Imagine our National Governance as a substantial, shiny metallic flying machine. As we move through space and time our craft is buffeted by the turbulence of winds blowing hard across the mountain tops. It rides along, but at times the integrity of the rivets holding it together is strained, maybe a few even pop from the polished aluminum plates.
Metaphorically, the forces it navigates through are statements made by one side or another, disparaging while advancing initiatives that are profound in their impact on others. Commentators discuss the ignorance of the opposition, that they are unknowing of real constraints and cultural imperatives. They question the veracity of any statement. It is generally claimed that those in opposition, have never traveled an inch in the shoes of other constituencies.
Claims are made the adversaries are mean or even evil ideologues. Some of us look for ways to understand the dialogue between groups and to find ways out of the destructive exchanges.
The winds use to howl on rare occasion, they are nearly daily now. It is difficult for us to engage, generally we hear the arguments on the small screen and the commentators are not eager for feedback, except maybe in a 140-character format they may use for instant reaction.
Our destination is the next national election in 2018 and after it, the next Presidential contest in 2020. Variously, these occasions are seen as a likely renunciation of the present, or its validation. We wonder if the next ballot box contest irrespective of the winners is more turbulence in a broader contest that will continue on interminably. Will the air grow more turbulent forever?
We return to our departure airport to achieve some understanding and then investigate how to interpret what we learn. We ask what forces affect our direction and what history may have to tell us. May we achieve some common-ground and will the airspace be clearly defined and controlled?
A Federalist article argues that we are not learning the lessons of the last election. The article is written from the point of view of the Trumpian constituency. It focuses on Donald Trump’s electoral wins in “rust belt” states.
The essay refers to an article in the Atlantic about a group visiting some of these voters in an attempt to understand why they would vote Donald Trump. For me, its conclusion admonishes but does not enlighten, because it is largely a partisan charge and does not dig deeper for any underlying meaning.
It concludes: “The essay is an important reminder that, a year after the presidential election, our coastal elites still have not quite been able to grasp what happened last fall. It’s not that they haven’t been willing to travel inland to talk with Trump voters. It’s that they haven’t been willing to listen.”
A Third Way?
The Atlantic essay explains the context of the Federalist criticism. It documents the listening trips by the Third Way, a think tank. The Third Way is in search of more moderate approaches to governance.
They describe themselves: “We are a public policy and advocacy organization. Our mission is to create and promote transformational centrist ideas. In a time of polarization and populism, Americans deserve better than what they often get from the extremes. And American prosperity and security depend on solutions that are not defined by ideological orthodoxy or narrow interests. Our agenda: economic growth and opportunity, progress on social issues, deep decarbonization to battle climate change, an approach to national security that is both tough and smart, and electoral reforms that empower the middle. If that sounds ambitious and bold, it may be why the New York Times labeled us ‘radical centrists.’ “
The report from their trip (“safari” was a word used in the Atlantic) to Wisconsin defined the conclusions from their listening as the importance of hard work, the need for a strong work force and local antagonism for big government.
These are presented as a unified conclusion, though the author of the Atlantic article determined there was plenty of division within the Wisconsin heartland constituencies.
There were some who were supportive of governmental efforts and there were others who were essentially separatists, who were proud of their extremism and “disdainful of the unenlightened.”
The conclusion was that these journeys for political anthropology, were beneficial because of the interest in listening. In the end, however, often the distillation of the understanding fit conclusions into prefabricated categories, consistent with Three Way dictum. There was not a profound breakthrough of understanding, providing insight to a broader diversity of thought and opinion by heart-landers.
Approaches to Understanding
The manner in which we approach understanding is crucial to the conclusions we reach. The Atlantic article defined an approach where we listen to folks, attempt to understand their perspective, and then make every effort to fit it within an existing political or policy structure.
The effort is to blend ideas to the extent that a broader segment of the population can buy-in. It may follow from the old engineering concept, “dilution is the solution,” or alternatively Philip Selznick’s “Formal Co-optation” described in TVA And The Grass Roots: A Study in The Sociology of Formal Organization.
By the Third Way finding common themes related to employment, workforce and antagonism, they can develop a message that allows displaced Democrats to return to the fold. Some would see this as an essential stew of American political action. It is a common transactional approach to governance.
President Clinton was successful pursuing the Third Way using “triangulation” described by Dick Morris as “the President needed to take a position that not only blended the best of each party’s views but also transcended them to constitute a third force in the debate.” (Dick Morris, 1999, Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds, page 80)
The political climate now may be different, however, because we are stressing on our rivets from selfish, even arrogant, forces of division.
