Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦 🇺🇦 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

If Only We Were Nicer

3 Quarks Daily is a good place to visit for online intellectual stimulation. They publish original content on Mondays; the rest of the week they link to articles on “science, arts, philosophy, politics, literature”. Even the (moderated) comments are often worth reading. Unfortunately, somebody at 3 Quarks likes to share articles that purport to explain or address political polarization.

If you’ve visited sites like 3 Quarks or read prestigious publications like The New York Times or The Atlantic, you’ve probably run into Jonathan Haidt. He’s an American social psychologist who writes lots of articles and books like The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The 3 Quarks Daily’s search function turns up almost 60 links to things by him or that mention him (going back to 2004).

There was another one this morning: “The Polarization Spiral” by him and a co-author. The subtitle is: “How the Right’s Monomania and the Left’s Great Awokening Feed Each Other”.

The best way to read this piece — if you’re inclined — is to skip to the end and savor the conclusion:

The polarization spiral, which is fed and accelerated by social media, is making extremists on both right and left more extreme, more powerful, and more intimidating. Both sides feed off of each other. Both sides are essential for a polarization spiral. And that means that neither side can win by attacking or humiliating the other side. Such tactics only serve to energize the other side.

It’s a classic “both sides” analysis. If only those far left extremists on Twitter and Facebook would calm down, stop criticizing well-meaning people so much and in particular stop saying nasty things about right-wingers, we wouldn’t have such polarization in this country. The right wouldn’t care that America is becoming less homogeneous, less patriarchal and less Christian. They wouldn’t feel the need to make minority rule permanent or launch the occasional coup. No more gun worship or right-wing terrorism, no more teenage girls forced to give birth, no more pervasive lies, no more demonization of immigrants from “shithole” countries, no skepticism about the climate crisis. Hell, we could even have universal healthcare!

In other words, there would be much less polarization if only we were less judgmental. You can’t argue with that.

What the Hell Is Their Problem?

I mean, what’s going on with these people?

Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientists, explains the roots of right-wing resentment in America in this interview from The Atlantic:

Starting in 2008, a widely circulated conspiracy theory was that Barack Obama was not actually born in America…. Proof of this theory was never a requirement for subscribing to it; you could simply choose to believe that a Black liberal with a Muslim-sounding middle name was not one of us….

The country has not changed much…. Now, as then, you can take the right’s scramble for evidence of fraud with a grain of salt, she told me. The election deniers who say they are perturbed by late-night ballot dumps or dead people voting are actually concerned with something else.

“‘Stop the Steal’ is a metaphor,” Skocpol said, “for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone.” More than a decade later, evidence remains secondary when what you’re really doing is questioning whose vote counts—and who counts as an American…..

Elaine Godfrey: Tell me what connection you see between the Tea Party movement that you studied and the T____-inspired Stop the Steal effort.

Theda Skocpol: There’s a definite line. Opinion polls tell us that people who participated in or sympathized with the Tea Party … were disproportionately angry about immigration and the loss of America as they know it. They became core supporters of T____. I’m quite certain that some organizations that were Tea Party–labeled helped organize Stop the Steal stuff.

T____ has expanded the appeal of an angry, resentful ethno-nationalist politics to younger whites. But it’s the same outlook.

Godfrey: So how do you interpret the broader Stop the Steal movement?

Skocpol: I don’t think Stop the Steal is about ballots at all. I don’t believe a lot of people really think that the votes weren’t counted correctly in 2020. They believe that urban people, metropolitan people—disproportionately young and minorities, to be sure, but frankly liberal whites—are an illegitimate brew that’s changing America in unrecognizable ways and taking it away from them. Stop the Steal is a way of saying that. Stop the Steal is a metaphor. And remember, they declared voting fraud before the election.

Godfrey: A metaphor?

Skocpol: It’s a metaphor for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone. [Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate] Doug Mastriano said it in so many words: It’s a Christian country. That doesn’t mean we’ll throw out everybody else, but they’ve got to accept that we’re the ones setting the tone. That’s what Hungary has in mind. Viktor Orbán has been going a little further. They’re a more muscular and violence-prone version of the same thing.

