In America’s ‘Uncivil War,’ Republicans Are The AggressorsHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, polarization, political violence, partisanship
In his inaugural address, President Biden described America as in the midst of an “uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” His invocation of a civil war and the American Civil War was provocative. It was also accurate. There is no formal definition of an uncivil war, but America is increasingly split between members of two political parties that hate each other.
In the same speech, Biden warned of the dangers of “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.” This too was accurate. Biden was delivering his address exactly two weeks after a group of supporters of then-President Trump, riled up by his false claims about voter fraud, stormed the Capitol to try to overturn the results of a free and fair election, an act of political extremism and domestic terrorism carried out by at least some people who believe in white supremacy.
Biden didn’t explicitly say that the extremism, domestic terrorism and white supremacy is largely coming from one side of the uncivil war. But that’s the reality. In America’s uncivil war, both sides may hate the other, but one side — conservatives and Republicans — is more hostile and aggressive, increasingly willing to engage in anti-democratic and even violent attacks on their perceived enemies.
“Many Republicans do not accept Democratic governance as a legitimate outcome” of elections, said Thomas Zimmer, a history professor at Georgetown University who is writing a book about political divides in America. “America is nearing a crisis of democratic legitimacy because one side is trying to erect one-party minority rule.”
Because of this deep conservative antipathy for the liberal version of America, Joanne Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, has compared the state of America today to the 1850s, right before the U.S. Civil War.
“Mass violence in Congress seemed possible in 1850. Now, 171 years later, it’s in the national mindscape once again. And for good reason. The echoes of 1850 are striking. We’re at a moment of extreme polarization when outcomes matter, sometimes profoundly,” Freeman wrote in a recent essay in The New York Times.
“The Republicans,” she continued, “whose ironclad grip on the Senate has dominated the federal government, feel entitled to that power and increasingly threatened; they know they’re swimming against the demographic tide in a diversifying nation. They have proven themselves ready and eager for minority rule; voter suppression — centered on people of color — is on the rise and has been for some time. And some of them are willing to protect what they deem right with threats of violence.”
To be sure, only a very, very small fraction of conservative Americans participate in acts of domestic terrorism. Most rank-and-file Republicans would likely describe themselves as opposed to individualized acts of racism (a workplace not hiring Black employees, for example) as well as systemic racism and white supremacy. Most Republican voters are not directly participating in moves by GOP officials to make it harder for people of color to vote. And there are a lot of Republican elected officials who have not tried to have the 2020 election results disqualified or promoted laws and rules to make it harder for people of color to vote.
At the same time, Republican voters have stuck with the party despite its recent shift toward move overt and aggressive anti-democratic behavior. “This stuff seems not a deal-breaker to the vast majority of Republican voters,” said Zimmer.
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