Home National Politics Enmity in America, Echoes of the Civil War Era

Enmity in America, Echoes of the Civil War Era


This piece is appearing in newspapers in my conservative congressional district (VA-06).


The other day, I saw some poll results that disturbed but did not surprise me. It revealed how deeply divided Americans have become: more than 80% of both Trump voters and Clinton voters regarded their fellow citizens on the other side as “enemies.”

Is there anyone who will deny that such enmity is the very opposite of what a good society should aspire to, the opposite of what he who said “love thy neighbor” and who taught an ethic of peace would call for?

I have been well-positioned to observe how, in our times, such antagonism has arisen in America. Throughout the 1990s, I was engaged with audiences on both sides of the divide and I saw: This enmity in America has not been fed equally by both sides.

My radio conversations on WSVA in Harrisonburg from 1992 onward gave me the opportunity to observe the spirit of that conservative audience. Already in the 90s, there was a hostility – fed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh — from many people on the right toward people on the liberal side that was almost wholly unreciprocated.

During that same period, I went around the country giving a talk titled “Beyond Dispute” to liberal audiences. In that talk, I preached that liberals and conservatives should be fighting each other less, and learning from each other more. Neither side, I maintained, had a monopoly on the truth. Liberals welcomed this message of bridge-building.

Then, during W’s presidency, Karl Rove’s divisive rhetorical strategy further inflamed the antagonism people on the right directed against Americans on the liberal side.

In 2005, I did one program asking my conservative radio audience: “To what extent do you see liberal Americans as your fellow citizens with whom you should work to find common ground to move the nation forward, and to what extent do you see them as enemies whom you should vanquish so they have no voice regarding the direction of the nation?”

The callers’ responses made my hair stand on end: bitter enmity was the overwhelmingly predominant attitude toward liberals.

Meanwhile, my liberal audiences wrung their hands over how a more cooperative and friendly relationship might be developed with their conservative fellow citizens.

The same asymmetrical picture is found at the level of the elected officials of the two sides. All of W’s most important legislation was passed with the help of Democratic votes in Congress. All of Obama’s legislative efforts were met by (near) unanimous opposition from Republicans.

Obama put forward Republican ideas in an effort to get bi-partisan opposition (e.g. cap and trade, Obamacare). Trump has yet to make a single positive overture to the Democrats.

In recent years, there have been many pleas for greater civility, greater cooperation for the common good. Virtually all those pleas have come from the liberal side.

Polling over recent years has consistently shown that Republican and Democratic voters have very different attitudes toward “compromise” with the other side. A majority of Republican voters oppose compromise, regarding it as almost a dirty word. The great majority of Democratic voters consider compromise a good thing if it is required to get things done.

The right has produced a political culture based on anger and resentment. Whom to love is a wholly neglected topic. Whom to hate is central to people’s political identity. Love thine enmity.

(So it is that, reportedly, the main reaction on the right to Trump’s pulling out of the climate agreement was glee at how upset liberals were. So it is that Trump’s tearing apart our 70-year NATO commitment to our closest allies has provoked no protest from his followers.)

I can’t help but notice how all this recapitulates the pattern of the 1850s, leading up to the Civil War. In the early 1850s, the hostility was intense on the Southern side, but muted in the North. But hostility begets hostility, and anger provokes anger.

As the decade continued, the consistent Southern attacks on the North’s interests and values – the Fugitive Slave law, the overthrow of the Missouri Compromise, the beating of Senator Sumner on the Senate floor, the fraudulent Kansas constitution, the Dred Scott decision – gradually inflamed the anger of the North.

By the end of that decade, the feeling of enmity in the North rose to a pitch nearly matching that of the South, as shown by the fervent support expressed by many in the North for John Brown’s anti-slavery attack on Harper’s Ferry.

And soon the war came.

No longer is the nation divided along a geographical fracture fault. So that kind of civil war of massed armies will not recur.

But just as the rancor of that era has led to deep wounds still not fully healed, so should we recognize that this polling showing how enmity has now become more symmetrical in the American body politic reveals a grave threat to America’s immediate and long-term well-being.


  • Ed schmookler

    This is an interesting article, Andy. Aside from the Koch brothers, Trump, and the racism that got stirred by having an African-American president, to what do you attribute this rise in enmity, first from the right, and now the left?

    • Andy Schmookler

      Starting with the right…. As you know, at the heart of our present crisis, I see a “destructive force,” or a force that spreads a pattern of brokenness to whatever it touches, a force that works to expand its dominion in the world. (The idea of such a force is not, I realize, readily grasped intuitively– which is why I wrote WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST.)

      If one stipulates the existence of such a force, it would reasonably operate so that IT, and not the people, could control what direction the nation would take. One important strategy for doing that is the age-old strategy of “divide and conquer.” If one can manipulate people to be so embattled and antagonistic that they neutralize each other, then the force can step into that 1 + -1 = 0 void and call the shots.

      The right is the place to begin that antagonism. Back in the 80s, in my book whose subtitle was HEALING THE WOUNDS THAT DRIVE US TO WAR, I went into why some people have a preference for conflict. A point worth mentioning in this context is that some people — by virtue of their upbringing, in which a harsh set of demands hostile to their needs gets internalized — have an internal war that is relieved by projecting onto “the other” whatever they would otherwise be at war with in themselves.

      So the right gathers in the racists and anti-Semites and general xenophobes who show, by those demonizations of others, their own unintegrated, conflict-ridden inner structure. They are most comfortable with a world that is at war. (Which is why a guy like Trump — who goes out of his way to pick fights — can be their hero.)

      So some of the prominent agents of this force of brokenness — like Limbaugh and Fox News and Karl Rove go after such people with a brokenness inside — and fan the flames of their hostilities, and direct them against whatever “others” will best suit the purpose of advancing the force with which they are aligned.

      As for the liberal side….While leftists of the extreme sort can be conflict-oriented, the liberals want everyone to get along. Their vulnerability is likely to be in the opposite direction: an inability or unwillingness to engage in conflict when it is called for. So liberals largely did not return fire as the right went after them for years, demonizing Democrats (like Clinton, like Obama, etc.), and declaring that no one can be a Christian and a Democrat. And the liberals kept hoping for things to get nice.

      But then there came the “enough is enough” provocations, especially embodied by Trump’s completely undisguised dishonesty and thuggishness. And the fire of enmity has been lit in the hearts of liberals now as well. Twenty-some years of abuse and the assault on all we hold sacred– it’s enough to make even a liberal really angry!