The situation was intense. The conservative party in America, its base strongest in the South, had recently suffered a devastating electoral defeat in which a progressive lawyer from Illinois won the presidency along mostly sectional lines. In response to the electoral rebuke of their policies, the conservative party decided that rather than accept the outcome of the election, they would instead try to prevent the victorious party from governing by denying their very political legitimacy. The conservative party, therefore, waged war against democracy itself. This description could easily refer to the 2013 showdown in Washington over Obamacare, in which the House Republican caucus, its base largely confined to the South, demanded that President Barack Obama defund his health care reform law or else they would shut down the government. In fact, however, I was referring to the election of 1860, in which conservative southern Democrats decided that the South would reject the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln and secede from the Union.
The two situations share uncanny similarities, particularly the attempt by conservatives to deny the political legitimacy of their opponent. In 2013, the idea that a reelected president would cave to the insane demands of a right-wing congressional minority might seem ludicrous, but the Republican Party wasn’t dealing in policy here; they engaged in something far more destructive. Like the secessionist Democrats of 1860-61, the conservative Republicans in the House tested just how far they could get away with denying the Democratic Party’s right to govern.
In a piece for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait described the debt ceiling showdown as “a Constitutional struggle” that posed “the most singular threat” to Obama’s presidency. Central to this reasoning was that the American Right was emboldened, not chastised, by the president’s reelection. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), for example, was perfectly candid about his party’s motives: “The reason this debt limit fight is different is, we don’t have an election around the corner where we feel we are going to win and fix it ourselves. We are stuck with this government another three years.” This statement revealed how a conservative political party soundly defeated at the polls was nonetheless determined to implement its agenda.
Paul Ryan’s confession was brazen, but not surprising. Recent political commentators’ observations that conservatives like Ryan were ideologically radical are precisely on target. As political scientist Corey Robin notes, radicalism is a central feature of conservatism, which he characterizes as “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Thus, in defending traditional hierarchies, “the conservative invariably launches a counterrevolution, often requiring an overhaul of the very regime he is defending,” that “requires the most radical measures on the regime’s behalf.” Conservatives fight most fiercely when their power is threatened by movements seeking to empower the lower orders, either by emancipating slaves or by implanting universal health care in the 21st century.
This preference for purity of ideology in the name of preserving existing hierarchical structures defines the modern conservatism that dates back to the reaction against the French Revolution, and helps explain the striking parallels between the government shutdown of 2013 and the secession crisis of 1860-61. In both instances, a conservative party, divided amongst itself, but nonetheless afraid of losing its grip on national power, used radical measures to prevent its liberal opposition from governing, despite that opposition’s victory in democratic elections.
Take the issue of party division during the shutdown: contemporary political commentators noted that the fight over Obamacare spurred a Republican Party inner civil war in which House conservatives found themselves at odds with their Senate colleagues and even their former presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
Similar party divisions over how to preserve slavery against the northern-based Republicans split the Democratic Party into three factions during the 1860 election, pitting Abraham Lincoln against three Democratic challengers. The slave-heavy Deep South supported pro-slavery, states’ rights candidate John Breckinridge; Border South moderates favored the “Constitutional Union Party” candidate, John Bell and his pro-Union platform; and Stephen Douglas, of “popular sovereignty” fame, represented the last hope of the pro-Union northern Democratic Party. All factions wanted to preserve slavery, but were divided over how to do so.
Southern support for the states’ rights Breckinridge faction quickly morphed into support for secession. By forming the Confederate States of America, southern conservative Democrats rejected the results of a fair national election and denied Abraham Lincoln’s political legitimacy as president. Similarly, in 2013, the largely southern-dominated conservative Republicans rejected the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s reelection, and, by extension, the legitimacy of Obamacare. When the traditional political routes failed, the House GOP took the country hostage by pulling a page from the 1860-61 southern secessionists’ playbook: just as the secessionists threatened to tear the country apart when they lost an election, the House GOP shut down the government in a last-ditch effort to destroy Obamacare. In so doing, they followed the advice of conservative ideologues, like anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, who famously stated that Republicans’ strategy in the face of a Democratic president should be to “make it so that a Democrat cannot govern as a Democrat.”
Thus, while contemporary conservatives are not advocating secession, they are advocating the essence of secession: the idea that when a political party is defeated at the polls, it can still damage the democratic process in the name of implementing its agenda. The historical ironies are so deep that we just might drown in them. The events of 1860-61 and 2013 prove that, even in the world’s allegedly greatest democracy, the democratic process can’t be taken for granted. These events should also give pause those who maintain that conservatism, as a reactionary movement, can’t be radical. In their effort to save the burning house from the flames of change, conservatives have historically been willing to burn the house down. Contemporary conservatives showed no signs of bucking this trend as they circled the U.S. House carrying torches and kerosene.