Tuesday, November 3, 2020
November 3, 2020: Pivotal Elections: 1860
[To say that the 2020 presidential election will be a pivotal one in American history is to significantly under-state the case. But while in some clear ways this moment feels singular, this is of course far from our only such crucial election. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of others, leading up to a special weekend post on this year’s results.]
On a comparison that has become even more ominous, and what we can learn from it.
Almost exactly seven years ago, in late November 2013, I wrote a post comparing that moment to 1860. I’d still make many of the same points today, so will ask you to read that one if you would and then come back for a couple new paragraphs.
Welcome back! If anything, I’d say this moment feels even more frustratingly and frighteningly akin to 1860 than that one did, not least because the current president is among the worst in our history (I think Trump is significantly worse than James Buchanan, but Buchanan’s a top-five baddie in any case). That means that we’ve spent the last four years watching so many things get worse, seeing the nation move ever closer to what feels terrifying like the genuine possibility of civil conflict: as I draft this post in mid-June, two African American young men have been found lynched in two supposedly separate incidents in California, perhaps the clearest single detail yet that makes me terrified that white supremacist domestic terrorists are actively seeking to incite a race war; I hope that by the time this post airs those fears will seem less founded, but I have no sense of clarity and certainly no real optimism about that, perhaps especially if the November 3rd election results go the way they desperately need to. While the events of 2020 have (again, as of mid-June) made Trump as unpopular as at any point in his presidency, it still feels as if a significant percentage of Americans live in an entirely alternate universe to the one I inhabit (indeed, it feels that way much more overtly than it did in 2013), which I believe is a necessary prerequisite for such civil conflict.
So if Joe Biden wins the 2020 presidential election (which will be unfolding as this piece airs), will the nation descend into a second civil war? Anybody who pretends to be able to predict the future in this moment is a con man or a fool, and I try not be either of those things so I won’t say that I know what’s going to happen, in a such a hypothetical case or in any other. But one important lesson of 1860 is that the Confederate states which seceded after the election did so not because of a divided citizenry or angry armed communities, but rather because their governing bodies voted to do so, drafted statements of secession, and so on (indeed, large cohorts in every Confederate state remained loyal to the Union, and in Virginia such a cohort even formed an entirely new state, West Virginia). Which is to say, resisting a new civil conflict will be at least as much a political as a social process, one that will involve making sure elected officials (even, indeed especially, those fully immersed in the cult of Trump) know that the vast majority of their constituents want the nation to move forward peacefully and productively.
Next election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other pivotal elections you’d highlight?