Self-Inflicted Wounds

Believe it or not, bipartisanship and political partnership are possible.  For significant periods in US history, the two dominant parties have shared core beliefs or opted for cooperation rather than conflict.  In the antebellum era, Whigs and Democrats agreed on the sanctity of slavery; at the turn of the twentieth century, Progressivism found a home in both Republican and Democratic ranks; and in the post-World War II period, a “Cold War consensus” prevailed.

The rare moments of extreme partisanship, national polarization, and political crisis are often caused, at least in part, by deliberate decisions by party leaders.  Hateful rhetoric, malicious falsehoods, and rigid ideological requirements are not accidental, but conscious choices made by office-seekers and wire-pullers.  Both parties have engaged in these tactics, but at the present it is Republicans who are charting the course of calamity by silencing their moderate members.

Since Donald Trump assumed leadership of the Republican Party in 2016, he and his militantly conservative supporters labored to purge the organization of moderates or anyone who dared challenge the Trump cult of personality.  At all levels of the party hierarchy, Republicans willing to work or negotiate with Democrats were expelled, silenced, or punished.  The most famous victim of this ideological bloodletting is US Representative Liz Cheney (WY), who, in May 2021, was removed from her leadership position in the party conference.  Her ouster was retribution for speaking critically about President Trump and his alleged role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol Building.[1]        

The consequences of such a partisan purge are immediate and severe.  Without moderates like Liz Cheney, the Republican Party will be largely free from internal dissent, and thus will veer farther to the right and pursue a more extreme agenda – an agenda rejected by the vast majority of Americans and not subject to debate or dissection.  170 years earlier, Democrats did exactly the same thing.  In the short term, it split their party; in the long term, it nearly destroyed the Union.  Any political association hoping to forge a majority coalition and win elections through popularity rather than chicanery should study the past and learn the lessons of the early Democratic Party.

In the antebellum era, the Democratic Party was the conservative partisan vehicle, defending white supremacy, maintaining the reign of elite Southern enslavers, and quashing all reforms, including much-needed infrastructure improvements.  Central to the Democratic agenda was the expansion of slavery and the forging of a vast hemispheric pro-slavery empire.  By the 1840s, however, opposition to the spread of slavery had grown dramatically in the free states.  Democrats in the North began to feel pressure from their constituents to halt the march of the enslavers and challenge King Cotton.    

Despite growing opposition from Northern Democrats, the Southern party bosses pursued their aggressive pro-slavery plans.  In the 1830s and 40s, they waged war on Indigenous Americans to remove them from fertile cotton lands, passed Congressional “gag rules” to prevent any discussion of the “peculiar institution,” and aided the pro-slavery Texas Revolution.  In late 1845, enslaver grandees launched an invasion of Mexico.  Anti-slavery Northerners, including several Democratic office-holders, balked at the blatant grab for more slavery territory.  Led by Pennsylvanian David Wilmot, Northern Democratic moderates made a stand in August 1846, adding a “proviso” to a war appropriations bill stipulating that slavery would not be permitted in any territory stolen from Mexico.  Since spreading slavery was the entire point of the war, party leaders were incensed.  The motion was defeated.  Nevertheless, the damage had been done: a dramatic split occurred in Democratic ranks. 

In the 1848 state and national elections, moderate Northern Democrats who opposed the expansion of slavery (like Wilmot) ran on the new Free Soil Party ticket.  The rupture proved fatal.  Both the Democratic and Free Soil presidential candidates went down to defeat and the Whigs (who had no formal position slavery’s expansion) took the White House.

Needless to say, Democratic bosses wanted blood.  Over the course of the next four years, they expunged any anti-slavery sentiment from their ranks, either by outright expulsion of intransigent Northerners or forcing them into submission through party discipline.  Votes on the infamous Appeasement of 1850 (a massive pro-slavery victory for enslavers) became the litmus test of party fealty.  Democrats who did not vote in favor of various pro-slavery measures, such as the horrific Fugitive Slave Act, were denied campaign funds, attacked in the press, and deprived patronage — a political death sentence.  Contrite Free Soilers who voted as they were told, however, were allowed back and duly rewarded. 

Things were even uglier and more chaotic at the state level.  In Indiana, Democratic chief (and secret enslaver) Jesse Bright resorted to physical intimidation and illegal schemes to defeat the anti-slavery faction and reward repentant Free Soilers with offices.  In the Empire State, a three-way political war erupted between intransigent “Hards,” who refused to brook any opposition from anti-slavery moderates, “Softs,” who were willing to make deals with former Free Soilers, and the “Barnburner” majority, who bolted the party in 1848 and wanted to expel the Hards.  Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, pro-slavery conservatives James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce, respectively, seized control of county and district conventions to deny former Free Soilers elective office at any level.  “Old Buck” and “Handsome Frank” would later be rewarded with the presidency for their service to the Slave Power.

A united Democratic Party emerged in time for the election of 1852, thoroughly shorn of any anti-slavery elements. “We have got rid of all negroism,” chirped Buchanan with pleasure.  Though good for enslavers, the victory was pyrrhic.  The party was now free to pursue even more aggressive policies without any internal deliberation or discussion. 

In short order, Democrats passed legislation that spread slavery to formerly free territories, nullified the Missouri Compromise, launched illegal invasions of Caribbean and Central American nations, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act with a vengeance, tried to force slavery on the unwilling settlers of the Kansas Territory, and physically assaulted anti-slavery activists in the streets and in the halls of Congress.  These actions precipitated the Civil War.  By 1856, Northerners had set aside their differences over banks, immigration, and internal improvements to unite against the spread of slavery in a new Republican Party.  The election of the first Republican president in 1860 triggered secession, and the Union was nearly torn asunder.  In other words, when one party became more intransigent and extreme, it united and popularized their opponents, which, in turn, motivated extremists to seek extra-political, violent alternatives to the electoral process (in 1860-61, it was secession; in 2021, it was the January 6 insurrection).

The lack of ideological diversity and any meaningful policy debate within the antebellum Democratic Party caused that organization to enact an extreme program that enraged the majority of Americans and caused national disaster.  Republicans in 2021 seem to be following that same strategy: punishing dissent, expelling moderates, and favoring ideological purity over practical policy.  Moreover, just as Democrats in the 1850s tried to force slavery on anti-slavery populations, Republicans today are forcing their minority agenda on the majority through voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, and illegal activity.  And just as Democrats tested party loyalty through votes on slavery, Republicans are determining devotion via votes on the January 6 attack.  If Republicans value the health and future of their party, and the nation, they need to examine the past and reconsider their path. 

In our current moment of hyper-partisanship and militant, polarized opinions, political leaders must provide opportunities for productive argument and respectful debate.  When partisan groups, regardless of their ideological bent, stifle dissent or enforce doctrinal discipline, opportunities for policy innovation and national consensus-building are lost.  Embracing diversity of opinion and perspectives enhances a party’s attractiveness and smooths the way toward effective governance.  In a two-party system such as the United States, moderation and cooperation are essential. 


[1] https://www.npr.org/2021/05/12/995072539/gop-poised-to-oust-cheney-from-leadership-over-her-criticism-of-trump

Mexico is the Enemy, Redux

June 3, 2019

For the entirety of his administration, President Donald Trump singled-out Mexico as a leading enemy of the US.  To build public approval for an aggressive foreign policy toward Mexico and the building of an expensive and controversial wall, Trump claimed an alarming and immediate “crisis” on the southern border.  To meet the so-called crisis, the president ordered thousands of US troops to the border without the approval of Congress.  In June 2019, Trump specifically claimed that America’s neighbor was a direct threat to national security and an “abuser” of US goodwill.  Such rhetoric and saber-rattling are strikingly similar to that of President James Polk in 1846, who also manufactured a “crisis” on the border and employed US troops to achieve his personal and political objectives.

The conquest of Mexico was a central goal of antebellum enslavers, especially after the “cotton boom” of the 1820s-30s.  Enslavers, who were among the most powerful and wealthy in the US, lusted after the rich cotton lands that stretched westward from central South Carolina into east Texas.  In 1821, when the nation of Mexico achieved its independence from its European colonizer Spain, enslavers in the US began plotting to seize Texas.  White Americans poured over the US-Mexico border, gobbling-up cotton lands and ignoring Mexican laws, including the prohibition against slavery.  When the young government of Mexico tried to enforce the laws and rein-in the white “illegal immigrants” in the 1830s, the immigrants, calling themselves “Texans,” launched an armed revolt.  There was no way these “Texans” were going to give up slavery and submit to Mexican authority. 

In 1836, Texans defeated a large Mexican army and declared their independence (though the Mexican government never granted or acknowledged any such thing, so the “Republic of Texas” existed in imagination rather than on paper).  Suffering from heavy debts and desperate to protect themselves from another campaign by the Mexican government, Texans sought annexation by the US, their neighbor nation ruled by enslavers.  The growing anti-slavery movement in the US, however, made Texas annexation a tricky undertaking.  Nevertheless, it was achieved in 1845 by Virginia enslaver President John Tyler. 

By the time of Texas annexation, white Americans were fired-up about “Manifest Destiny” – the westward march of white “civilization,” the extermination of Indigenous Americans, and the spread of slavery.  The pro-slavery Democratic Party rode this wave of expansionist enthusiasm to the polls in 1844, winning both the White House and control of Congress (their opponents, the Whigs, were skeptical of territorial expansion, and many northern Whigs outright opposed the spread of slavery).  The new president, Tennessee enslaver James Polk, entered office with the clear aim of conquering the rest of Mexico and spreading slavery throughout western North America and central America.  But anti-slavery activists stood in his way.  Polk needed an excuse to invade Mexico and steal more land – he needed a crisis on the border.

In total secrecy (and certainly without the knowledge of Congress), President Polk ordered a US army under the command of Louisiana enslaver General Zachary Taylor to proceed into Mexican territory and provoke a war.  Taylor’s orders were simple: invade until the Mexicans fight back.  Taylor made it deep into central Mexico before a Mexican army could launch a defense.  As soon as Polk received word (carried by hand and telegraph from Mexico to DC) that fighting had finally erupted, the president went to Congress on May 11, 1846 and asked for a declaration of war.  The US, he lied, had been invaded by Mexico.  Mexico had “assumed a belligerent attitude,” engaged in an “open act of hostility,” and perpetrated “grievous wrongs” against US citizens.  There was a crisis on the border that required swift military action: “The most energetic and prompt measures and the immediate appearance in arms of a large and overpowering force are recommended to Congress as the most certain and efficient means of bringing the existing collision with Mexico to a speedy and successful termination.”  With no way to quickly verify Polk’s false claims, Congress provided the declaration, and Polk got his war of conquest.

President Trump’s misleading claims about Mexico’s relations to the US bear eerie resemblance to those used by President Polk to justify war.  In particular, the assertion that Mexicans are invading the US and committing crimes against US citizens is right out of the Polk playbook.  Equally troubling is the fact that Trump’s rhetoric exhibits a blatant disregard for the history between the two nations.  Rather than Mexico being the “abuser,” it has historically been Americans who invaded, and the US who was the belligerent, whether it was Polk in 1846 or President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 and 1916.  The American public should keep US-Mexican history in mind when weighing policy decisions that may result in the massive loss of lives and property.


Iowa Has a Long History of White Supremacy, Going All the Way Back to its First US Senators

Republican Steve King, who represents Iowa’s 4th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives, has made quite a name for himself as an outspoken and unapologetic White Nationalist.  His disparaging comments and fallacious statements about women, people of color, Jews, Muslims, and newly-arrived Americans have landed him in political hot water (he was stripped of his Congressional committee assignments in January 2019), but have made him a hero to the Far Right and the White Nationalist movement.[1] 

Many may be surprised that such racist vitriol and combative bigotry – most often associated with unreconstructed Confederates – are coming from an Iowan.  But the state has a long history of white supremacy and White Nationalist politicians, starting with its first two US Senators back in the 1850s.  Augustus Caesar Dodge and George Wallace Jones were both “doughfaces,” meaning Northern men who supported slavery. 

Dodge grew up in a family of enslavers in the Louisiana Territory and was raised by a “mammy” named Leah.  His father Henry was a local politician of note, who, in the 1840s, rose to the Senate from the new state of Wisconsin.  After fighting in various wars against Indigenous Americans in the 1830s, Dodge married and moved to Burlington in the Iowa Territory, which had separated from Wisconsin in 1838.  There, thanks to his father’s growing political influence, Dodge was appointed one of two Land Registers, a lucrative post.  The office brought young Dodge political clout as well, and in October 1840 he was elected Territorial Delegate to Congress.

In December 1846, Iowa entered the Union as a free state, and thirty-five year old Dodge became the political boss of the new state’s Democratic Party.  Charges of a “Dodge Dynasty,” however, thwarted his plans for election to the United States Senate until the following year, when he became the first Senator born west of the Mississippi.  In the epic legislative battles of the 1850s that led to Civil War, Dodge voted repeatedly to empower enslavers and spread the “peculiar institution.” 

In Congressional debates over the infamous “Compromise of 1850,” he condemned abolitionists, energetically defended slavery, and voted for every pro-slavery aspect of the legislative package, including the heinous Fugitive Slave Law, which would force Northerners to participate in man-hunting.  Back home in Iowa, he saw to the law’s vigorous enforcement and bragged about Iowa’s record of returning escaped slaves.  By the mid-1850s, Dodge had emerged as a leading doughface and a rabid white supremacist.  It was Dodge, in fact, who introduced to the Senate the momentous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which, in its final version, would spread slavery to previously free land.  In the battles over that bill, Dodge waxed eloquent in defense of human bondage.  Slavery, he gushed, was a blessing that rescued Africans from “a dark and heathenish land; from the worship of filthy reptiles; from cannibalism.”  Africans were meant to be slaves, and it was by the “decrees of God” that they were brought to “a land of gospel light.”  Such assertions, while pleasing to enslavers, were unacceptable to free-state Iowans.  In the fall 1854 elections, Dodge was soundly defeated for re-election.  As reward for his service to the Slave Power, however, Democratic President Franklin Pierce (another doughface) appointed him minister to Spain, where he labored to acquire Cuba as a new slave state.

The tale of George Wallace Jones is not unlike his senatorial college.  Born and raised in the Louisiana Territory to a pro-slavery family (his father advocated for the introduction of slavery to the Indiana Territory), he received legal training in Kentucky, where he befriended future pro-slavery leaders Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and David Atchison of Missouri.  After serving with Dodge in the Indian wars, he was elected to the US House from Michigan, then Wisconsin.  In 1840, he was appointed Surveyor General of the Iowa Territory, which he parlayed into election to the US Senate in 1848.  Like Dodge, Jones proved a dutiful doughface, siding with slavery and Southerners on almost every issue, including the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  But while Dodge’s term ended in 1854, Jones remained in the Senate until 1859, long enough to vote for the Lecompton Constitution, which sought to force slavery on the anti-slavery majority of Kansas settlers.  Unelectable after such a long pro-slavery record, Jones accepted the mission to New Granada (present day Colombia) from Democratic President James Buchanan.  His sons, it is worth noting, served in Confederate forces during the Civil War, and Jones remained close friends with Jefferson Davis.

In short, there is nothing new about Steve King’s Iowan white supremacy and vocal racism.  Dodge and Jones would have wholeheartedly agreed with his dim assessment of people of color and his concerns for racial integrity.  Moreover, like King, Dodge and Jones grew distasteful to their constituents yet endeared themselves to the Far Right of their day.  The fact that King recently posted a Civil War-related meme to his Facebook page (wherein he bragged that Red states could easily kill all the Blue states, reminiscent of Confederate braggadocio of 1861) is further evidence that the representative has a sense of his state’s troubled history.[2]  If he fails to win re-election in 2020, perhaps he, too, will be offered a appointed position from his party’s president.


[1] For a catalog of King’s comments, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/13/brief-guide-steve-kings-long-history-racist-statements/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.82ab9054174b

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/steve-king-civil-war-graphic_n_5c8ef5b9e4b03e83bdc25c86

The End of Epcot?