Increasingly identity becomes a determinant of how we act politically and vote. Voters may well be less likely to support diluted, co-opted, or triangulated doctrine, in fact they may inherently distrust them as stratagems for the elite, political class – whether it be right or left.
Political ideology appears to be increasingly pure and the forces of the system increasingly separate us. This is considered in the discipline of human geography. The analysis is often in terms of a competition between Centripetal and Centrifugal forces.
Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces
Authors, such as Richard Hartshorne have addressed what keeps countries together. This can be phrased as Centripetal Forces that “unifies people and enhances support for the state.”
The opposite forces are termed Centrifugal. Common Centripetal Forces form around national identity often reinforced by demonstrations of respect for images and expressions such as a national flag and national anthem. Other factors are transportation systems that facilitate exchange around a country and making the resources of the country generally available to its citizens. Transportation systems that overcome the constraints of geography are particularly unifying.
The uniformity of religious practices and a common language are Centripetal forces. Improved communications that facilitates interactions is generally Centripetal because it helps develop a unified culture. Armed forces providing a common defense pulls a country together, unless they are used to abuse a citizenry.
During World War II when there was a common American cause, the draft was unifying, because it brought all Americans together and trained them with common skills and organization, regardless of class standing against a common enemy. Things change, so by Vietnam this was not necessarily the case.
Centrifugal forces, on the other hand, divide a country. The tendency with these forces is to displace a larger national identity with one more regional. In the American system many of the actions involved with Centrifugal action are Constitutionally protected free speech. Whether this is identity based group identification or not performing national flag and anthem protocols or debates on 24/7 news that are repetitive with consistent themes denigrating another national group, they are Centrifugal and tend to pull us apart into smaller geographic and regional collectives.
Forces That Divide and Unify
The effects of both business and governmental actions may have Centripetal or Centrifugal impacts. For example, the development of the interstate highway system during and after the Eisenhower administration was powerfully Centripetal. The same was true for airline development in the United States and especially the hub concept that supported flights in smaller air service markets.
As airlines are moving away from regional service, the impact on the nation is Centrifugal, encouraging more distant rural places to interact less with urban centers. This pull back erodes business and cultural opportunities between more and less populous areas of the country.
Netting Out — Electoral College As An Example
How this comparison nets out is difficult to determine. Potentially, a good gauge may be the majority requirement in the electoral college. It may be seen as an indicator of unity across the breadth of the nation.
An alternative is now being proposed called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Once states totaling 270 electoral votes agree and sign-up, they will cast their electoral college votes for the candidate receiving a plurality of the popular vote.
This likely will be powerfully Centrifugal, pulling us apart, because it does not require a majority of Americans to support a candidate. Instead it allows a candidate with a relatively small plurality to become the United States President which may not advance American unity. This is a distinction to the current electoral college process which requires a majority of the electoral votes and does not specifically recognize popular votes. Easily it can be seen that a plurality of the popular votes may well equal a majority of the electoral votes.
If we want American unity, we must always focus on programs and systems that pull us together. The general impact, however, is as Centrifugal forces increase, Americans will engage less with other Americans in different settings and places. The perception of each by the other will harden and become more critical and each can increasingly develop a different culture based upon what they perceive as important factors for their survival and growth. Our perception and identities may well grow smaller and smaller.
Our Centrifugal Era
From all appearances, we are in a Centrifugal period in our American history. For some Americans, individual and group identity appears to supersede a national identification.
- Where there is significant conflict about performing a standard flag protocols before certain athletic events.
- Where wealth concentration is occurring on a historical scale.
- Where some Americans feel they do not have an equitable opportunity to participate fully with the American ‘dream” because of race or class.
- Where according to a recent NPR poll, every category of American feels their racial group is discriminated against.
- Where “dark” money invades political decisions.
These matters and others are a daunting challenge for America.
One Thing Leads to Another
Can this be overcome with a Third-Way approach, or must we as a nation reverse the dividing forces? How do we achieve this?
From my perspective, one thing leads to another. Where we are today is the result of a series of choices and actions taken over the past three or four decades. They build and affect us differently as individuals, families, and communities.
If our perceived well-being is adversely affected we may conclude the system does not serve our interests. We can organize against this and we may be more or less effective in achieving our political goals. If we are not successful and the system overcomes our efforts, then we may well form deep seated aversions which in aggregate are very Centrifugal.
Normally we will not break apart, but instead we will narrow and develop increasingly regional identities.
