Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Soft Edges of the Second Civil War

There have been times when I've thought that the United States is in either a pre-civil war state or a kind of low-level second civil war. Having rejected much of American society, the right-wing is engaged in a series of cultural and political wars against black people, Hispanics, gays, popular culture, public schools, higher education, science, and liberal whites.

Oh, and I forgot Muslims.

It's not like the rest of society hasn't responded either. The response from the rest of society has not been as cohesive and determined as the right-wing "war on America," but the level of activism against the right is rising. The left blogosphere has risen as a significant locus of liberal activism. Suburban voters around cities like Philadelphia have changed their political allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party in reaction against social conservatism. Personal animosities toward conservatives are also hardening. I've seen surveys indicating that the number of atheists is growing as a result of hostility to the religious right. Likewise, there are reports of scientists being blackballed for supporting creationist viewes. Battle lines are hardening and the American social and political system is becoming more brittle as a result.

Ron Brownstein has published a book entitled The Second Civil War to explore the conflict. A columnist for the LA Times, Brownstein is probably the most acute observer in the national pundit class. However, the excerpt from The Second Civil War in The National Journal is disappointing. Like Jonathan Chait, David Broder, and every other bubble-brain in the mainstream media, Brownstein postulates an equivalence between the political right, and liberal bloggers because both sides are 'highly partisan." For Brownstein, the right and left are locked in a death grip that will inevitably be salvaged by a "return to the center."

But the analogy is almost entirely specious. Brownstein focuses on Tom DeLay's 2006 resignation speech from the House of Representatives and the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas that year. However, Tom DeLay was a majority leader of the House of Representatives who was at the center of a vast web of political power, financial resources, and media clout. A blog with about 500,000 hits a day, Daily Kos is hardly comparable to DeLay. Daily Kos might still become the focal point for an expansion of left-wing activism. The right-to-life movement certainly served that purpose for the right during the 1970's. But the rise of Tom DeLay was an outcome of thirty years of conservative activism while the liberal blogs might represent the initial thrust of progressive activism that ultimately results in the liberal version of Tom DeLay in the 2020's. But progessive activism is still a long way from matching the institutional strength, integrated media structure, and political savvy of the the political right.

There may be a civil war developing in the United States, but the difference between Tom DeLay and Daily Kos indicates that most of the conflict is still being initiated from the right.


Dave said...


I just finished Brownstein's book, and I was really disappointed. It just doesn't make sense that the same person who can right such a cogent column about current politics can have such a poor understanding of how we got into the situation we're in.

The excerpt you cite is fairly representative of the book. In Brownstein's accoun, both parties, and impersonal forces, share blame for abandoning the politics of bargaining and moving us toward the politics of polarization. The fact that the conservative movement NEVER bought into the politics of the era Brownstein nosalgizes never figures into the account.

The causality is clear: the conservative movement, denigrated as practitioners of a "paranoid style" during the height of the age of bargaining, struck back against the politics of the age, and eventually took over the GOP. In the process, they accelerated the regional realignment and undermined the Liberal political order. The Democratic Party has basically not changed its fundaments since then, despite struggling to conform strategic issues with their moral attachment to the ethos of the bargaining age.

I've been throwing around the idea of writing on this for openleft.com, but it's really a pain in the ass that we're still stuck in the persuasion phase with people like Ron.

Ric Caric said...

Well-stated, and I agree. It's worth adding that the right has responded to all of its defeats by becoming even more confrontational. Responding to Republican setbacks in 1998, Tom DeLay cut off negotiations with the Clinton administration. More recently, Bush reacted to the 2006 election by sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq. Ultimately, the only reasonable response to that kind of confrontationalism is to fight back.