Would a Perry v. Obama Contest Be a Confederacy v. Union Rematch?
Editor's Note: Video of Gov. Rick Perry's Sept. 13, 2011 address to Liberty University appears on the last page of this article.
The history books tell us that the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, with the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox. But underlying the present dynamics of American politics is an uneasy sense that the war never really ended -- and the Confederacy never quite surrendered.
President Barack Obama often looks to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln for inspiration; Texas Gov. Rick Perry, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, once named Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as one of the historical personages he'd like to include at a fantasy dinner party. At Perry's 2007 gubernatorial inauguration celebration, rocker Ted Nugent performed wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag emblem.
Should Perry win the GOP presidential nomination, an obvious subtext of the presidential contest will be "Confederacy v. Union -- The Rematch." And, at the visual level, the theme will be conveniently reinforced by each man's respective race.
Earlier this week, Perry delivered a speech from the stage of the 10,000-seat amphitheater at Liberty University, the evangelical institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, one of the early leaders of the religious right and an opponent of school desegregation. "When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line," Falwell told his flock in 1958, according to a report by Sarah Posner for AlterNet.
In introducing Perry to the Liberty U audience this week, Falwell's son, Jerry Jr., lauded the Texas governor "for having the guts to say things that weren't exactly politically correct, like when Gov. Perry said Texas might secede one day from the union."
Indeed, Perry made such intimations more than once during the rancorous debate over the president's health-care reform legislation. At the time, Tea Party leaders were vociferously talking up the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves to the states all powers not enumerated within the document, as the means for challenging the health-care bill's mandate for individual purchase of health insurance. The impetus for all the 10th Amendment love comes from states' rights advocates, often known as Tenthers, many of whom view the Civil War as the result of unlawful usurpation of power from the states by the federal government.
In 2009, Associated Press reporter Kelley Shannon asked Perry to respond to reports associating him with the idea of secession or state sovereignty. "I think there’s a lot of different scenarios," Perry replied. "Texas is a unique place. When we came in the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. You know, my hope is that America and Washington, in particular, pays attention."
He continued. "We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot."
He made similar remarks that year to a group of tech bloggers, saying [video], "[W]e can leave [the union] anytime we want...So we're kind of thinking about that again."
Later that year, in a spot interview with Perry at the Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council's political arm, FRC Action, I asked Perry why he thought the 10th Amendment was getting so much attention.
"I think people are watching a federal government that's overreaching, a federal government who is scaring them with their programs, and they can count. And what I mean by that is, they see the amount of debt that is being piled on, not just current people but future generations, and they're really scared..." Perry said. "I don't care whether you're the Democratic governor of New York or you're the Republican governor of Mississippi -- you want people in Washington, D.C., tellin' you how to run your state? I think not. They've historically used our money as the bait to get states to do their bidding. And my instinct here is that there are just a lot of people starting to say, hey, wait a minute -- we're not sure here that the squeeze is worth the juice anymore."
Indeed, Perry's neo-Confederate links have been well-catalogued, particularly by Salon's Justin Elliott. (In 2000, Elliott reports, Perry wrote to Denne Sweeney, leader of the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, to assure him that "I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques and memorials from public property." He added, "I also believe that communities should decide whether statues or other memorials are appropriate for their community.")
But the Confederate-Union friction that would play out in a Perry-Obama contest runs deeper than ideology; it's a matter of culture. This would be an election that more starkly illuminates America's cultural divide than any that have come before it in modern times.
Southern Confederate Culture
Conservative culture in the South, unlike the conservative culture of the Big Sky West, is deeply rooted in the Civil War and its aftermath. Deep resentment courses through the veins of conservative Southerners for feeling that the pooh-bahs of the North, wearing a mantle of moral superiority on the matters of slavery and civil rights for African Americans, hypocritically shame Southerners for their history.
It's not as if the North is exactly clean on these matters. One only need summon up the history of school desegregation in Boston, or the memory of the 1967 riots in Newark, N.J., to know that. Nor was the cause of abolition one universally shared in the North prior to the Civil War. Northern industrialists and retailers relied on the commodities delivered by the hands of slaves -- cotton, rice, tobacco -- to fuel their factories and marketplaces.
With economic power concentrated in the Northeast, the states of the old Confederacy felt themselves pushed around by a power that would deprive it even of its hagiographic history of the glories of its war heroes -- heroes who fought, of course, to preserve the institution of slavery, and the preservation of a less-than-human status for African Americans.
