When the middle cannot hold, extremism leading to violence and anarchy invariably ensues. Pragmatism is really the only mechanism that actually works when the people choose the method by which they will be governed. But it’s one of the great ironies of the human condition that large numbers of the existing populace often become too impatient or too agitated when governments follow such a path of moderation. Or a consensus, if you will, whereby different factions on the major political issues of the day settle for compromises that give each side at least partial achievement of their goals but not the entire loaf. Instead of this tacit moderation, passions often become inflamed, and an “all or nothing” attitude becomes the ruling imperative. Then, instead of a large middle ground of consensus on key issues, extremist factions begin to form, each one diametrically opposed to the other, and ready for battle. A prime example was the outbreak of violence in Charlottesville last week, where, as I wrote last time, our president chose to draw a moral equivalence between the “haters” and those opposed to their hate-mongering.
In the U.S., the last time the center of political pragmatism began to dissolve into hardened extremist positions was over 150 years ago, and the issue was slavery. While our Declaration of Independence proudly proclaimed that “all men are created equal” our Constitution made no mention of such equality. Although most members of those writing the Constitution were opposed to slavery, and, indeed, most northern states had banished the enslavement of their black citizens, the South adamantly refused to to cooperate nor form a union, unless the Southern states were allowed to maintain the institution of slavery. It was all about economics. The South’s economy was almost entirely based on farming and its predominant crop was cotton. Since there was virtually no farm machinery at the time, cotton fields had to be harvested almost entirely by manual labor. The way to lower the labor costs of such of such harvests was, of course, to employ black slaves imported from Africa. Besides, the thinking went, Africans would be used to the sweltering summer heat and humidity while picking cotton in the South.
It seemed, at least to Southern plantation owners, the perfect solution. For the cost of providing minimal food and board, usually under the most dismal of conditions, the Southern cotton crop could be harvested and sold at prices that under-cut virtually any competition from any other country on the planet. Also, the slave traders, those that sent their ships to Africa to round up black people and transport them back to the U.S., usually under the most abhorrent of conditions, generally made a handsome profit in this human trafficking operation. Thus, Southern representatives to the constitutional convention were not about to abide by any prohibition against slavery and threatened to walk out and form their own confederacy if their demands were not met. The North finally acceded to the Southerners stipulations, the union was formed, and the Constitution remained silent on the issue of slavery. It would take another 70 years or so, when the middle could no longer hold, and the mandate to abolish slavery in this country would result in massive death, destruction and misery throughout the U.S.
When Abe Lincoln was elected president in 1860, his immediate imperative was to preserve the union at all costs. He stated that Southern states could keep their slaves if they agreed not to secede. Indeed, his Vice-President, Andrew Johnson from Tennessee, was an ardent believer in the institution of slavery, but also openly stated that the South should remain in the union. Despite these assurances, the middle could not hold, as Southern extremists opened fire on a union fort in South Carolina and the Civil War commenced. It would take over four long, bloody years of massive body counts, and bone-chilling atrocities committed by both sides, before the fighting was brought to a conclusion. Over six hundred thousand battlefield deaths were tallied during the fighting, the equivalent of over six million deaths with today’s population. Massive destruction existed everywhere, but especially in the South. Lincoln did live long enough, however, to see the enactment of the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution which abolished the abominable institution of slavery, and gave full citizenship to blacks that were previously treated as possessions of white plantation owners, instead of as human beings.
After Lincoln’s death, however, the South quickly enacted a series of Jim Crow segregation laws that forced Southern blacks into a state of semi-slavery, which lasted another hundred years, before the walls of segregation finally began to crumble in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. During those hundred years of Jim Crow, life for the average black man or women in the South barely changed from the days of formal slavery. One reason was that among many whites, a firm belief in white supremacy had been formed in the minds, and had taken hold as a concept among large numbers of the U.S. citizenry. Thus, the Ku Klux Klan, among other white supremacist organizations, found fertile ground in both the North as well as the South. Which brings us to today’s landscape, and the events in Charlottesville last week.
As I wrote last time, Trump’s breathtakingly lame moral equivalence between the haters, and those opposing the various hate groups, was virtually unprecedented. But I think the calculus formed in Trump’s mind is as follows. While Trump himself might not be a white supremacist, he believes that a large chunk of the white Republican base is thus bigoted, and voted for him because he gave lip service to their cause. It was the white bigots in his base that put him over the top and he goes to great pains not to antagonize them. Thus all the Neo-Nazis, KKKers, and other various hate groups continue to believe they have a friend and ally in the White House. But those opposed to all forms of this bigotry are also hardening their stances leaving less people to occupy the middle.
From this vantage point, the center is slowly dissolving into hardened left wing/right wing extremist politics that will not bode well for this country. Unless Trump mends his political ways, which is highly unlikely, look for greater and greater polarization among the American public. And we all saw how well such polarization turned out for this country about 150 years ago.