By Alan Bean
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War reminds us that America is as deeply divided now as it has ever been. We can’t even agree about the basic meaning of the Civil War. Was Robert E. Lee a hero or a villain?
In the 1860s, and again in the 1960s, the federal government, albeit with deep misgivings, moved powerfully to defend the nation’s most vulnerable members. Too marginalized to deserve the title “citizens,” 19th century slaves and the 20th century victims of Jim Crow segregation, were protected from the tyranny of the majority. In the 1860s, the Republican Party controlled the process; by the 1960s, the Democrats were in charge–but the principle was the same.
As we wander aimlessly into the 21st century, the political divide is largely defined by the traumatic events of the 1860s and 1960s. Conservatives are increasingly inclined to see the 1860s and 1960s as periods in which a tyrannical federal government crushed legitimate states’ rights. In the liberal view, the demise of slavery and Jim Crow oppression are milestones in the long march to freedom. To liberals, “states’ rights” is shorthand for state-sanctioned bigotry.
Tragically, neither conservatives or liberals give much thought to the ties that bind us together as a nation. We are too fixated on the failings of our ideological opposites to examine what our side has lost. As things stand, neither conservatives nor liberals have a narrative that all Americans, or even most Americans, can rally around. (more…)