Profound Division in The American Experience
Though America has worked through this level of division in a number of instances, in 1860/1861 it became a particularly critical matter. The time was preceded with border war in Missouri and Kansas, the assault on Harpers Ferry and the hanging of John Brown.
The issue then not allowing slavery to be extended into the territories and a resulting electoral balance against slavery, which was strongly supported by many Northerners. Many Southerners viewed abolition and the prohibition of extending slavery into new territories, as an existential threat to their ownership of chattel property.
For many but not all of the non-slave owning Southerners, This perceived mandate was viewed as an intrusion by dissimilar Northerners into their sovereignty. Because of this, fears, distrust and moral imperatives regarding chattel slavery and the inalienability of property without due process of law was the core cause. There was no way to find a middle way especially after 75,000 militia troops were raised to March South.
A Republican President was Elected
A Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, was elected in 1860, though he was not even on the ballot (or prohibited from being on the ballot) in Southern States. The Centripetal forces of American nationhood were overcome with distrust, doubt and feelings of moral imperative.
After Mr. Lincoln’s election, seven Southern states seceded from the Union and in Charleston South Carolina, Confederate cannons fired upon a U.S. Federal installation, Fort Sumter, and by force, removed the installation from U.S. jurisdiction.
Soon after this action, President Lincoln called up 75,000 militia troops from the states and four additional states (Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina) seceded to the Confederacy and, as they say, “the fight was on.”
After 4 years and 600,000 – 750,000 soldier deaths, the United States forces prevailed. By many modern accounts Reconstruction and the years following it in the South was de-humanizing and brutal for the African American man and woman. Generally, there was little Federal central governmental action to challenge Jim Crow.
Reconstruction Did Not Continue to A Successful Conclusion for African Americans
However Reconstruction did not continue to a successful conclusion and by 1877 local authority had been restored to all the seceding states. The process of developing the bonds between the North and South resumed and became a priority American political activity.
After a bloody civil war and years of reconstruction, the effort for political and economic unity were underway. At this time, the Centripetal forces were great. A critical point is that justice may not follow strength and unity. During this period many Americans were suppressed and brutalized by Jim Crow regimes.
A Unification BBQ at Crawfish Springs
A close family member and I met near Chattanooga, Tennessee in October, 2017 to investigate the Chickamauga Battlefield in Northern Georgia. We retained a battlefield guide and read about the battlefield before walking the ground. I had suggested the visit based upon my great grandfather’s service with the 5th Tennessee Cavalry (CSA).
The guide explained attacks and counter-attacks both North and South through several days of battle. In the end the Confederacy gained a tactical victory, but General Thomas made a strong stand at Snodgrass Hill and Horseshoe Ridge before retreating towards Chattanooga. His Army of the Cumberland fought victoriously another day.
Of particular interest to me was an event 16 years later at Crawfish Springs, Georgia. During the battle, Crawfish Springs was a critical freshwater source for Union soldiers, the location of General Rosecrans early headquarters and the site of the Union hospital. In 1889, it was the location for a large Blue and Grey Barbecue that lead directly to the establishment in Federal legislation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
Forces Pulling Us Together
Chickamauga – Chattanooga was the first U.S. military park. It came directly out of an effort to re-unite America between North and South. The forces were Centripetal and lead to a strong national effort seen in the Spanish American War and subsequent conflicts and the industrial development of the nation.
David Blight in his essay “Healing and History: Battlefields and The Problem of Civil War Memory,” “Sometimes reunions were explicitly organized for intersectional political and business dealings.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1895, a huge Blue-Grey affair met in Chicago to unveil a large monument in Oakwood Cemetery to the 6,229 Confederate soldiers who had died during the war at the Camp Douglas prison compound.” . . . Such spectacles were emotionally irresistible to most people. But other motives animated participants as well. The leader of the Chicago Citizens’ Committee welcomed the Confederate soldiers in the interest of ‘closer commercial relations and business union . . .’”
General Kelly’s Comment on Civil War Causation
The recent comment by General Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, discloses how controversial the war and its causes and aftermath remain. General Kelly stated the Civil War resulted from an inability to compromise.
Soon after he made the statement, CNN challenged it. Correspondents recounted their memory or maybe recent Google searches of the history leading to the Civil War, and many instances the direct choice of the Lincoln Administration was to choose slavery or emancipation. I perceived they were saying immediate in 1861 the administration could choose slavery or emancipation for every state.
The point I guess was that Mr. Lincoln could abolish slavery and any compromise would be evil. Later the discussion qualified this somewhat pointing out the choice would potentially be between extending slavery into the territories and the complexity of President Lincoln’s 1861 choices was hinted at but not discussed in any detail.
