Monday, December 2, 2013

Irrepressible Conflict, Redux?

Americans have been complaining—impotently—about the “gridlock” and polarization gripping Washington for the past decade or more.  This is reflected in the steep decline in so-called “purple” states where the two major parties are more or less competitive. In the meantime, the number of independent voters has grown to unprecedented proportions.

The Democrats’ decision to implement Obamacare without a single Republican vote is a key driver in the escalation of the partisan war.  This has resulted in arbitrary and unlawful delays in implementation, and on November 21 the Democrats, again without a single Republican vote, changed the Senate rules governing the rights of the minority by terminating the right to filibuster judicial deliberations.

Are these just typical political bumps and bruises, or is there something much more fundamental and ominous brewing?  We can look to our own American history for some clues
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Monday, April 30, 1860, dawned breezy and cloudless in Charleston, South Carolina.  Delegates to the Democratic national convention gathered again at the Institute Hall, having experienced a long and boisterous week since the meeting had first been gaveled to order.

Delegates supporting the presidential candidacy of Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois were pushing for adoption of a platform plank that would—once again—paper over the divide between north and south on the slavery issue.  Those opposing Douglas, although in the minority, had already decided to force the matter.  They were supporting a platform plank that positively affirmed that neither Congress nor any territorial legislature had the authority to prohibit slavery in the western territories.

This was not only a slap at Douglas and his popular sovereignty doctrine established in the Kansas-Nebraska Act six years earlier, it was a direct challenge to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party which came into existence in large part because of northern opposition to the extension of slavery.

The southern faction was led by such “fire eaters” as William L. Yancey of Alabama and political connivers like James Slidell of Louisiana.  These men and their caucus had already decided to trigger the nuclear option and cause a split in the Democratic Party that would lead to both election of a Republican president and secession of the slave states from the union.