Edward Erler at The American Mind talks about some similarities between problems now and problem pre-The Civil War in The New Oligarchs Will Not Tolerate Secession.
The article, “The Separation: A Proposal for a Renewed America,” was apparently written under the pseudonym “Rebecca,” which the author indicates was taken from a series of letters written by Abraham Lincoln using the same pseudonym.
The author surely knows that Lincoln was challenged to a duel by James Shields, the sitting senator from Illinois, as a result of the “Rebecca letters.” Lincoln accepted the challenge—he chose broadswords as the weapons, and actually took instructions from a military officer in preparation. Shields was an experienced Army man in his own right, considered an expert with the broadsword. But Lincoln designed the proposed combat arena in such a way as to give his size and considerable reach an advantage over the shorter Shields.
Though the matter was amicably settled before the duel could be fought, I invite all readers—including the second “Rebecca”—to ponder Lincoln’s ingenious and highly amusing design. It provokes reflection on the comedy and tragedy of politics.
Dueling was against the law in Illinois, so the plan was to stage the event in Missouri where it was permitted. Planning or conspiring for a duel either by principals or seconds was also illegal, and Lincoln surely broke the law in doing do. Had plans for the duel been carried out, Lincoln’s political career might have ended in 1842.
In any case, Lincoln did not write all of the “Rebecca” letters: some (and the most scandalous) were written by Mary Todd, his fiancée and future wife. Surely “Rebecca” was an odd choice on the part of our pseudonymous author: it wasn’t Lincoln’s finest moment and he never again resorted to the use of a pseudonym. He had learned his lesson!
A Sparring Match
I will not challenge our author to a duel, but I will challenge this holder of “multiple Ivy League degrees” on his understanding of the American regime. Our author rightly notes the deep division that has arisen in the nation between the Red States and the Blue States. He or she proposes, not a divorce, but a trial separation that may eventually lead to a reconciliation of differences.
Throughout the essay, the author makes a mistake that Lincoln never made: Lincoln never forgot that politics is the architectonic art. We have often heard from conservatives that “politics is downstream from culture” and the way to reform political life is first to reform culture. Lincoln never made this foolish error, nor do the progressive ideologues who drive the politics of the Red States. These leftist radicals are deadly serious; politics is their avocation. For them culture, while an important part of political calculus, is eventually determined or shaped by politics because politics is always a contest for rule.
Conservative Republicans who believe that the battle for culture takes precedence over politics will always lose because they don’t know where to drawn the main battle line: they prefer to fight skirmishes. Progressives count on the apolitical character of conservatism, its preference for private life over the political. This is why the leftist radicals saw Trump as such a threat: he was a political man and understood the supremacy of politics.
Lincoln in the 1850s
Our author rightly notes, as many commentators have, that our current situation resembles that of the 1850s and the election of 2020 appears eerily similar to the election of 1860. Lincoln’s great speeches of the 1850s all sought to reconcile the nation by restoring the principles of the Declaration of Independence as the authoritative source of the Constitution’s authority. He tirelessly reiterated that the Constitution, understood in the light of the principles of the Declaration, had put slavery on the “course of ultimate extinction.”
These speeches—the Peoria Speech in 1854, the Dred Scott Speech in 1857, House Divided (1858), Cooper Union (1860), and the First Inaugural (1861)—were all masterworks of reasoned logic and persuasion. But they were political failures! Why? Simply because the slaveholding states were consumed by their passions and so unable to listen to reason. The First Inaugural, for example, appealed to their self-interest: there would be no interference with slavery in the states where it already existed, Lincoln averred, because there was no constitutional power to do so. If the South left the Union it would lose its representatives and Senators and would therefore be unable to protect its interests in the government.
Secession was folly. It occurred only because the South had refused to listen to reason—reason, in other words, no longer informed public discourse. Today, too, reason has been driven from the public sphere. The era of the sound-byte and media manipulation has replaced reasoned discourse. The election of 2020 has sunk to the lowest level of public discourse in modern times and perhaps in history.