People [in Wisconsin] in 2016 who were otherwise quite normal would say, There’s something wrong with those votes from Milwaukee and Madison. I’d push back ever so gently and say, Those are big places; it takes a while to count the votes. I’d get a glassy-eyed stare at that point: No, something fishy is going on.

They feel disconnected from and dominated by people who have done something horrible to the country. And T____ gave voice to that. He’s a perfect resonant instrument for that—because he’s a bundle of narcissistic resentments. But he’s no longer necessary.

Godfrey: Elaborate on that for me.

Skocpol: He’s not necessary for an authoritarian movement to use the [Republicans] to lock in minority rule. The movement to manipulate election access and counting is so far along. I think it’s too late, and we’re vulnerable to it because of how we administer local elections.

What’s happened involves an interlocking set of things. It depends not just on candidates like T____ running for president and nationalizing popular fears and resentments, but also on state legislatures, which have been captured, and the Supreme Court. The Court is a keystone in all of this because it’s going to validate … manipulations that really are about locking in minority rule. In that sense, the turning point in American history may have happened in November 2016.

Godfrey: The turning point toward what?

Skocpol: Toward a locking-in of minority rule along ethno-nationalist lines. The objective is to disenfranchise metro people, period. I see a real chance of a long-term federal takeover by forces that are determined to maintain a fiction of a white, Christian, T____pist version of America.

That can’t work over the long run, because the fastest-growing parts of the country are demonized in that scheme of things. But a lot of things liberals do play into it: Democrats are the party of strong government, and they’re almost as fixated on the presidency as T____ists are…. The hour is late. This election this fall is critical.

Godfrey: Why so?

Skocpol: We’ve got about five pivotal states where election deniers—the culmination of the Tea Party–T____pist strand of the [Republican Party]—are close to gaining control of the levers of voting access and counting the results. If that happens, in even two of those places, it could well be enough. The way courts are operating now, they will not place limits on much of anything that happens in the states.

Godfrey: So what would you say is on the ballot in 2022?

Skocpol: The locking-in of minority authoritarian rule.

People talk about it in racial terms, and of course the racial side is very powerful. We had racial change from the 1960s on, and conservative people are angry about Black political power. But I wouldn’t underestimate the gender anger that’s channeled here: Relations between men and women have changed in ways that are very unsettling to them…..

This is directed at liberal whites, too. Tea Partiers talked about white people in college towns who voted Democratic the way the rulers of Iran would speak of Muslims that are liberal—as the near-devil.

Godfrey: What are the roots of that resentment?

Skocpol: The suspicion of cities and metro areas is a deep strand in America. In this period, it’s been deliberately stoked and exploited by people trying to limit the power of the federal government. They can build on the fears that conservatives have—about how their children leave for college and come back thinking differently. As soon as you get away from the places where upper-middle-class professionals are concentrated, what you see is decay. People see that. They’re resentful of it.

Anti-immigrant politics is very much at the core of this. Every time in the history of the U.S., when you reach the end of a period of immigration, you get a nativist reaction. When the newcomers come, they’re going to destroy the country. That’s an old theme in this country.

Godfrey: The 2016 election was surrounded by a lot of discussion about whether T____’s supporters were motivated by racism or economic anxiety. What’s your view on that?

Skocpol: That whole debate tends to be conducted with opinion polls. I’m in a minority, but I don’t find them very helpful for understanding American politics…. In American politics, everything is about the where.

If you drive into a place in Iowa or Nebraska where immigration is happening, it’s changed the shops downtown, it’s changed the language, it’s changed the churches, it’s changed the schools. And people’s jobs have changed—so it’s also about economics. In our 2011 interviews, Tea Party members were angry about immigrants. I’m not saying everybody in those communities is angry at newcomers, but it creates tensions that rabble-rousing politicians can take advantage of.

We know that T____ supporters, Stop the Steal supporters, are much more likely than other Republicans and conservatives to resent immigrants and fear them. In my 2017–2019 period of research, I visited eight pro-T____ counties. Tea Party types were just furious about immigrants. T____’s emphasis on immigration interjected the idea that the debate is about what the nature of America is.

T____ism is nativism. It’s also profoundly resentful of independent women, and it’s resentful of Black people whom it considers out of place politically. T____channeled that and fused it into one big, angry brew.

