At 245 years old, with two civil wars behind it, and in the grips of a third, the United States is anything but. Will we ever build peace?
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At 245 years old, the United States has become a country split by social, political, and cultural chasms that seem impossible to traverse. From the entertainment we watch, the policies we seek, to the history we cherish and tell: Every element of our nation is suffused with ideological rancor. With slim majorities in Washington and a president who ran on “big tent” politics, Democrats have made it their goal to preside over peace, either through bipartisan negotiation or well-crafted legislation. The former insists on reconciliation; the latter demands Reconstruction, but what neither faction accepts is we cannot build peace without there first being a war.
We are all familiar with the first such breach of national unity in the form of the Civil War. The entire country was completely torn apart and had to be stitched back together with three Constitutional amendments recognizing the freedom, equality, and citizenship of Black people who had theretofore been trapped in bondage. It was a gargantuan effort that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of patriots, mobilized and transformed every aspect of society, and fundamentally altered the nation. Yet, it left its work unfinished, and thus sowed the seeds of another brutal contest.
So it was almost exactly a century later, when the Warren Court decreed that segregation was subjugation, that the country exploded again into civil strife. In more nuanced, less obvious ways, the Civil Rights movement carried out the conflict of its predecessor, the consequences of the unfulfilled promise that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments had made. This time, war was not troops meeting in open fields but accompanying children to school; it was citizens against the state, battered and attacked in the streets; it was in the bodies lynched and burned and shot by mobs, or on dark roads, or in church basements, and it was the dreamers, organizers and leaders who did not survive to see a 40th birthday.
Because the first war was so outsize and unforgettable, and the second was subtle and substantial, we are unprepared to recognize that the third is upon us.
The exact beginning of this third war is still unclear, but the signs are unmistakable. We cannot find clarity on any of the pressing issues of the day; our positions on equality determine our party and faction; we are told to trust in institutions that have distorted representative weight, and between lawmakers and citizens alike, we see steadily expanding threats and occasions of violence. Any point in the last two decades could mark the impetus: a close election count in Florida which led to a president taking office via a closed door deal; the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration when Republicans united to prevent the first Black man elected to the presidency from solving any of the crises they had created; the elevation of an open white supremacist to the presidency with the largest deficit in the popular vote in modern history. But wherever we begin, the January 6th Insurrection has made it impossible to doubt: We are in the midst of a war.
Like the second civil war, it will be fought on a smaller scale, with more individual actors, and fewer formal battle lines. Yet the fragility of the republic in this moment means that the political consequences are more reminiscent of our first union-rending catastrophe. What does not and will not change is the nature and intentions of our opponents: those who reject freedom, democracy, and equality are the same as they have ever been. They seek to prevent the opportunities and benefits of this country expanding to lift up our most marginalized; they reject institutions of democracy and the arts of republican government if they fail to yield permanent victory, and that victory, as ever, must be the complete and utter supremacy of whiteness over everyone and everything upon this land. It is only the strategy that has something new to offer, because rather than trying to merely maintain oppression, our opponents are trying to rebuild it.
There is no mistake or accident in the efforts to reestablish Jim Crow and segregation, the push to unmake any program or policy that might prevent the return of racial hierarchy and the violent oppression that naturally flows from it. These are the deliberate and constant intentions of Republicans, often stated aloud, regardless of the cost or audacity necessary to bring them to fruition. We have seen this incoherent intensity manifest in everything from the willingness to allow coronavirus to spread as it disproportionately affected marginalized communities, to the refusal to interrogate how armed and violent insurrectionists breached the Capitol, to the vacuous and obtuse reasoning put forth by Republican-nominated conservative justices on the highest court every time they strike down voting protections. Republicans are not just “playing footsie” with extremists, or an impending threat to our governance; they are the extremists and actively dismantling democracy themselves.
There is no negotiation that can be made, no offering that can halt their campaign. Republicans and the voters aligned with the party will not stop until they have allayed their insecurities, fed their myths, slaked their thirst for false superiority. And because what they seek is not the truth, they will never find the peace they are looking for, and destroy themselves along with all of us, and the country they swear they love.
It is up to Democrats to accept the truth of this conflict. There are many in the party, particularly in leadership, that are putting time and energy and visibility into brokering a quiet resolution to this oncoming storm, as if they can argue with the wind. Others are convinced, despite their ardor for reform, that our institutions can carry forth answers without a backlash that forces many to bear the costs of war. Whether a Democrat is calling for bipartisanship or seeking legislative overhauls, all of these elected leaders are acting as if political solutions still remain, as if compromise is possible, even as we have seen through Gettysburg and Vicksburg, through Fort Pillow and the nighttime rides of the Klan, through “massive resistance” and “impeach Earl Warren,” that this eternal faction of American political life is incapable of concession without the threat of utter destruction.
Time is working against democracy. It is essential to recognize as quickly as possible the scope and intensity of the opposition, and that not age, not death, not truth will prevent them from seeking to impose white supremacy on a nation of equals and call it freedom. Their promise of violence has been the bedrock of genocide, enslavement, Jim Crow, Red Summer, segregation and inequality, and they are using it again to prevent us from seeking the multiracial democracy we deserve. Until we acknowledge and attack this violence, suppress it, minimize it, disperse it, undermine it with the tools of government and the fervor of the righteous, we will be vulnerable to it.
Because a war that only one side fights isn’t a war. It’s a massacre.
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