In the News
Manisha Sinha, March 6, 2018, The New York Review
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln launched his campaign for the Senate seat from Illinois with his now famous “A House Divided” speech. While he did not predict disunion or civil war, Lincoln alluded to the country’s deep political divisions over slavery and concluded, “I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Even before what historians call the political crisis of the 1850s, the rise of an interracial abolition movement had encountered mob violence in the streets and gag rules in Congress. From then on, abolitionism in the United States was tied to civil liberties and the fate of American democracy itself. By the eve of the war, in 1861, most people in the northern free states felt that the democratic institutions of the country were being subverted.
There are many Americans who feel the same way today. Some have pointed to the glaring, and growing, partisan divide in the US to conjure doomsday scenarios, including “civil war.” How does our own epoch of fierce political polarization compare to the decade that was rent over the issue of slavery before the Civil War? Predictions are often overwrought and historical analogies can be misleading, but the controversies that bedeviled that age and its legacies still haunt us. In certain ways, they foreshadow—or, perhaps, still condition—our own divided house.
The Politics of Poor Whiteness
Jeff Forret March 6, 2018, Black Perspectives
Occasionally a book comes along at a timely historical moment. Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (2017) is one such volume. Its appearance roughly coincided with the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. Many political commentators recognized Trump’s appeal to the nation’s lower-class whites struggling to survive in an increasingly high-tech, globalized economy in which well paying manufacturing jobs for less-educated workers vanished from American shores. A profound irony transformed a New York real estate tycoon of indeterminable wealth into the savior of the disaffected, rural white masses.
Republican attacks upon an array of governmental programs have frayed the social safety net designed to aid many of the very same voters who cast ballots for Trump. The recently passed tax plan will redistribute wealth upwards as it undercuts President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s legions are already suffering self-inflicted wounds, with more pain to come. The year 2016 gave us a watershed election in which downtrodden, dispossessed, and poorly educated whites—precisely the type of people Merritt writes about—finally found their collective political voice. To their detriment, however, they chose a candidate hostile to their own best economic interests.
The sort of political sleight of hand that bamboozles people into identifying with and supporting leaders whose interests do not coincide with their own is nothing new or unique to the United States. Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1929-1935) offer an influential theoretical explanation of how capitalists exercise cultural hegemony over the masses, deftly convincing them to buy in to their own subjugation. In the Old South, as a spate of recent scholarship has amply demonstrated, slaveholders marked the indisputable capitalist overlords. They held the land, the slaves, the wealth, and the political power. Although Merritt devotes less than 9 percent of Masterless Men’s pages to the subject of electoral politics, she meaningfully contributes to our understanding of how the Old South’s have nots, who greatly outnumbered the haves, still fell victim to the machinations of the numerically inferior slaveholding elite.