Godfrey: How organic have these movements been? At a certain point, we heard a lot about how the Tea Party movement became a Koch-funded operation, not a true grassroots movement.

Skocpol: The Tea Party was not created by the Koch brothers; it was taken advantage of by the Kochs. But the Kochs were not anti-immigrant. The Tea Partiers really were. The Kochs didn’t control the results. The Kochs didn’t select D____ T____. They didn’t even like him. Marco Rubio was their guy. The Chamber of Commerce crowd wanted a Bush. Both were easily dispatched by T____.

Republican leaders could have done something—and they still could. The real story is about Republican Party elites and their willingness to go along with what they’ve always known was over the top. That’s a mystery that’s a little hard to completely solve. A lot of the opportunists think they can ride that tiger without it devouring them, even though sometimes it does. But nobody seems to learn…..

Flooding the Zone with Bullshit

All politicians lie. So do the rest of us. What separates our two main political parties is that only one of them lies a lot. It’s part of their modus operandi. You won’t find Republicans admitting it’s their guiding strategy, but at least one did. From VOX:

We’re in an age of manufactured nihilism…..I call this “manufactured” because it’s the consequence of a deliberate strategy. It was distilled almost perfectly by Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and chief strategist for D____ T____. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon reportedly said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

What we’re facing is a new form of propaganda that wasn’t really possible until the digital age. And it works not by creating a consensus around any particular narrative but by muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable.

My theory is that Republicans lie so much for two reasons. Big elements of their policy agenda — like low taxes on the rich and cutting Social Security and Medicare — aren’t popular, so it helps to avoid the truth. It’s also the easiest way to stop Democrats from getting anything done. Democrats tend to think government can make people’s lives better. Republicans tend to disagree. Republican icon Ronald Reagan once said the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. No Democrat would ever say that. The result is that some people, helped along by Fox News, Facebook, etc., believe the lies and others don’t know what to believe.

We’re witnessing an example of Republican lies and obfuscation right now. So far, the Lord of Mar-a-Lago and his supporters have suggested that Biden personally ordered the FBI search of the premises; that T____ had a perfect right to take those highly sensitive documents to Florida and not return them when the government wanted them back; that he needed them for his work; that he didn’t take them, the FBI agents planted them there during the “search”; that T____ could have declassified all those documents; yet there was an informal standing order that any document taken from the White House was automatically declassified (although nobody in the White House followed up on that informality and it would be irrelevant even if it were true, since the laws in question don’t say anything about whether documents are classified); and one of the latest: the White House staff didn’t pack them up, it was the General Services Administration, so I guess it was their fault the stuff went to Mar-a-Lago and were never returned.

Flooding the zone with bullshit.

Here are two other recent examples that got me thinking about this. The first pertains to the mysterious Mar-a-Lago documents. From The Washington Post:

When it comes to the sheer embrace of innuendo and a concerted lack of logical consistency, it’s difficult to top the latest entry….. In recent days, D____ T____ and conservative media have debuted a new whataboutism defense: What about Obama?

Several Fox News shows on Wednesday picked up on a New York Post column that noted Barack Obama at the end of his presidency had 30 million records shipped to Chicago for his presidential library. “They shipped 30 million pages of sensitive and possibly classified materials to Chicago, and, by the way, he has yet to return any of it to the National Archives. Not one page,” Fox host Sean Hannity intoned. “So is his house about to get raided?”

Former T____ campaign legal adviser Harmeet Dhillon added: “Are there SWAT teams descending on Chicago to get those documents? No. And so the double standard and triple standard here is very apparent”….

But there’s no evidence Obama has hidden anything from the Archives or that he didn’t go through the processes required to share and protect those documents once they left Washington.

And on Friday, after T____ raised the issue again, the Archives sought to put an end to the charade. It issued a statement outlining these facts and assuring that it has custody of classified documents:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama Presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA). NARA moved approximately 30 million pages of unclassified records to a NARA facility in the Chicago area where they are maintained exclusively by NARA. Additionally, NARA maintains the classified Obama Presidential records in a NARA facility in the Washington, DC, area. As required by the PRA, former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the Presidential records of his Administration.

In other words, there’s no parallel.

