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Monday, May 27, 2024
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HomeEditor's PickThe white working class and the new American Civil War

The white working class and the new American Civil War

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ON THE evening of June 16 1858 at the Republican State Convention in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, having been chosen earlier that day by his fellow Republicans to run for the US Senate against pro-slavery Democrat Stephen A Douglas, delivered what has become known as the ‘House Divided Speech’. Lincoln’s magnificent oration got its name from one line found in its introduction: ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand’, the house symbolising, of course, the United States, and the root of division being the issue of slavery which threatened to tear the nation asunder, and very nearly did.

Lincoln detested slavery all his life. He once said: ‘If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.’ Chances are, his biblically literate audience would have recognised that he was quoting Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), wherein Jesus makes several references to kingdoms being destroyed by division and brought to desolation through fractiousness and internecine strife. What they couldn’t know, however, was that within three years of Lincoln’s prescient words Americans would be fighting a sanguinary civil war.

That lasted five years and claimed 620,000 lives. While slavery was abolished as a result of the industrialising North’s victory over the slave-owning South, the racial divisions remained, and it was only during the 1960s that black Americans were guaranteed equal rights under the US Constitution.

As we approach this year’s presidential election, there is much talk of another civil war in the United States, quite a bit of it mainstream, but some it of flippant or casually ironic in nature, and some of it inspired, especially on the right, by a kind of exasperated and perverse wish fulfilment, born of desperation at the depravity, ugliness, lawlessness and war on truth which is overwhelming America.

Then there are those influential voices on the progressive left, in academia and the legacy media, who blame Donald Trump for bringing the nation to the point of civil war, claiming his mostly white supporters are so fearful of losing their privileges as the United States ceases to be a white majority country that they are prepared to resort to violence against the state to preserve their favoured status. If such people exist, I have yet to meet one.

According to recent polls, over half of committed Republicans in America now think it is very or somewhat likely there will be a civil war in the US within the next decade. Around 40 per cent of committed Democrats believe the same thing, with almost a quarter of all Americans, regardless of party affiliation, who say they would support their state seceding from the Union.

While there is no impending threat of the sort of violence that is supposed to be fought on battlefields by disciplined armies, it becomes clearer by the day that there are now two Americas, and they are at war. They are fighting a war over culture, over history and the legacy of the Founding, over how to define a man or a woman, over what constitutes scientific reality and objective truth. This war has been raging for decades, but reached a new level of intensity in 2013 when Black Lives Matter was founded, and went into overdrive following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the election of Joe Biden later that year.

With America being so polarised, one could be forgiven for thinking it is unravelling at the seams, its cultural, economic, and political institutions controlled by men and women who seem to loathe it, especially its working class, most particularly if those of the working class are white. Being white, whatever that actually means in terms of biology and culture, is now seen in pathological terms. You can win almost any argument simply by pointing out the whiteness of your interlocutor. When he is white and male or identifies as male, and is heterosexual to boot, so much the better.

If America is to experience another civil war, it will be partly due to the left’s demonisation of the white working class, who function as a kind of perennial scapegoat for all the sins of the world. When a well-heeled progressive refers to ‘smelly Walmart shoppers’ or ‘deplorables’, mocks West Virginia or claims to feel intimidated by an abundance of American flags, you can be sure that he or she has white working-class people in mind.

Indeed, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that America is governed by men and women who detest it and all for which it stands. Frequently, these professional America-haters – you find them in all walks of life, gravitating especially towards occupations that promise power and wealth – are those who profit most by the nation they loathe and grow rich on its increasingly divisive politics. It’s due to such people that openly denigrating the United States is now considered a quasi-sacramental act.

As a student and teacher of history, I have studied several civil wars, from the English and American to the Spanish and Chinese, and many others besides. Each was caused by a unique set of circumstances and took place within a singular historical context which can never be replicated.

The question must be asked, therefore: Are current conditions in America conducive to a civil war? I tend to think not but am ready to eat crow if proved wrong. Needless to say, I pray that I’m proved right.

This nation is, to be sure, terribly divided at present, more divided than at any other time since the 1850s. Those divisions are to be found within states, counties, cities and towns, inner cities and suburbs, urban and rural, even families. There are certainly many, especially but not exclusively on the radical left such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter, who are more than willing to use violence to advance their political objectives. We saw this in the summer of 2020 after the death of George Floyd. You can be sure that they will not hesitate to resort to violence if Trump wins this year’s presidential election in November, as they did when he won in 2016. As for their equivalents on the right, notwithstanding the so-called insurrection of January 6, 2021, I expect very little, even if Biden wins and electoral irregularities appear, which they undoubtedly will.

Is the American house so divided against itself that it will not hold? Will my fellow Americans who profess diametrically opposed views about abortion, transgenderism, free speech, the role of the state in the private lives of individuals, and a host of other issues, be able to reconcile their differences and live together in the place I now call home without that home becoming Balkanised? That remains to be seen. But a world with an America at war with itself will be a much poorer and more dangerous place.

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Bernard Carpenter
Bernard Carpenter
Bernard Carpenter is a semi-retired history teacher.

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