Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.
What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.
Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).
Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)
Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.
Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.
Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.
This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:
—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.
—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.
—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.
—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.
Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.