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3 April 2024

The Civil War never ended

The questions that sent Americans to war with each other in the late 19th century still shape the country.

By Jill Filipovic

In Civil War, a new dystopian action film set in the near future,  “separatist” rebels in Texas and California band together against an authoritarian president, while brave journalists risk their lives to cover the conflict. Written and directed by Alex Garland, the movie taps into one of the most fascinating aspects of American culture: the collective obsession with our original civil war (1861-65) – and especially the fetishisation of it by the losers.

What Civil War, which will be released on 12 April, doesn’t aim to do is address the original civil war’s fault lines: north versus south in a battle over whether southern states could continue enslaving human beings. Nor does it interrogate how those lines continue to divide American politics: how race and racial animus influence voting and policy; how the Confederacy’s culture, political preferences and desire for minority rule remain at the heart of today’s Republican Party; and how two divergent narratives of the Civil War undergird very different ideas of what America should be.

I was raised in the north-westernmost corner of the US in Washington, a state that during the Civil War was neither Union nor Confederate nor a state at all. What I learned about the Civil War growing up there was fairly straightforward: southern states wanted to continue the practice of chattel slavery, which was often discussed in terms of “the economy” (the southern economy being powered by forced, unpaid, lifelong labour) and “states’ rights” (to refuse to bow to federal authority, specifically any laws that sought to regulate or end slavery). When Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery, was elected in 1860, southern leaders were irate, the South seceded and then the war began.

This is not what many schoolchildren in the American South learn. Some textbooks portray enslaved people as well treated and happy with their lives. The white southern narrative of the “lost cause” – which holds that the war was nobly fought over “freedom” and “states’ rights”, upon which the north was infringing, rather than over slavery – remains entrenched. (What exactly the southern states wanted to be free to do remains necessarily vague.) Confederate soldiers are still remembered as heroes. Southern Civil War memorials, many of them erected not in the postwar period but during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, pay homage to these pretexts. “That men of honour might forever know the responsibilities of freedom. Dedicated South Carolinians stood and were counted for their heritage and convictions,” one reads.

The pre-Civil War South was not a democracy, nor did it aspire to be. It was, and wanted to continue being, a harshly authoritarian state. Nationally, the right to vote was originally reserved for a minority – white male landowners – who were determined to preserve their tradition of white minority rule. Words such as “freedom” and “liberty” were bandied about, but in a sense that can only be described as “Orwellian”, meaning liberty for some, enabled by the blatant and violent subjugation of others.

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As Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2019, one of the men dedicated to upholding this system, John C Calhoun, vice president from 1825 to 1832, “was an astute politician, but he made his most important mark as a theoretician of reaction: a man who, realising that democracy could not protect slavery in perpetuity, set out to limit democracy”. Liberty, said Calhoun, was “a reward to be earned, not a blessing to be gratuitously lavished on all alike – a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving… not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious, to be capable… of enjoying it”. 

These ideas have never disappeared. They were the justification for Jim Crow, America’s racial apartheid system, and for voting rules that first formally prevented most Americans from voting, and later kept racial minorities and black Americans from their legal right to cast a ballot. You hear echoes of them now in conservative talking points about ending birthright citizenship, about unproven voter-fraud conspiracies, about undeserving welfare recipients, about a state’s right to force a woman to have a child, about how “real Americans” are having their birthrights stolen. The Republicans, once the party of Lincoln, experienced a national realignment in the 1960s with the passage of civil rights legislation, as racist, authoritarian whites fled the Democratic Party for the GOP.

The desire for minority rule is mainstream in today’s Republican Party, which has overturned voting rights legislation and made it more difficult for many to participate in democracy. The desire for authoritarianism has long been an undercurrent of conservative politics, but came to the fore in the Trump era. As Matthew C MacWilliams wrote in Politico in 2020, “The single factor that predicted whether a Republican primary voter supported Trump over his rivals was an inclination to authoritarianism.”

Authoritarianism or democracy? Majority rule with minority protections, or minority rule and majority marginalisation? These are the questions that have shaped US politics since the country’s inception. They are the questions that sent Americans to war with each other in the late 19th century. And they are the questions that still define American politics more sharply than ever in the age of Donald Trump – a man who routinely claims to hate losers, even as he takes up their lost cause.

[See also: Trump is not the problem]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown