The late historian Shelby Foote made two significant points during his opening comments in Ken Burns’ documentary "The Civil War." Foote said the war, itself, defined who we are as a nation and the decades leading up to the war illustrated how we lost or forgot how to practice the most unique and important aspect of our form of government: compromise. By entrenching political and economic positions in intransigency, we created the atmosphere for the country’s greatest bloodbath.
What began as an argument about states’ rights evolved into a war over the moral horror show called slavery. The real issues were economic. The South, primarily an agrarian society and culture, was run by relatively few very wealthy landowners who owned more than 90 percent of the slave population. The vast majority of Southern whites owned no slaves. When moderates tried to limit the economic spread of slavery to new territories, the entrenched Southern aristocrats fought it.
As I watched the documentary, I was reminded that hateful rhetoric directed at politicians is nothing new. President Abraham Lincoln was called “baboon” and “gorilla.” Why? Because he advocated limiting slavery; he did not advocate abolishing it in his campaign or the first years of his presidency. That came after the South showed they were adamant against reforming the union. It wasn’t until Jan. 1, 1863, that the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
Few will argue the decades leading up to 1861 weren’t the darkest and most divisive in our political history. Intransigence, not compromise, was the order of the day, and the nation split as a result. Our greatest political invention, compromise, was replaced with rancor and war replaced civilized resolution.
This might sound familiar because we seem to be in the midst of a similar atmosphere today. The parallels are too obvious to ignore, but we’d better pay attention to fixing them before they once again get out of hand.
With the entry into our political arena of scorched-earth operatives such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist, the art of compromise is replaced with ideological certainty, which does nothing but enflame emotions. Compromise, in this environment, is a sign of weakness. Pledges are forced on politicians to ensure funding from political machinery.
Perhaps worst of all is the blatant name-calling and hostility directed at the president. Bill Clinton received a flood of invective the minute his hand came off the Bible. Barack Obama has stimulated an unprecedented avalanche of hatred from the moment he announced his candidacy. New code words like multiculturalism arose to mask the true intent and meaning of those darts.
When the minority mouth of the Senate says his No. 1 priority is to oust the president, compromise is the victim. Nothing is clearer. The machine of conservatism and compromise has been replaced by the lesser devices of fear, hate, greed, prejudice and power.
Turner is a retired teacher and industrial engineer who lives near Marble Falls. He is an independent columnist, not a staff member, and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Tribune or its parent company. His books are available on Amazon.com: "Killing the Dream: America’s Flirtation With Third World Status" and "A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools." He can be reached by email at email@example.com.