoritarian — and, in the words of some conservative commentators, “fascist” — views of the Obama administration and the American “left.” In their eyes, the Republicans are staking out the democratic and libertarian political high ground, all in the defense of “freedom.”

This underscores that what is going on in Washington today is a replay of the Kulturkampf of 1870s Germany. That country’s modernizing forces resolved to fight back against the economically retarding influence of conservative religious forces, mainly the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church of mid-19th-century Germany, a very powerful economic force, resisted any suggestions of modernizing the social structures of society — just as many Republicans do now. It sought to preserve the economic power of the well established, largely feudal-era interests, much as Republicans do now.

The fight in Washington thus is not about any of the things in the headlines, the budget, debt or Obamacare. These are proxies in a fundamental battle over the structure of American society.

Democrats want that structure to create more economic opportunity for the underprivileged, so that the national economy can grow. To Republicans, any such investment is a net negative on what they see as their core mission — defending the interests of rich and middle-class Americans.

Thus, we are largely dealing with a battle over redistributing shares of economic power in the clothing of cultural values. That is why it is so bitterly fought.

The proper way to understand the underlying issue of the Civil War, slavery, as well as the health care law, is to see them as symbols of deeper conflicts.

The parallels in the legislative history bear that out. Slavery was formally abolished in the United States in 1865 and, for a few years, there seemed to be a will to move the country forward.

One step was setting up a bank that would grant loans to freed slaves, so that they could build a prosperous future for themselves and their families.

The so-called Freedman’s Bureau met a fate similar to what today’s Republicans have in mind for the health care law.

The Freedman’s Bureau lingered for a few years before it was allowed to fade away. The economic, social and cultural consequences of condemning freed slaves to a life of continued servitude, albeit of another kind, are well known. They are the root cause of the culture of dependence that sadly continues to this day — and that today’s Republicans are quick to use as a justification not to do more for African Americans.

The Affordable Health Care Act passed the U.S. Congress, just as the Freedman’s Bureau in 1865. With their countless defunding moves, the Republicans are now trying to keep nationwide access to health care from becoming a reality in the land. Amazing how history repeats itself.

Of course, there is one very important distinction that should make today’s Republicans squirm.

In the U.S. Civil War, it was the Republicans, mostly found in the North at the time, who were the political force aligned against slavery (President Abraham Lincoln was a Republican). It was Southern Democrats who fiercely resisted its abolition, as well as resisting the Civil Rights Act 100 years later.

The equivalent of politically and economically freeing the slaves back then is now granting health care to all Americans. The old order is about to be toppled and that leads Southerners and white conservatives everywhere to fear for the end of the United States, as they know it.

Now the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts of American society. In one of the great political realignments of modern politics, that region is the power base of Republicans.

Look at the list of state governors who refused to expand the medical program for low-income people (Medicaid) and compare that to the list of states that fought to preserve slavery. There is an amazing overlap.

Of the 11 states of the former Confederacy, only Arkansas has agreed to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have all refused, or are leaning in that direction.

One final irony should be pointed out in the historic context: It would be a great injustice to conservatives anywhere on the planet to agree with U.S. Republicans that opposing health insurance coverage for the entire population is “conservative” in any sense of the word.

One of the world’s greatest arch-conservatives, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, introduced health coverage for all Germans as far back as 1883. What is it about U.S. conservatives that, by 2013 — 130 years after Bismarck — they cannot muster the same degree of enlightenment as Bismarck?

The present state of affairs runs counter to America’s global ideology. According to its self-promotion, the U.S. casts itself as the modernizing vanguard of humanity. In light of what’s going on in Washington today, it is evident that close to half of the U.S. Congress wants an America that is more conservative than Bismarck’s 1880s Germany.

Stephan Richter is publisher and editor in chief of The Globalist, where this article originally appeared. © The Globalist.