Wednesday, January 30, 2013

American Politics, Set Against an English Backdrop

Watching American news networks, listening to Americans comment on the political gridlock in Washington or the cultural divisions that threaten to tear a nation apart, you would think things were better in the past. Why can't the Democrats and Republican get along? Why can't we all just behave like adults? This hysteria-inducing short-sightedness, as seen from the 'privileged' Canadian perch I occupy, prompts no small amount of eye-rolling, or, alternatively, head-shaking.

Most Americans, no doubt, will see the contemporary impasse as precisely that: a contemporary impasse. Very few will dig around and question possible historical antecedents.

In very general terms, for example, blue states and red states divide geographically between, on the one side, the Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions and the more north-east, and on the other, the mid-western and the south-eastern quadrants of the continental United States. Blue states tend to be more urban and industrial, while red states tend to be more rural and agricultural. These are broad tendencies, and don't match every particular county or city. But the evidence is there for all to see on electoral maps.

Now let's go looking for antecedents. Surprise, surprise; there is very little new about the present situation.

Take the identifiers of urban/industrial and rural/agricultural. In very general terms, the same division can be found between the largely Democratic and Confederate Southern States and the Republican Northern States during the American Civil War. (Recall here voting constituencies flip-flopped early in the 20th century.) And once more, the same division can be found in the American Revolution between a more urban and commercial New England, where the Revolution originates, and a more rural collection of Southern States whose economy was largely built on plantation exports.

I suspect most American historians stop here would be inclined to stop here. There is, however, one more antecedent that deserves mentioning, because it illuminates English involvement in both the Revolution and Civil War. This would be the English Civil Wars, three in total, extending from 1642-51, which are prefaces to Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth and Protectorate (1649-59) and later also the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The same urban/commercial and rural/agricultural interests are at odds between parliament and landed nobility through the 17th century, and the conflict between these parties act as a restraining influence on British involvement in the Americas during both the Revolution and the Civil War.

What's especially interesting, if you follow this Anglo-American narrative through to its conclusion, is that two different models of government are at war with each other--figuratively speaking. A participatory parliamentarian model favoured by urban interests and a paternal model favoured by landed and rural nobility. Today these models would seem to correspond, at least on paper and in public rhetoric, to the social program-loving Democrats and the corporate money-loving Republicans.

What's curious, particularly for me as a student of religious history, is that these two forms of government mimic models of church government: an elected delegation in a participatory Presbyterian (Calvinist) model versus a hierarchical order in a paternalistic Roman Catholic model. It seems Henry VIII's Acts of Supremacy, making himself head of the English Church, may still have relevance today, as it provides a clear signal setting the cultural dialectic into historical motion.

The perplexing question that arises has to do with why, when Presbyterians consistently represented the urban/commercial or urban/industrial interests down through the 19th century, their successors, particularly among white Evangelical Protestants, seem to have aligned themselves with their old rivals.

Otherwise put: Why has 'religious' politics become more paternal, more about putting 'godly leaders' into office in Washington, more about the moral struggle for the cultural 'soul' of America, and much less concerned with participatory motifs like equal oppourtunity for all guaranteed by the rule of law?

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