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Why this May Be the Most Important Election Since 1860

A number of leading Democrats commented at their convention that this year’s election is the most important one in their lifetime. They’re right. In fact, this is the most significant election since that of 1860. Then, as now, the very survival of a republican form of government is at stake.

We have to look back to James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States, to find a president as reactionary as the current occupant of the White House. Serving on the eve of the greatest crisis in the country’s history, the Civil War, Buchanan sought to stop the noisy debate about slavery by making limits on the slaveholders’ power politically and constitutionally impossible. Bush, arriving in the White House at a time of growing criticism at home and abroad of corporate-dominated globalization, has attempted to tilt the government so far in the direction of the U.S. corporate elite that it will be unassailable in the future.

Buchanan, of course, was a Democrat, but, as students in U.S. history survey classes learn, the Republican party of our day has many similarities to the Democratic party of the pre-Civil War era. The Democratic party then fashioned itself as the “white man’s party” and chastised its opponents for appealing to blacks. The Republican party in recent years has opposed affirmative action and catered to white male racism and sexism. The pre-Civil War Democrats emphasized the ideal of limited government but did not shy away from restricting the civil liberties of those who opposed slavery. Bush’s Republicans likewise employ the rhetoric of limiting the size and intrusiveness of government while increasing spending on the military and simultaneously eroding basic civil liberties of those it deems suspect.

Both Bush and Buchanan rode into office with the electoral votes of all the Southern states. Newspaper readers today know how fond Bush is of his ranch; Buchanan was equally fond of his Pennsylvania estate known as Wheatland.

Each president is closely associated with one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history.

Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian, improperly maneuvered to gain a northern vote from a Pennsylvanian on the Supreme Court to strengthen the impact of the Court’s Southern majority in the infamous Dred Scott case. The Court ruled that Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom since “a black man had no rights that a white man was bound to respect” and that Congress acted unconstitutionally when it barred slavery from a U.S. territory. Buchanan and the Court majority hoped to destroy the Republican party’s political chances by making its platform of eliminating slavery from the territories a legal impossibility.

In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court’s Republican majority intervened to prevent the Florida vote count from proceeding in order to preserve Bush’s slim lead in the popular vote in that state so as to assure his accession to the White House.

While Buchanan’s shenanigans were designed to prevent future victories by his opponents, the Court’s partisanship in Bush vs. Gore immediately determined the results of the election. Both decisions seriously eroded public confidence in the fair-mindedness and independence of the judiciary and led to serious questioning of the degree to which the conservative side adhered to the norms of republican government, or, as Lincoln put it, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Like Buchanan, Bush is fond of waging aggressive and illegal wars. Buchanan was secretary of state when President Polk, with Buchanan’s support, launched a war to grab half of Mexico. Buchanan opposed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo because he wanted even more Mexican land than the half of Mexico the U.S. acquired by the terms of the treaty. While U.S. ambassador to Britain, he joined two other ambassadors in signing the Ostend Manifesto claiming a U.S. right to acquire Cuba.

Bush has thus far waged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hints at additional targets, and declares a continuing and seemingly permanent war against terrorism. In Buchanan’s case, the goal was to preserve the stability of slavery since he was fond of Southern leaders and knew their commitment to preserving their way of life. As a child of today’s corporate elite, Bush is fond of the members of the small group that dominates the U.S. political economy and wishes to extend its reach globally and make its rule more secure.

Bush questions the patriotism of anyone who criticizes his war policies while the Patriot Act adds grave new restrictions on civil liberties today. In the decades before the Civil War, Buchanan blamed abolitionists for all the division in the country, supported the destruction of abolitionist pamphlets by postal office officials, and authored the Senate’s gag rule to reject abolitionist petitions automatically.

The most serious crisis of the Buchanan presidency was the conflict between pro-slavery and free-soil forces in Kansas Territory, while the instability and violence in Iraq is Bush’s most serious crisis. Buchanan sought Kansas’s admission as a slave state even though his own appointed governor, a Mississippi Democrat, said the proposed pro-slavery constitution had the support of only 10 percent of settlers. In a similar fashion, Bush through the Coalition Provisional Authority prevented both municipal and national elections in Iraq and has foisted on the country an unrepresentative “government” while continuing to maintain an occupation army of 140,000 and establishing the world’s largest embassy in the country’s Republican Palace.

Both Bush and Buchanan came into office at times of great national division. Each regarded only their opponents as responsible for that division. By his one-sided, pro-slavery actions, Buchanan helped intensify the division that he recognized was dangerous. He thereby contributed to bringing on the Civil War, an unintended consequence of siding with the extremist Southern rights faction in the Democratic party. His actions with regard to Kansas in particular propelled a split in the Democratic party.

Bush, by his one-sided war mongering and pro-corporate actions, has needlessly sacrificed thousands of lives, harmed the international standing of the United States, and, by providing such huge tax breaks to the rich, jeopardized the federal government’s ability to promote the economic well-being of the nation and lend assistance to ordinary citizens’ health, social, and educational needs in the future.

No Civil War is on the horizon, but Bush’s policies have provoked the unintended consequence of uniting the majority of world public opinion decisively against his foreign policy in Iraq and elsewhere. Although there has been no formal split in the Republican party, a diverse group of Republicans including former administration officials, diplomats, military leaders, and corporate executives have come out in opposition to Bush. Particularly notable are the soldiers who have come back from Iraq and switched from the Republican to the Democratic party. Those soldiers remind one of those non-slaveholding Democratic farmers who went to Kansas in the late 1850s and reacted to the hypocrisy of the Buchanan administration’s anti-democratic policy by switching to the Republican party.

Recent scholarship has supported Lincoln’s warning in the wake of the Dred Scott decision that pro-slavery Democrats were driving for a Supreme Court decision that would nullify a state’s right to forbid slavery and thus make the nation “all slave.” Instead of extending the promise of the Declaration of Independence to ever more groups and moving step by step to include all people under the “we the people” concept of the Constitution, an aristocratic oligarchy would have cemented their oppressive rule and undermined the republican character of the state and federal governments.

The 1860 election gave the nation an opportunity to select a leader who ran on a program designed to serve the interests of all but the slaveholding elite, who was committed to preserving the republican form of government, and who had the moral vision to assert that African Americans “are equal in their right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’" Lincoln won a clear victory in those states where he was able to get his message before the public.

The 2004 election gives the nation an opportunity to select a leader committing to restoring the role of the federal government as a positive factor in the economic life of the country and a caring factor in the lives of those in need. Voters can choose in John Kerry a leader with the moral vision to protect civil liberties and tolerance at home and to establish a foreign policy based on telling truth to the public and working with the United Nations to promote peace and social progress for all. John Kerry deserves a fair hearing in every state of the union. This is the most important election not only in our lifetime but in the life of the republic since the Civil War.