And from the Crooked Media newsletter, one more:

Two days ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted “Do you make $75,000 or less? Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you—with 710,000 new audits for Americans who earn less than $75k.” He was parroting talking points from basically every conservative politician and commentator that the Inflation Reduction Act’s $80 billion appropriation for the Internal Revenue Service means more taxes and more audits for middle-class Americans.

And it’s just not fucking true. The 87,000 agents figure was plucked from a Treasury report from May 2021, not even used in the Inflation Reduction Act. The facts are these: the IRS has been systematically defunded for decades, and total staff is currently equal to what it was during World War II, when the U.S. population was less than half what it is now. Much of the funding will go towards rehiring due to the fact that over half(!) the current IRS staff is eligible for retirement in the next five years.

Onto the audits: IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who was appointed by D____ T____, said in an August 4 letter to lawmakers that after the bill was approved, “audit scrutiny” would not be raised on small businesses or middle-income Americans. Rettig, I repeat: a T____ appointee, said, “The proposal would direct that additional resources go toward enforcement against those with the highest incomes, rather than Americans with actual income of less than $400,000.” Which is, you know, exactly what Democrats have been saying this whole time…..

Wealthy Republican lawmakers and pundits have a vested interest in killing any tax bill that targets them, and they use this same playbook of spuriously insisting that the middle class will suffer every time.

The War Between the States Continues in November

Today’s first post dealt with the prelude to the Civil War. This one deals with the Civil War’s unresolved division. From Mark Danner for The New York Review of Books:

Amid the blaring, pulsating hype of American culture, every election is routinely proclaimed the most important in our lifetime. Now the flood of heart-stopping news this summer—the Uvalde school massacre, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the January 6 revelations—has brought us face to face with an exceptional problem: What if this one really is? What if this time, like the boy who cried wolf, we find ourselves screaming that the emergency is real—and no one pays attention?

The 2022 election will be the first held in the shadow of an attempted coup d’étata nearly successful and still-unpunished crime against the state. It will be the first held after a Supreme Court decision that not only uprooted a half-century-old established right but that threatens the rescinding of other rights as well. And it will be the first in which it is clear that, from Republican legislators’ relentless efforts to change who counts the votes, the very character of American governance is on the ballot.

American voters have not confronted so grave a choice since 1860. Now as then, two dramatically different futures are on offer. By undermining the right to privacy, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision not only allows government to force women to carry pregnancies to term—as more than half the states will likely soon do—but foreshadows a country in which a state or the federal government can deny people contraception or indeed the right to love or marry whom they choose. By limiting the regulation of firearms, the Bruen decision ensures that increasing numbers of Americans, including children in classrooms, worshipers in churches, and marchers on the Fourth of July, will die in shootings. By calling into question how votes are counted—or whether they should matter at all—the January 6 coup and the persistent “Big Lie” behind it augur a country where the candidate fewer Americans voted for not only can become president (as he did in 2000 and 2016) but can be awarded the electoral votes of a state not as the choice of its people but as a diktat of its legislature.

This America of the future will be an ever more authoritarian place where government maintains the right to intervene in personal decisions, even the most intimate—except when it comes to firearms, in which case anyone, young or old, sane or unbalanced, can go about as heavily armed as a combat soldier. The coming election can either accelerate the country’s move toward this kind of authoritarianism or begin to slow it down. If any election cried out to be nationalized—to be fought not only on the kitchen-table issues of inflation and unemployment but on the defining principles of what the country is and what it should be—it is this November’s.

It is no accident that the last time an election was fought this way was also the last time the party holding the White House gained congressional seats in the midterms. Following the September 11 attacks George W. Bush’s Republicans made ruthless use of nationalism and, above all, fear. “Americans trust the Republicans,” Karl Rove told his colleagues, to keep “our families safe.” Though terrorists had killed thousands of Americans on their watch, the Republicans turned around and denounced Democrats as soft on terror. To vote for Democrats—even for heroic veterans like Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who had lost three limbs in Vietnam—was to vote for Osama bin Laden. The argument was shameless, savage, deeply unfair. It was anything but subtle. And it worked.