The real reason that no compromise with slavery was possible was that any compromise would have been a rejection of the first principles of the nation announced in the Declaration. Slavery was incompatible with the central principle that “all men are created equal.” Slavery could not be abolished all at once at the founding because compromises were necessary to secure the support of the slaveholding states: if they had formed their own nation, the prospects of ever ending slavery were remote. But as Lincoln noted, those compromises were not the principles of the Constitution: they were the exceptions.
When read in the light of the principles of the Declaration, it was clear that the protections for slavery in the Constitution were merely compromises with those principles, temporary expedients to be observed until political conditions (and public opinion) would accept the abolition of slavery. Read in that manner—in the manner the Founders intended—the Constitution had doomed slavery to eventual extinction.
The public mind had rested with that assurance until the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, which allowed local majorities in the territories to determine whether to have slavery or not. Stephen Douglas, the architect of the measure and Lincoln’s main political rival, maintained that it was not a matter of principle but simply of whose interest was served. If a majority of the people found it in their interest to “vote slavery up,” then they should do so. If not, they should vote it down. Lincoln, with his inimitable ability to convey complex matters simply, said it was like two wolves and a lamb deciding what to have for lunch—by majority vote!
Lincoln’s response to Douglas revealed the essence of republican government: if natural rights are only a matter of whose interests are served, then no one’s rights are secure. It will always be in someone’s interest to disenfranchise the rights of others—whether it be the interest of a majority, an oligarchy or a tyrant. Douglas’s claim that interest is the only basis for rights put everyone’s rights in danger. If rights are not grounded in “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” then it simply becomes a matter of whose interest is being served. The Missouri Compromise, in Lincoln’s true estimation, repealed the principles of the Declaration.
In the House Divided Speech, Lincoln made it clear that no further compromise on the issue of slavery was possible—or desirable. What would it profit to lose the soul of the nation—its animating principles? The body might live on, but without a soul it would be a nation indifferent to justice, that sine qua non without which no constitutional regime or the rule of law can exist. And in the Cooper Union Speech Lincoln revealed that the South did not want mere tolerance for its “peculiar institution”; it wanted the North to stop condemning the immorality of slavery and even demanded its recognition as a moral good, something that could not happen without repealing the Declaration.
Conflating the Timeless with the Timely
Our author recognizes that “[o]ur times are Lincoln’s.” But Lincoln’s times “attempted to accommodate the ‘peculiar institution’ with individual liberty.” This was an attempt “to reconcile irreconcilable ends…that could not be resolved within the system.” Indeed these were incompatible ends, but the “system” had “resolved” them, by putting slavery on the “course of ultimate extinction.” Read the Constitution in light of the principles of the Declaration and enforce the Constitution: that was the “system” as Lincoln understood it. The slaveholding states no longer wanted the resolution prescribed by “the system”; as Lincoln said over and over again, there was nothing inadequate, as our author seems to think, with “the system” itself.
The author admits that our current problems, however serious and dangerous they are, do not compare to slavery—although, I might add, some kind of tyranny (which amounts to enslavement of the people) might be in prospect. The author is correct that the people are currently deeply divided—“we are two people.” But here is the surprising observation: “The current political system cannot bridge the divide between the two Americas.” “The Constitution is not broken,” we are assured, “rather “the People for whom it was created are broken.” In order to address this problem our author suggests a “separation” that will allow Red and Blue America a “political living space.” This will allow the “people to relax the political bands connecting them.”
We are told that this strategy surely will be productive since “both sides still claim fealty to the Constitution.” This outrageous claim will be examined in short order. If suffices to ask now: Which constitution is our author referring to?
Our author assures us that the founders would not frown upon this innovation, since change was “not an affront” to them: “it was their expectation.” It is true, as our author suggests, that the Constitution was grounded on “timeless principles” which had to “adapt [to] the times.” But our author has done something incredible by changing a “timeless principle.”