If you’ve been following WDWNT, listening to any of the Disney World-themed podcasts, or checking Disney fan Facebook pages, you know that dramatic changes are afoot in Epcot.   The sudden and jolting arrival of IPs (“Intellectual Properties,” such as the Guardians of the Galaxy characters) has become a dividing line among Epcot devotees.  Many observers are cheering the changes and welcoming a new era of entertainment at the (in their eyes) pathetically outdated park.  Others are despondent, weeping at the loss of a place for adults, free from the tyranny of princesses and film personalities.  The folks over at the “Drink Around EPCOT!” Facebook page even declared the golden age of Epcot long gone, arguing that the park’s best years were 1994-2014 (many in the comments section concurred).

The recent changes have been polarizing because for most of Epcot’s existence, IPs have been marginal or entirely absent. The original attractions, as well as those erected before the 2010s, were new creations of the park Imagineers, with no tie-in to some other film or franchise.  The Living Seas, the Imagination Pavilion, the World of Energy, the World of Motion, and Horizons were all unique, stand-alone attractions aiming at something deeper than just theatrics – they sought to educate, as well as entertain.  Even their latter-day incarnations (Ellen’s Energy Adventure, Test Track, Mission: Space, and Journey into Imagination with Figment) were still separate from other Disney endeavors.  The World Showcase, as well, was blissfully free from IPs.  You could wander the pavilions and immerse yourself in other cultures without being bombarded with product placement.  Guests could enjoy Epcot attractions and learn from them without ever having engaged previously with the Walt Disney Company.

And it was that lack of engagement that frustrated the accountants, suits, and money-men.  They wanted attractions to inspire purchases, not some vague appreciation for human progress.  Much to the dismay of Imagineers (who usually value creativity over profit), Disney executives began reimagining Epcot as a version of the Magic Kingdom, wherein every attraction (with the notable exception of fan favorites like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain[1]) is directly related to a pre-existing product line.  The first IPs to creep into Epcot were Finding Nemo (installed in the Living Seas) and Three Caballeros (replacing El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico Pavilion), both in 2007.  Both have jettisoned creative and intellectual stimulation in favor of merchandising.  In the Living Seas, guests journeyed to Sea Base Alpha where they enjoyed direct encounters with ocean life.  Nemo and Friends, on the other hand, replaces the original educational intent of the attraction with a whimsical search for Nemo ending in a sing-along (and tie-in to the live stage show in the Animal Kingdom).  Similarly, the current Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros is a mindless sing-song that reveals nothing about the host country, while the original attraction was a thoughtful (though dated) tour of Mexico’s regions and traditions.  Neither attraction is much of an improvement on the original ride, but both explicitly connect with existing merchandise lines that would yield more expenditures by guests.  Ride the Nemo ride, buy a Nemo product, re-watch the Nemo film, repeat.

Over the course of the next decade, the Disney Company aggressively expanded its ownership of IPs (most notably the Star Wars universe and the motely Marvel characters) in an attempt to reach the ever-elusive demographic of tween boys, with whom Disney has traditionally been weakest. Likewise, executives sought to boost attendance at Epcot by appealing to younger guests.  Hence the sudden influx of IPs: Frozen Ever After replaced the beloved Maelstrom in 2016; the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall became princess-themed character dining; the “Guardians of the Galaxy – Awesome Mix Live!” show was shoe-horned into the America Pavilion (2018); a Ratatouille ride is in the works in France; and a Guardians of the Galaxy-inspired roller-coaster will open in 2019.  Of all the changes, the latter is the most difficult for Epcot traditionalists to stomach. While original, educational thrill rides like Mission: Space and Test Track are perfectly in sync with Epcot’s overall theme and concept, an IP roller-coaster seems like a jarring violation. Not only will the large boxy building ruin World Showcase sight-lines, but there does not appear to be any attempt by park executives to connect the coaster to its surrounding Future World context (education, inspiration, technology). 

For many, the arrival of an IP roller-coaster marks the beginning of the end of Epcot.  The attraction will doubtless boost attendance, which will likely inspire similar attractions that are likewise divorced from the Epcot concept, which may turn Epcot into another merchandising madhouse, like Hollywood Studios.             


[1] The IP obsession has even led Disney executives to retroactively create IPs for several of these originally independent attractions.  Pirates of the Caribbean has spawned a beloved film franchise, and the Haunted Mansion has had the cinematic treatment with a second movie in the works.

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