Two decades later the United States is again at risk, not from foreign terrorists but from domestic extremists who are working to insert government power between Americans and their most private decisions and who would fundamentally alter the way they choose their leaders. Justice Clarence Thomas in his Dobbs concurrence was forthright enough to state the implications of that decision for the right to contraception, same-sex relations, and marriage equality. The January 6 committee in its well-orchestrated hearings has begun to bring home to Americans the danger posed by the Big Lie for the next presidential election. Still, despite these clear signs of a darker future, for many voters the danger remains unfocused and distant.

Under the threat of this darkness, Democrats have a duty to make crystal clear to voters what is at stake in November. In midterm elections especially, Americans must be given a persuasive reason to vote—a task that is much harder for a party that won the White House only two years before. This year voters are apprehensive about inflation and other lingering effects of the pandemic and demoralized that Democrats, with their narrow majorities, have failed to achieve much of what they promised.

But the January 6 committee, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the Uvalde school shooting have put stark and frightening issues prominently before the public, and if presented clearly and persistently they have a strong potential to drive voters to the polls—especially younger voters, who were so vital to the Democrats’ midterm gains in 2018, and who now, after Democrats failed to pass their climate agenda, desperately need a reason to turn out. This election must be about safeguarding the country they know and the freedoms and rights they cherish. Democrats from President Biden on down need to present these issues clearly and unapologetically:

If you don’t want a government that can force you to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term—vote!

If you don’t want a government that can deny you contraceptives—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that can tell you with whom you can make love and whom you can marry—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that will do nothing to protect your child from a troubled teenager with an assault rifle—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that can ignore the people’s voice at the polling place—vote!!

If you don’t want a government that will do nothing about rising temperatures and the danger they pose to all of us—vote!

. . . During the past months the specter of an increasingly autocratic America has raised its head. Voters who cast their ballots for Democrats must be in no doubt about what they are voting for: the freedom to love and marry whom they wish, the freedom to decide when they want to bear children and to keep those children safe from gun violence—and the certainty that they will go on having a real voice in choosing who leads them. They must be reminded that these rights and freedoms are at risk, that a very different future looms. The most important election of our lifetime is coming. The emergency is upon us. If we are truly to meet it, we must first make bold to say so.

The War Between the States, Then and Now

In the final paragraphs of Heirs of the Founders, H. W. Brands summarizes the critical years that preceded the Civil War and reminds us — as if we need reminding — of the deep division that remains:

The deaths of Calhoun, Clay and Webster appeared less uncannily timed than the same-day deaths of Jefferson and Adams on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could match that earlier coincidence. But if the passing of the two founders in 1826 had symbolized the end of the first generation of America’s nationhood, the demise of the three senators amid the controversy surrounding the Compromise of 1850 marked the end of the second.

The founders had won freedom for America and created the Union of the states; their heirs had confirmed freedom and guided the Union through four decades of crisis. Neither group felt that its task was complete; American self-government was always a work in progress. Jefferson had shuddered at what the fight over the Missouri Compromise portended; Clay, Calhoun and Webster understood that the Compromise of 1850 might purchase time but guaranteed no final resolution of the struggle between the sections.

In their deaths the country honored the three as it had not always done in their lives. Henry Clay became the first American to lie in state in the Capitol; his funeral train took the long way to Lexington, looping north to Philadelphia and New York before turning west. Hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the route and paid their respects as the black-veiled car rolled by. …

The honors accorded John Calhoun were fittingly sectional. His remains were carried to Richmond; thousands journeyed to the Virginia capitol to pay their respects. Another train took him to Charleston, where thousands more viewed the casket in the city hall. He was interred in a churchyard not far from the harbor.

Daniel Webster, having died in his home, was buried there and required no transport. But half of Massachusetts, it seemed, clogged the railways and roads to Marshfield to acknowledge their debt to the state’s most famous adopted son.…

Americans felt great loss in the aftermath of the three deaths, but the nation required several years to determine just what the loss entailed. The Whig party fell to pieces, deprived of the leadership of Clay and Webster. A successor coalition, taking the name of Jefferson’s party, organized Northern Whigs and free-soil Democrats into a new Republican party, which was explicitly antislavery and effectively anti-Southern. The ghost of Henry Clay shook his head in sorrow, while John Calhoun’s specter nodded grimly at this fulfillment of his prophecy of escalation against the South.