We presume that the “timeless principles” to which our author has referred are contained in the Declaration of Independence and its invocation of “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” We remember that the Declaration appeals to those same laws when it says it has become necessary for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” Our author treats these “timeless principles” as flexible and adaptable, i.e., as if they were not sacred “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” but merely matters of convention which can be modified at will. Thus they can be reinterpreted to “relax the political bands” of the “one people” instead of becoming a foundation for the principles of a new separate and equal nation dedicated to the “safety and happiness of the people.”
Something is wrong here! The timeless and the timely have been confounded and the Constitution is now bereft of permanent principles. But is this the price that must be paid so the two separate people, Red and Blue, have their “space?” It might be separate, but it certainly will not be equal.
Understanding Regime Politics
Our author, I believe, shows a fundamental misunderstanding about the American regime, beginning with the assertion that the Constitution was “itself a course correction from the Articles of Confederation.” It was indeed a “course correction,” but somewhat more than that: Madison regarded the Constitution as an act of revolution because it not only rested on wholly different principles than the Articles but was ratified by the supreme authority of the people, not the states.
In Federalist #39, Madison wrote that the Constitution must be republican because that was the only form of government consistent with the principles of the Revolution, by which he meant the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Our author says that today our “current system” is inadequate to bridge the divide that separates the people.
Presumably our author believes that the “current system” or some reasonable facsimile is the regime of the founding that both sides of the political divide, Red and Blue, still adhere to. But what evidence does the author have that the Blue States still adhere to the same constitution that the Red States appeal to? The most advanced elements of the Blue states— the ruling elites, composed of the most progressive law professors, academics, the minions of the deep state, media, corporate elites, the tech oligarchy—don’t adhere to the Constitution of the founding; rather, they routinely refer to a post-constitutionalism in which the Constitution of the Founding will be rendered superfluous, having been replaced by the administrative state and bureaucratic rule.
What Would BLM Say?
Our author even seems to agree that the two Americas are operating according to different basic principles: Rebecca calls for a revitalization of the 9th and 10th amendments that might inspire some kind of decentralized federalism to encourage social experimentation in our separation. This can only mean that Red and Blue would be invited to govern themselves in quite different ways.
The 9th amendment’s provision for “unenumerated rights” might help soften the abortion debate that motivates much of our division. It might perhaps provide some new rights to be free from pollution and climate degradation, since climate change seems to be another source of unbridgeable division. Separations can be fruitful times for reimagining all manner of things that could lead to reconciliation. It might prove beneficial in reconciling Black Lives Matter and blue lives matter, for example, although it is difficult to see how any amount of relaxed reimagining might meet the non-negotiable demand of BLM and left-wing progressives—backed by Blue State Democrats—to defund the police.
Blue lives matter seems to be equally resolute and, not surprisingly, to have strong support among non-oligarchic, urban lower-class blacks and Latinos as well as whites and other ethnics. Mirabile dictu! BLM seems to be a part of the ruling oligarchy! A truly helpful reimagining might suggest a defunding the military wing of BLM, but this kind of creative reimagining would undoubtedly be stigmatized as “racist,” for which even the most active imagination seemingly has no defense—even among the “woke” ruling elites who tremble before the slightest charge of racism, real or imagined, conscious or unconscious.
Our author seems to be perplexed that the statement that “all lives matter” has been deemed “racist” by BLM. Doesn’t BLM realize that as a matter of logic “all lives” includes “Black lives?” But here is the rub. Logic and reason are a Western imposition on the world, invented by white supremacists and white imperialists. To say that black lives are included in all lives is demeaning—it pushes black lives into an invisible background. Logic is not life.
The assertion “Black lives matter” is a statement of racial superiority. It cannot be judged by “racist logic.” “All lives matter” is therefore racist—no logic necessary, only reimagination. BLM has considerable responsibility for driving reason out of the public sphere with its claims that Western logic is racist and imperialist. If you think BLM doesn’t have that much influence on elite opinion, I invite you to think again. Mull that one over in your separation and “relax.” Get back to me when you figure out a reconciliation. Do your best: our marriage may depend on it!
