Ressentimental Journey

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Ressentimental Journey

Digby's picture


By Digby

February 12th, 2008 – 5:34am ET

As I’m sure you all know, Rick Perlstein, esteemed fellow here at CAF, wrote
a very
interesting piece
for the Washington Post the other day making the
important observations that no matter how much people want to believe that the
battles of the 1960s are over—they aren’t:

The fact is, the ’60s are still with us, and will remain so for the
imaginable future. We are all like Zhou Enlai, who, asked what he thought
about the French Revolution, answered, "It is too early to tell." When and how
will the cultural and political battle lines the baby boomers bequeathed us
dissolve? It is, well and truly, still too early to tell. We can’t yet
"overcome" the ’60s because we still don’t even know what the ’60s were — not
even close.

Born myself in 1969 to pre-baby boomer parents, I’m a historian of
America’s divisions who spent the age of George W. Bush reading more
newspapers written when Johnson and Richard Nixon were president than current
ones. And I recently had a fascinating experience scouring archives for photos
of the 1960s to illustrate the book I’ve just finished based on that research.
It was frustrating — and telling.

The pictures people take and save, as opposed to the ones they never take
or the ones they discard, say a lot about how they understand their own times.
And in our archives as much as in our mind’s eye, we still record the ’60s in
hazy cliches — in the stereotype of the idealistic youngster who came through
the counterculture and protest movements, then settled down to comfortable
bourgeois domesticity.

What’s missing? The other side in that civil war. The right-wing populist
rage of 1968 third-party presidential candidate George Wallace, who, referring
to an idealistic protester who had lain down in front of Johnson’s limousine,
promised that if he were elected, "the first time they lie down in front of my
limousine, it’ll be the last one they’ll ever lay down in front of because
their day is over!" That kind of quip helped him rise to as much as 20 percent
in the polls.

It’s easy to find hundreds of pictures of the national student strike that
followed Nixon’s announcement of the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of
1970. Plenty of pictures of the riots at Kent State that ended with four
students shot dead by National Guardsmen. None I could find, however, of the
counter-demonstrations by Kent, Ohio, townies — and even Kent State parents.
Flashing four fingers and chanting "The score is four/And next time more,"
they argued that the kids had it coming.

As you can see, Rick argues that this was civil war and I don’t think he’s
overstating it. In fact, I would actually take it further. I’ve often argued
that the culture war is a battle in our long "cold" civil war, meaning that
while our politics has not often devolved into violence in recent years (with
some rather notable exceptions like Oklahoma City) the war has continued,
flaring up at certain times but always on at least a low simmer … for

It’s true that those who say that the 1960s presented a very specific, unique
challenge to the aristocrats who reacted with new tools and coordination against
what they saw as a serious political and cultural threat. But nonetheless I
still see this as a continuation of the battle that has raged in our country
since its inception, a battle between the two warring American tribes. Those two
tribes originally broke down on geographical lines, North vs. South, but have
since evolved into something much more complex, beyond just class or region or
race, although it has elements of all three. Underlying all the "issues" of any
given era is the notion of moral righteousness and inferiority,
ressentiment, that stemmed from the original sin of slavery and created
two American "tribes" which operate reflexively under certain recurring

We saw it played out in stark traditional
regional terms
during the last election.

I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East-coast
pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever
trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a
non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment. Support
for Bush is about resentment in the so-called ‘red states’ — a confusing term
to Guardian readers, I agree — which here means, literally, middle
   — Tom Wolfe

This certainly seemed to be true, at least in some very important respects.
But, that resentment wasn’t created by Michael Moore or Pat Robertson. This goes
back to the beginning.

It’s important to remember that one of the main rationales for the civil war
was that the southerners believed the north was trying to impose their "values"
upon them and they deeply resented it. From the earliest days of the republic
this was a problem. A different culture grew up around slavery in the south as
did the tension surrounding the issue. The mere act of rejecting it was cause
for insult and the south withdrew into a cultural identity based largely upon
its difference from the north. Indeed, this was one of the defining rationales
for slavery — the exceptionalism of the southern culture.

The North did condescend. Many believed that slavery was a barbaric and
primitive institution and that those who condoned it were, therefore, primitive
and barbaric. They did not keep their opinions to themselves. From the start
this tension created a huge amount of resentment among Southerners. And the
resentment didn’t come from political powerlessness or disenfranchisement.
During the first 70 years of the country, the South dominated the national
government. It didn’t help.

From a speech given at the centennial of the civil war by historian Stephen Z. Starr

…it is tragic to think that for two generations, the mental energies of
the South were devoted to elaborating justifications of slavery – perhaps to
appease its own feelings of guilt – to the exclusion of every other form of
cultural activity.