The sectional contest took a bloody turn after Stephen Douglas pushed a bill through Congress repealing the Missouri Compromise, the more swiftly to settle Kansas and Nebraska. John Calhoun’s shade again nodded, this time in approval. Slaveholders poured into Kansas from neighboring Missouri; antislavery activists rushed to counter them. The result was an irregular war between zealots of the two sides. Among the antislavery militants was the charismatically monomaniacal John Brown, who led a band of followers in a brutal murder of several pro-slavery settlers.

While Kansas bled, the federal courts heard a case involving a slave named Dred Scott. The eventual verdict by the Supreme Court confirmed John Calhoun’s judgment that slaveholders could not be barred from taking their slaves into the federal territories. The Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional all along.

The South celebrated; many in the North despaired. But the South was the side despairing after John Brown and a larger band of antislavery militants staged a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the aim of inciting a slave rebellion. The mission failed; the rebellion never materialized. Brown was captured, tried and executed. Yet in much of the North he was treated as a martyr, one who did what other abolitionists simply talked about. The South was aghast: a murderer made into a saint? Never had the gulf between North and South yawned wider.

Within weeks of the tenth anniversary of the Compromise of 1850, Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a Republican ticket and a Republican platform. Lincoln received not a single electoral vote from a Southern state. Southerners interpreted the outcome as proof that the federal government was irretrievably in hostile hands. South Carolina finally made good on John Calhoun’s repeated threats to secede. Six other slave states followed. When Lincoln resisted secession and attempted to resupply Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor, the Civil War began—within rifle shot of Calhoun’s grave.

In battling the legacy of Calhoun, Lincoln looked to Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky while Clay was launching his career; he took notes on Clay’s climb to national prominence as he himself calculated how to advance in the political world. Lincoln called Clay “my beau-ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.” When Lincoln learned, in Springfield, Illinois, that Clay had died, he organized a memorial for his hero and insisted on giving the eulogy. “Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty, a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere and an ardent wish for their elevation,” Lincoln said.

To be sure, Clay had countenanced slavery. “Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive … how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.” Yet Clay’s tolerance was nothing more than a temporary nod to reality. “He was ever, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery.” Lincoln accepted Clay’s pragmatic belief that progress came in steps. And he endorsed unreservedly Clay’s central conviction that the Union was the prerequisite of all that America had done and could do on behalf of liberty.

Lincoln didn’t know, as he concluded his eulogy for Clay, how aptly his prayer for Clay would become a prayer for himself. “Henry Clay is dead,” Lincoln said. “His long and eventful life is closed. Our country is prosperous and powerful. But could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God, was given us….”

Where Henry Clay furnished Lincoln the philosophy of democratic politics, Daniel Webster gave him the words…. He edited Webster’s formulation of democracy—“the people’s government; made for the people; made by the people; and answerable to the people”—into “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” And when, in the same Gettysburg address, Lincoln tied the fate of liberty, by then including freedom for the slaves, to that of the Union, he echoed Webster’s ringing affirmation: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”

The equation of liberty and the Union was the central article of faith of Webster and Clay, and of Lincoln. It was what separated them from John Calhoun, who perceived liberty—for the states, and specifically for slaveholders in the Southern states—as increasingly threatened by the Union. Liberty and Union, said Clay and Webster. Liberty or Union, said Calhoun.

This was what the struggle came down to during the lives of the three. And it was the heart of the struggle they bequeathed to the next generation of Americans. Lincoln and the Union army, at great cost, assured the triumph of Clay and Webster over Calhoun and the Confederacy.

Yet the struggle persisted. Slavery was its most salient aspect at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, but the contest between the states and the national government had hinged on other issues at other times: freedom of speech in 1798, war powers in 1814, the tariff in 1833. So it wasn’t surprising that the struggle outlived slavery. Clay and Webster, with Lincoln’s help, won the argument that the Union must be unbroken, but Calhoun’s insistence on the need for balance between the states and the nation found adherents on matters that ranged, during the next several generations, from civil rights and business regulation to school funding and the environment.

The struggle originated with the founders. It continued with their heirs. It is with us still.

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