Is America Still a Republic?
The fundamental error in our author’s analysis, however, is still more glaring: America has not been a constitutional republic based on the consent of the governed for many years. It has, in fact, been a thinly disguised oligarchy, dominated by ruling class elites in the media, in academia, both political parties in government (where politicians freely make promises to voters but find it easy to evade and ignore), the bureaucracy, the deep state (including the intelligence agencies), corporations, Silicon Valley, and other centers of influence.
Aristotle in the Politics noted the tendency of democracies and republics to become oligarchies. On occasion, he noted, one of the oligarchs appealed to the support of the people to overturn the oligarchic class and return to the old regime. Is this how we are to understand Donald Trump’s rise and fall? He said during his primary campaign that he was a wealthy insider and he saw what was happening to the people, especially how the oligarchy was profiting from China at the expense of the middle and working class. He believed that the people were being defrauded to enrich the wealthy and that this was simply unjust. He wanted to act on behalf of the people to restore the constitutional republic in which they, not the oligarchy, held sovereign power.
Trump didn’t know about Aristotle, or Aristotle’s dictum that it is justice above all which preserves regimes. But he did understand that it takes an insider to understand oligarchy.
Why would Trump betray his own class—the oligarchy? Self-interest is not always the dominant motivating force in some men—sometimes an instinct for justice prevails, or sometimes a reputation for justice might be a primary self-interest. But it took an oligarch—an insider and a traitor to his class. In turn, his class reacted to his effrontery with deadly purpose. How dare he take the side of the people! How dare he invoke justice!
The Oligarchy’s Grand Strategy
The elites, in an out of government, mobilized against Trump with resources that he could not match. The so-called Masters of the Universe dogged him unmercifully, censoring him at crucial moments that had a significant, if not decisive, impact on the election.
Pollsters did not use the wrong methodology in conducting polls; almost certainly they misreported results on purpose to suppress turnout. The media was uniformly against him, suppressing news—which the FBI said was credible but not worth investigating—about Hunter Biden’s corrupt dealings, trading on his father’s connections with Russia, China, and Ukraine. The role of the Dominion Voting system, an easily manipulated system that can change results in real time without a trace, may be revealed in the future. But it is clear that the election was in fact stolen from Trump by the oligarchy he dared oppose. The likelihood that there will ever be another free election in America is remote.
Perhaps most important was the Wuhan virus, which provided an unexpected weapon for the oligarchy not only to consolidate their power but to terrorize the public into accepting oppressive government regulations that will probably extend into the indefinite future. Some of the regulations have been exercises in raw power, having little or no rational basis and little effect on curbing the pandemic.
Most telling, however, is the fact that the pandemic has resulted in the greatest transfer of wealth in history from the lower and middle classes to the wealthy and corporate classes. Whether the pandemic was an accident or not, the massive transfer of wealth was intentional. The reaction to the pandemic was the beginning of the end of President Trump’s attempt to survive the all-out assault mounted against him by combined forces of oligarchy. Without the pandemic, Trump, in all probability, would have won reelection, and would have been better positioned to deal directly with the minions of the deep state, the Masters of the Universe, and those who supported them.
Oligarchy and Regime Change
Oligarchy is not a permanent; it too is subject to regime change. It can become a democracy, or it can become a tyranny if one or a small segment of the oligarchs becomes predominant in wealth and power. In the near future, the latter prospect is most likely. What is clear however is that no “trial separation” will alleviate our situation, even when our highly educated commentator learns to recognize the politics of regime change.
Politics is a contest for rule—the people or the oligarchy in our current situation. It is not helpful to think of the relationship of the Red and Blue State as a marriage that needs a “trial separation.” Even if a separation was secured, I can assure you that the Blue State oligarchs—and for that matter the many Red State oligarchs and politicians who are content to return to status quo ante Trump—would not use it to work on the marriage. And they certainly won’t tolerate a divorce. Like all domineering partners who abuse their consorts, they want to rule.