The South has a proud military tradition dating back to the American Revolution, but its present expression is rooted in the Civil War. In his speech to Liberty University, Perry spoke of being a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets, a sort of military unit unaffiliated with any of the armed forces. Cadets live in a military style, wear uniforms, and are subject to inspections, drills and punishments like those endured by soldiers living in a barracks.
A tradition at Texas A&M has students placing pennies at the feet of a statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, an early A&M president who was also a Confederate general. So it should come as no surprise that Perry -- who flew C-130 cargo planes during a stint in the Air Force -- named both Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Brevet Major Gen. George Armstrong Custer when asked, in 1991, to name which historical figures he would invite to a fantasy dinner party. (Custer was famous for his brutal incursions against American Indians after the Civil War, and his ultimate demise at their hands.)
Religion and Culture
Perhaps the ultimate expression of culture is religion. While white culture in the South comprises people of more diverse backgrounds than it did in the past, it is still more homogeneous than that of the North, with many inhabitants able to trace their lineage back to before the Civil War. Protestant practices do vary in the South among different denominations, and the distinction between charismatic and fundamentalist sects is significant, but southern religion nonetheless has a character that is distinct from that of most Northeastern churches, which have absorbed people from a broader range of backgrounds. In the South, Protestants are more apt to view their religion in nationalistic terms, seeing it as part and parcel of the American story. To them, the multicultural spirituality and looser religious practices more common in the North can look alien and threatening.
Common, until quite recently, members of white Southern sects were discouraged or outright prohibited to be romantically involved with African Americans. It wasn't until 1967 that the Commonwealth of Virginia's ban on interracial marriage was struck down. Religion has long influenced American law, and in the South the influence of its own particular strain of Christianity remains strong.
Rick Perry, of course, knows this, and in his Liberty U speech, drew a coded distinction between the religious values of the assembled and those of the president, who is the product of a mixed-race union. The governor spoke of how, together with the religious right organizer David Lane (the mastermind of the electoral defeat of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage), he brought together pastors "sharing with them the importance that they need to stand in the pulpit every day and defend the values, those Christian values."
"America is gonna be guided by some set of values," Perry said. "The question is gonna be: whose values? And David Lane and I would suggest most of the people in this audience believe it's those Christian values that this country was based upon."
Abraham Lincoln v. Robert E. Lee
If military heroes and the Christian revisionist history of America's founding provide the fuel for Rick Perry's run at the big job, Barack Obama has consistently turned to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, nemesis of the Confederate South, for solace, guidance and inspiration.
Beginning with his election-night victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, Obama looked to Lincoln for the roots of his own quest. Seeking to dilute the bitterness that would linger after the campaign and seeking to live up to his own call to bipartisanship, Obama quoted Lincoln's first inaugural address, saying, "We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."
When assembling his cabinet, Obama looked to A Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography of the Civil War president. And earlier this month, in his speech about his jobs bill to a joint session of Congress, Obama cited Lincoln's legacy as the America we should want to be.
"We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our union," Obama said. "Founder of the Republican Party. But in the middle of a civil war, he was also a leader who looked to the future -- a Republican president who mobilized government to build the Transcontinental Railroad, launch the National Academy of Sciences, set up the first land grant colleges. And leaders of both parties have followed the example he set."
But how did Lincoln pay for the Civil War and do all that, too? He instituted the first national income tax -- a fact Obama was never likely to mention.
To those who find inspiration in the words of Rick Perry, the National Academy of Sciences is an unlikely source of inspiration, seeing how the Texas governor has indicated his doubt in the science of climate change and the theory of evolution. As for the Transcontinental Railroad, well, the last time I looked, government investment in rail projects was something that Tea Party governors were winning plaudits for turning down.
At the close of his remarks at Liberty University, Rick Perry prevailed upon the students in the audience to "tell the people in power that you will not have your inheritance spent or your future mortgaged...This country is your country, as well. Don't leave it to a bunch of Washington politicians to tell you how to live your life." He then asked that America be blessed through their actions.
That night at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., all but endorsed Rick Perry. It was more 30 years ago that Ronald Reagan first stood on that stage, only to go on to win the presidency and restore America to greatness. "I have a feeling today that history is about to repeat itself," Falwell said.
Yet, for some, Rick Perry represents a different dream than America as a "shining city on a hill." For them, Perry victorious would mean nothing less than the South as a phoenix in the form of an eagle, rising from the ashes of a short-lived and fallen nation. Tomorrow, after all, is another day.