The second basic issue between the sections lay in the area of politics;
necessarily so, for it was in the political arena that the problems between
the sections were fought out until the South decided that political solutions,
reached by a process of give and take, were no longer adequate to protect its
"honor and self-respect.”

Bear in mind that middle and upper class Southerners were politicians by
birthright. Active participation in politics was, in the South, a way of life.
One would expect, therefore, to find a much greater degree of political skill
and acumen there than in the North. What one finds there instead is demagogy,
bombast, irresponsibility, incompetence, a childish refusal to come to grips
with realities, and a habitual substitution of slogans, symbols and bogeymen
for facts. These are strong statements, but hardly strong enough to fit the

The South had an almost unbroken control of the Federal Government from
1789 until secession. The presidents were either Southerners., or Northerners
like Pierce and Buchanan, who were mere puppets in the hands of Southern
senators and cabinet members. For seventy years, the Supreme Court had a
majority of Southern justices. With the aid of its Northern allies and the
three-fifths rule, the South controlled one or both houses of Congress. The
fifteen Slave States, with a white population of not quite eight million, had
30 senators, 90 representatives, and 120 electoral votes, whereas the State of
New York, with a population of four million had two senators, 33
representatives, and 35 electoral votes. Even the election of 1860 left the
South in control of both houses of Congress, and until at least 1863, Lincoln
and the Republicans would have been powerless to pass legislation hostile to
the South, and through its control of the Senate, the South could have blocked
the confirmation of every Lincoln appointee whom it considered unfriendly. In
spite of this, and notwithstanding Lincoln’s repeated assurances that he would
not, directly or indirectly, interfere with slavery where it already existed,
the South chose to secede.

Starr goes on to show that this irrational behavior was not due to the South
failing to get most of the the legislation it wanted, because it did. But it
became an emotional issue in which it was important to "crack the whip over the
heads of the Northern men" and they began to make enemies of their allies in the
territories. As Starr says, "this tale of political ineptitude, the habitual
misreading of the minds of opponents, the misjudging of the practical
possibilities of a given situation, the purposeless striving for effect, the
substitution of arrogance and threats for rational discussion, could be expanded
many fold."

Granting the existence of cultural differences between the North and South,
can we assume that they would necessarily lead to a Civil War? Obviously not.
Such differences lead to animosity and war only if one side develops a
national inferiority complex, begins to blame all its shortcomings on the
other side, enforces a rigid conformity on its own people, and tries to make
up for its own sins of omission and commission by name-calling, by nursing an
exaggerated pride and sensitiveness, and by cultivating a reckless
aggressiveness as a substitute for reason. And this was the refuge of the
South. For ten years before secession, Northerners were commonly referred to
as “mongrels and hirelings." The North was described as "a conglomeration of
greasy mechanics filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moonstruck
theorists … hardly fit for association with a southern gentleman’s body
servant." And, most fatal delusion of all, Southerners began to credit
themselves with fighting ability equal to that of nine, five, or more
conservatively, three Northerners. Once a nation or a section begins to speak
and think in such terms, reason has gone out the window and emotion has taken
over. This is precisely what happened in the South, and this is why the Cotton
States seceded before Lincoln was even inaugurated and before his
administration had committed, or had a chance to commit, any act of aggression
against them. Such behavior is fundamentally irrational, and cannot be
explained in rational terms.

The South today has more than 40 percent who vote with the blue states in
national elections. They are white progressive modern people who share the
Southern cultural identity but have avoided the 200-year-old baggage that makes
it impossible to identify with people not of their own tribe — and African
Americans who were excluded except as scapegoats and second-class citizens. The
2004 electoral map was nearly a perfect replica of the map of 1860. The country
had finally righted itself back to its original tribal boundaries.

But this phenomenon can’t simply be explained today as North vs. South or the
liberal elite vs "heartland values" or whatever it’s called this week. This is a
battle between two American tribes, defined by human themes of resentment,
morality, wealth, class, power, race and family. It is not specific to any
particular issue or even any region anymore (even if its political boundaries
might fit more or less within the original lines) and history suggests that it’s
unlikely there will ever be a final reconciliation through politics. Even a
bloody civil war couldn’t settle our differences. It’s hard to believe that
something as pedestrian as electoral politics could do it.

The fight is always with us. But it’s through these political slugfests that
the country progresses, which it always does, in fits and starts, over time. In
fact, the battle is one of America’s defining characteristics. It’s as much as
part of who we are as anything.

Part one of a series. Read
Part Two

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