Divided American Narratives
What the commentary from General Kelly and CNN discloses is the division in America between a traditional narrative a la Shelby Foote on the Civil War containing some lost cause sentiment and the increasingly current racial justice narrative which sorts out good people and bad people.
The network only hinted but did not dig deeper to disclose a more complete history on the issue and the basis of competing narratives, but instead chose the racial justice perspective apparently reflexively. I find their unwillingness to compare the narratives and to dig deeper discouraging. Deeper digs often disclose a more complex and qualified set of facts which is critical to set the stage for dialogue and compromise.
Likely it is exemplary of General Kelly’s comment demonstrating an unwillingness to compromise or even recognize without aspersion fairly expressed competing narrative. I am anxious about what this foretells about the American future and the extent to which the widely watched CNN cable news will be constructive and healing?
The Continuing “Overwhelming Task”
David Blight who appears to have a racial justice perspective clarifies this distinction
“Americans faced an overwhelming task after the Civil War and emancipation; how to understand the tangled relationship between two profound ideas – healing and justice. On some level, both had to occur, but given the potency of white supremacy in nineteenth-century America, these two aims never developed in historical balance.”
I believe there were also economic considerations. As many things in America, reconciliation was based on who could provide capital to fuel economic activity. For Southerners, money was available in the North during the Gilded Age, and generally among investors the cause of African-American civil rights was not primary. Unfortunately many Southerners worked to force African Americans to labor.
It was convenient then to develop a “lost cause” narrative so that former Blue and Grey soldiers could reconcile and following them, their regions could bond culturally and economically. It facilitated their families and communities feeling comfortable having given honorably their full-measure combined with battlefield cultural celebrations and inter-sectional business activity.
National Unity, Aggressive Nationalism Gained and Racial Justice Lost
Given the human geography nomenclature, significant Centripetal forces brought us closer together at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century. These lead to a greater national unity and an aggressive nationalism. They did not, however, provide any solution to achieve racial justice, a central Union cause in and after the Civil War.
The author David Bligh presents “white supremacy” as the rationale, but I believe that though it was an important factor, other elements were key also.
Finding Durable Truths in a Centrifugal Time
Resilient actions affirm durable truths. When viewed by a Centripetal analysis of gathering forces, the statement remains true regarding the status quo in America.
At the beginning we presented the image of a shiny flying machine navigating the forces of the time. We suggested the buffeting may pull at the rivets, but if the flying machine is able to proceed towards the next elections, both 2016 and 2020, most options remain on the table.
Elections are an ultimate resilient action, especially when they are seen as free and fair. We can see efforts to find the middle on an issue. They travel, listen, but the question is asked whether they hear.
We look at forces that establish American direction and see that they are both Centripetal and Centrifugal. The opinion is that we are now in a Centrifugal time when we are pulling apart, but that can change relatively quickly and we presented the history of former enemies combining for the establishment of the symbols of a common heroism with battlefield parks and a developing prosperity with effort to share it between North and South, the former enemies.
We recount how the lost cause narrative permitted national consolidation, but excluded major population groups, African-American justice being most discussed in this essay.
The essay presented a current controversy about an old topic, relating to the cause of the Civil War and how the commentary of a major news outlet focuses in support of one narrative without a non-pejorative recounting of a competing long-standing narrative. We observe that digging deeper to relate the nuances could lead us to understanding instead of freezing us in an emotional defense.
Looking for Humility While Debating the Civil War
Resilient action is digging deeper. Instead of being so quickly to resort to denouncement, we must attempt to understand other perspectives. It is an ancient lesson: Plato’s quote of Socrates in the Apology is illuminating: “I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”
The values reflected by the quote are self knowledge and especially humility. My quick observation is that it no longer appears to be a value. I believe this is what General Kelly refers to in his comment.
For all parties, they felt a moral imperative and the way history was going to develop. If they had talked more, they may well have found a course to deferring action, or not. The irony is that if the Civil War had not been fought with the Union achieving arguably a tactical victory at Antietim, likely slavery would have remained an active institution within our Country for some time.
So, if the end justifies the means, was the Civil War and its savage horror a good thing?
The tragedy is that after the blood was shed and a portion of America devastated, a resilient course to racial justice could not be found while at the same time enhancing unity and reconciliation. Some dismiss it solely as the actions of evil White Supremists, but I believe a little humility and a more comprehensive consideration is the best option to discover a durable truth based on a pragmatic reality.
Without the spirit of humility, we cannot find the elements of compromise that empower us into Centripetal times, more inclusive than when America was great.
In a real sense all life is inter-related. “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963