This destructive force is damaging our nation now just as it did then.
The persistence through time of a recognizable pattern in a culture points to an important part of how the human world works. Just as Great-grandpa's red hair reappears in a new baby, so also can the patterns of social and political dynamics (in this case, destructive dynamics) move through the generations within a society. Such a pattern, or spirit, can perpetuate itself by socializing individuals in ways that lead them, in turn, to reinforce in the world around them the patterns that had been impressed upon them.
The parallels between the political crisis in America in our times, and the crisis that drove America into a terrible Civil War a century and a half ago, reveal how a spirit of this sort has re-emerged to hold major parts of the American cultural system in its grip and animate the actions, beliefs, and attitudes of millions.
I begin here a series of articles to delineate these telling parallels. Perceiving the same pattern in these two important eras -- our present crisis, and the crisis that led to the Civil War -- can be revelatory just like the images in the Magic Eye books: out of the stereoscopic image, a startling figure emerges with depth out of a new dimension.
I responded to this with my way of understanding how decent people, like my neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley, come to deny what science says about climate change.
"I am not sure how much 'self-centered' relates to the problem," I wrote. "Judging at least from what I think I know about my neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley, they'd likely be quick to sign up to go and put their lives on the line for their country in the event of a war. Not self-centered in that context.
"Some other qualities make them vulnerable to this kind of manipulation by lies that are as improbable as unicorns.
In medicine there's a saying, "When you hear hoof beats, think of horses not zebras." Whatever's going on is far more likely to be the usual than the extraordinary.
But when it comes to climate change, the Republicans are telling Americans not to think horses, or even zebras. They're saying, think unicorns. Republicans want Americans to believe that the alarm about climate change is based on a scientific hoax.
Republicans used to claim that the science was inconclusive. Fifteen years ago I was on television in Virginia debating the issue against a local Republican official who took that party-line position. But with so powerful a consensus among the experts - 97% - the Republicans have taken the fall-back position that climate science is a hoax.
This hoax would have to be beyond extraordinary. Over the course of history, there have been hoaxes in science - a scientist or two creating false evidence. But if any scientific hoax has involved more than two or three people, I have been unable to discover it.
The scientific studies that show the disruption of the earth's climate due to human activities have been the work of thousands of scientists, from nations all over the world, conducted over decades.
A scientific hoax of that magnitude is beyond improbable.
If we ought not to believe in this unicorn, is there a horse around to explain the hoof beats?
In fact, there is. We have an industry doing what other industries have done in similar situations. And we have a political party doing what it has done again and again.