The Past is a Foreign Country with Foreign Parties

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A few nights ago, a friend asked me about how the parties lined up historically. He wanted to name the good and evil parties. Those terms have a certain utility in thinking about history, but also invite us to sort the world into angels and demons instead of people with all their complexities. A man who owned slaves did not necessarily rape his wife or beat his children. A man who did not might engage in both acts. However much their positions on slavery skew our estimations of their characters, people in the past had all the same ability to surprise and disappoint us that people today have. That makes them interesting, if also sometimes frustrating.

One can, of course, go too far the other way. Viewing the past through a lens calibrated to strict separations of good and evil does not serve us well, except maybe for cheap debating points, but actually grants it more complexity than the opposite extreme where everyone ends up in a uniform moral grayness that invites only our indifference. I can only speak for myself, and I struggle to maintain the perspective, but I find history both less depressing and more edifying by granting historical figures a continuum full of shades of gray. How else can one make sense of Whigs against slavery but for the Fugitive Slave Act, like Abraham Lincoln, and Democrats, like Stephen Douglas, entirely disinterested in slavery who nonetheless devoted themselves to the suppression of the Confederacy created to preserve it? (Douglas died before he could play a major role in wartime politics.)

They do things differently in the past, as the cliché says. But that goes beyond just having different priorities. We naturally tend to see our present in the past. While we should not ignore the real continuities, but must also own up to the differences. The modern American left considers itself an anti-racist movement. I suspect most liberals would tell you that racism and liberalism simply do not go together. Fair enough, but the one time the American left included diehard white supremacists of the old Confederacy in the heart of its coalition. The New Deal, for all the good it did uplifting poor and desperate Americans, took great care not to challenge white supremacy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates brought it to mind and so reminded me of my talk with my friend. While certain general trends hold for much of American history, the party coalitions changed many times. We rarely talk much about a shift that happened within living memory when Southern whites left the Democratic Party in droves over civil rights and integration, finding a new home in the one-time Party of Lincoln. Those same Dixiecrats who left the party once supported such un-Republican ideas as collective bargaining and regulation of industry. Only when those commitments conflicted with their commitment to a segregated society where whites gave orders and blacks listened did their politics shift.

These shifts happen fairly often in American history, accompanied by realignments that change the dominant party and party system every few decades. (We live in either a very long-lived party system with a major division around 1968 or a very long-lived period of confused realignment.) Many of the same people who wanted slavery abolished feared the growing influence of Catholic immigrants and turned to nativist hysteria. Those do not seem like natural bedfellows to us in an era when the left sees itself as a cosmopolitan and egalitarian movement, but the Free Soilers and Republicans-to-be did not necessarily hail from the more cosmopolitan tradition of the day. Quite the opposite, a lot of brother’s keeper style New England puritanism informed their worldview. They might not express it in cold, Calvinist terms, but the same kind of religious sentiment that drove Puritans to whip Quakers played into a disdain for slavery and a desire for a kind of scoured-clean national uniformity. Slavery threatened that, but so did Catholics threaten the Protestant purity of the United States. Alcohol posed a similar threat in addition to serving as a useful way to make life difficult for those same Catholics, who everyone “knew” pickled themselves so thoroughly that two in a room together constituted a fire hazard.

While not as large a factor in American as in European history, the old Reformation idea that the Antichrist sat at the head of the Roman Catholic Church certainly played a role in the animosity too. Europeans, and transplanted Europeans in America, might have retired the notion that they must constantly murder their neighbors for religious uniformity, but that did not mean they entirely forgot their roots and their old hatreds. To some people of the era, Catholicism united the foreign radicalism of Old Europe, plain old distrust of new people and new ways, and genuine religious horror.

Most modern Americans would probably call those sentiments conservative. In modern American politics, their modern forms do cluster mostly on the right. But shifts in coalitions don’t amount to musical chairs either. The ideal of national purity, if long secularized, animates egalitarian movements seeking to improve the lots of LGBT people, the poor, and other disadvantaged groups. It also persists, in a far less secularized form, in the modern American right, which would rather see the nation purified, or at least isolated from, the influences of those same disadvantaged groups. Both sides happily claim the legacy of the abolitionists, as they understand it. All parties want a city on a hill, whether as a light to the world or as a sort of patriotic self-improvement.

I suppose that all amounts to saying that we can’t understand historical parties in terms of their simple switching positions any more than we can understand them as holding to eternal verities expressed consistently, if within the contexts of particular times. Continuities and discontinuities mark the histories of political movements. The left and right of the 1850s, a division increasingly to do with slavery, belong in the 1850s. The left and right of the 2010s, or of the 1960s, or 1930s, have major realignments dividing them from those past lefts and rights. Some ideas carry through, some switch sides, and some split and recombine with all the messiness we experience in our daily lives.

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