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A Political Conflict Ended, But Still Reverberating

The sesqui­cen­ten­nial of the Civil War is an oppor­tu­nity to revisit its legacy; the many ways that it con­tinues to affect our society and cul­ture. Here, Pro­fessor Bal­lard Camp­bell, an expert in Amer­ican polit­ical his­tory, dis­cusses how the polit­ical divi­sions of the 1860s con­tinue to res­onate in our pol­i­tics. Camp­bell is a Dis­tin­guished Lec­turer for the Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ican Historians.

Can you briefly trace the Civil War’s continuing impact on national politics, starting with the post-Reconstruction period up to today?

Because the Repub­li­cans were the party of Lin­coln and the party of abo­li­tion, the Demo­c­ratic Party ruled the South from the ending of the Civil War through the 1940s. The South became part of the Demo­c­ratic coali­tion forged by the New Deal — the city-​​dwellers of the North and the rural voters of the South — which cre­ated elec­toral majori­ties for the Democ­rats throughout the 30s and most of the 40s.

But once the Great Depres­sion and the war ended, that Demo­c­ratic coali­tion grew increas­ingly fragile. Then the sim­mering issues of race, seg­re­ga­tion, and civil rights exploded into the Civil Rights move­ment of the 1960s, cul­mi­nating in the pas­sage of two sem­inal laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These leg­isla­tive efforts, led by Democ­rats in the White House and in Con­gress, were a long-​​delayed reac­tion to under­lying racial and ethnic issues that came out of the South’s past — notably, the after­math of the Civil War.

This had the polit­ical impact of a 180-​​degree trans­for­ma­tion, causing Southern voters to move to the Repub­lican Party — and today, we see sub­stan­tial majori­ties for the Repub­li­cans in the South. Other fac­tors have played a role — for example, the impact of air con­di­tioning, which has made sum­mers in the South more palat­able and helped lure GOP voters from the North — but Civil Rights was the spark.

You’ve said that the Civil War was, on one level, about the use of federal power and the competition between the national government’s role and the states. Has the Tea Party tapped into this tension?

The Tea Party is a very Amer­ican phe­nom­enon, rep­re­senting a mindset that goes back to our founding — appre­hen­sive of gov­ern­ment power and devoted to the idea of liberty.

But the cur­rent pop­u­larity of the Tea Party has more to do with eco­nomics than with polit­ical phi­los­ophy. Reces­sions and depres­sions always kick up a lot of polit­ical dust. The Panic of 1837 fos­tered an anti-​​property tax move­ment, and the eco­nomic prob­lems of the 1970s killed the Great Society Democ­rats. People are anx­ious and frus­trated about their eco­nomic secu­rity.  They can’t blame employers because they’re wor­ried about their jobs, so who is left? The people in charge of the government.

That dis­trust of gov­ern­ment, driven by the bad economy, has the most res­o­nance with tra­di­tional Repub­lican policy stands: against big social pro­grams, against big gov­ern­ment, for indi­vidual rights.

How has the GOP managed to maintain its traditional popularity with Big Business, while supplanting the Democrats as the party of many white working-class and rural voters?

The Repub­lican polit­ical alliance with busi­ness goes back to the late 19th cen­tury. As far as the GOP’s more recent pop­u­larity with so-​​called Main Street voters, social issues have been impor­tant in that transformation.

Ethnic voters such as Irish and Ital­ians, who once saw the Demo­c­ratic Party as a refuge, don’t need that any­more because they’ve been assim­i­lated into the main­stream. Issues like abor­tion have drawn Catholic voters towards the GOP, and the white back­lash in the 1960s against civil rights cost the Democ­rats a lot of working-​​class and rural support.

Plus, since 1970, working guys have really taken a hit in income, which has dis­cred­ited lib­eral eco­nomics and made the GOP’s tax-​​cutting approach, as embodied by Ronald Reagan, more popular.

Wealthy voters care much more about busi­ness than social issues, but they also know that sup­port for con­ser­v­a­tive social posi­tions helps bring in GOP majori­ties, so there’s a kind of uneasy part­ner­ship there. Whether it’s cal­cu­lated or hap­pen­stance, social issues help keep the Repub­lican Party together.

– By Greg St. Martin

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