The Two Americas

I wanted my next post on this blog to be a further examination of the Green New Deal, but… well, that will have to be come later. This is what’s on my mind now.

Recently I read this article by Doug Muder (from 2014, but still highly relevant), Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party.

Then today, I read this Twitter thread by David Roberts, starting here:


…but in which the money quote, I think, is this:


There are two Americas.

One America is — or at least aspires to be — diverse, inclusive, and expansive. It sees a positive strength in being multiethnic, multicultural, multifaith, multigender.

The other America is white, straight, Christian, and male-dominated, and considers those to be core values.

Doug Muder’s article is, I think, important enough that I’m going to quote at some length:

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place.

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

Following Muder, then, I’ll refer to the second America as “Confederate America.”

I don’t have a good pithy term for the first America. “Liberal America” lacks punch and is not entirely accurate, because “liberal” means a lot of things in different contexts. “The Union” doesn’t work because historically the Union side in the Civil War was a patchwork alliance of causes of which Abolitionism was only one; the modern America I’m referring to here is not a descendant of the historical Union in the same way that the modern Confederacy is a direct descendant of the historical Confederacy. “The Real America” begs the question; I know which one I prefer, certainly; but the problem at hand is precisely the fact that which America eventually gets custody of the name is not yet decided.

Perhaps, with a bow to Gene Roddenberry, the best name would be “the American Federation.” Roddenberry’s vision of the Federation, despite the strictures placed on it by 1960s television, embodies much of the inclusiveness we can aspire to.

So: Confederate America vs. the American Federation.

There is a spectrum of people in Confederate America. On one end, you have the ones who wave the actual Confederate flag, paint swastikas on walls, and unabashedly talk about creating a white ethnostate.

But on the other end, you have what we might perhaps call “soft Confederates.” They will tell you, earnestly, that they are not racist; oh, no, not at all. They don’t (they will tell you) consider people of color inferior in any way. But they do want to live in a country where whiteness is normalized. Where “a person” without qualifiers always means “a white person,” and anyone else is always, every time, “a black person” or “an Asian person” or etc. Where when you see a movie or a TV show, nearly all the time the protagonist will be a white man; and if there are people of color they are sidekicks or antagonists. Where products sold as “natural skin tones” are always pinkish-biege. Where a white person can go for days without ever seeing a person of color, or a picture of a person of color; can go days without thinking, “I am a white person,” but a person of color cannot go ten minutes without being confronted with their fundamental otherness.

The hard Confederate wants a country where people of color either do not exist, or if they do, they exist in a position of explicit inferiority. The soft Confederate wants a country where people of color exist, but on the margins, in the minority; always as the exceptional case, never as the normal case… and are happy with this marginal, othered existence, and don’t make a fuss about it; that would be “identity politics.”

Ditto all of the above for LGBTQ people. And for women who do not perform a very specific template of “traditional” femininity.

Neither type of Confederate wants a country where people of color are a majority. Where if you mean “a white person” you have to actually say, “a white person.” Where images of people of color, doing everyday things, are festooned on every billboard and every screen. Where a picture of a board of a major corporation looks weird if it’s all, or even nearly all, white people.

And the American Federation does want that. Remember when somebody tweeted this:


…and there was a huge response of people posting variants of, “Looks awesome!” and it became a meme? That’s the two Americas in a nutshell.

(I should say, by the way, that the two Americas don’t split out neatly as Republican and Democrat. Mostly, yes, but there are a pretty fair number of Democrats who are soft Confederates. This is why POC tend to regard the Democratic party as an uncertain ally at best.)

Why is this important?

It’s important because Confederate America was enraged by the Obama presidency — not only because he was black (although, certainly, that did enrage them) but because under his administration, the American Federation was able to chip ever so slightly away at the dominance and, perhaps even worse, the normalization of straight white Christian men. Confederates saw this as an attack on their core values and on their very identity, and responded with a level of sustained fury not seen since the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties.

It’s important because Confederate America is emboldened under Trump, and is striving as hard as it can to roll back every gain that the American Federation has made. And, crucially, to ensure that every person of color, every queer person, every feminist, every Muslim or Jew or atheist, understands that they are not normal, not welcome, and not safe in Confederate America.

It’s important because of this point that Muder makes:

But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

That worldview is alive and well. During last fall’s [i.e., 2013] government shutdown and threatened debt-ceiling crisis, historian Garry Wills wrote about our present-day Tea Partiers: “The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

(This is why Mitch McConnell can spend eight years under Obama systematically subverting every norm and bending every rule to block Obama’s nominees and legislation — and then, under Trump, do exactly the same thing in reverse — all the while accusing Democrats of partisanship, without showing the slightest sign of being aware of his massive hypocrisy. He probably sleeps like a baby, secure in the knowledge that he is defending the true America.)

It’s important because it highlights the fact that Trump is the symptom, not the disease. Trump will, eventually, one way or another, no longer be President; Confederate America is bigger and older and stronger then any one conman bully braggart, and will be with us until it is defeated. If it is defeated.

And it’s important because, as David Roberts says in his twitter thread, we on the side of the American Federation need to recognize what Confederate America recognized long ago: we are in a war for the heart and soul of this country. We are not two parties who both want the best for our country but have somewhat different ideas about how to get there. We are two fundamentally incompatible visions of what our country should be. There is no “bipartisanship,” no “reaching across the aisle,” no “finding our common ground despite our differences,” no “center of the road” here. In time, there will be only one America; the only question is, which one?

Choose your side.

2 thoughts on “The Two Americas

  1. apollograce

    I really appreciate the clarity of the differences you lay out. But why would we assume that either of these worldviews would ever completely dominate? I can imagine one or the other becoming much more powerful, but I can’t imagine the other ever going away. Won’t there always be confederates lurking in the federation? And should the confederacy rise again, how could the flame of hope for universal human rights ever die out?


  2. Al Petterson

    I feel like, as cogent as this is, there is an aspect it is missing.

    I think that if any conservative that I know reads it, they would not recognize themselves even in the “soft confederate” description.

    That is not to say it is /wrong/, only that I think there is a level of unconscious indirection that this analysis elides.

    On the occasions that I have asked a conservative – a polite, non-angry one – why they would not consider voting for a Democrat, the answers I get are one or more of the following, almost without exception:

    “I cannot vote for someone who supports the right of a mother to murder her child.”
    “I cannot vote for someone who will not support my right to bear arms.”
    “I cannot vote for someone who supports confiscatory tax policies that take from those who earn and give to those who don’t.”

    And if I prod beneath these – especially the first and third – I find beneath them a moral panic that seems to be rooted in a notion of perverse incentive and moral hazard: that liberal policies reward irresponsibility, and punish hard work and success, and that to implement them would produce a nation of citizens who never strive, never work, never accomplish, never maintain moral rectitude.

    Now, it is entirely possible, and I think perhaps likely, that they unconsciously equate this notion of responsibility with their image of a straight white man – provider, builder of civilization, father figure, disciplinarian. And of course their misrepresentation of what liberals actually stand for is rooted in their adherence to bad media and deceptive propaganda.

    But I think we miss something if we ignore the arguments they actually make, including to one another when they don’t think a liberal is listening, and which I think they honestly believe themselves to be their real positions and real convictions.



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