The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the GOP's soft Civil War

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the GOP's soft Civil War
Gage Skidmore/Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Gage Skidmore

JB Pritzker appeared last night on PBS Newshour. The Democratic governor of Illinois said the White House had arranged for personal protective equipment (PPE) to be flown in from China to meet shortages in the US. On its arrival, Pritzker said, the PPE will be turned over to private firms. States like his, which are experiencing the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, are expected to bid against each other for access to it.

The US Supreme Court overruled Monday a lower court’s decision to extend the period in Wisconsin to count absentee ballots. State law requires votes tallied by Election Day (today), but the lower court made an exception for the pandemic. The high court said no exceptions. As a consequence, many votes will be invalidated.

How are these two events related? At first, it seems they aren’t. But if you look closely, what they share is a wholesale rejection of the common good, a refusal to recognize the social contractual bonds that hold together a political community—a nation, a union. On the one hand, profit is privileged above human life and liberty. On the other, power is privileged above equality and democratic participation in the American franchise. Both, I think, are expressions of what I’ve come to consider a soft civil war.

I say “soft” because it’s entirely one-sided. (Feel free to pick your own nomenclature.) For all the outrage vented by leftists, liberals and Democrats, there’s still a sense, an unfounded faith, that everything will get better once Donald Trump is gone. But there’s more at work than false hope. There’s a sense, a blind faith, that history is working against the Republican Party, that the invisible hand of “progress” is pushing us steadily toward justice, with or without human agency. For this reason, I think, Democrats can’t quite bring themselves to see what’s happening before their eyes.

Brian Schatz, a liberal senator from Hawaii, was correct in saying, after the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling Monday, that “they are throwing away ballots. They are literally going to not count votes. We Democrats need to understand the magnitude of the Republicans enterprise here.” But he stops short, and says only that, “They are systematically going to try to make it less easy, and less safe, to vote.”

Well, what does it mean when the highest court in the land makes citizens choose between good health and the right to vote? Let’s take it to its logical conclusion. What does it mean when a party has successfully created legal conditions with which to enforce minority rule in a majoritarian republic? For one thing, it’s sabotage of the common good. For another, it’s a deep betrayal of our national values, myths and interests. For yet another, it signals a civil-war posture. Democracy be damned.

The Times published a map last week showing parts of the country in which people are continuing to travel during the epidemic and parts of the country in which people are sheltering at home. The entire map is a variation of yellow and green, indicating state governors understand the importance of the common good in a time of a nationwide crisis. The more people do their part as individuals, the better off everyone will be.

I say the entire map but with a huge exception—the southeast quarter of the US. That’s the section of the country in which state governors have been either slow to react to the pandemic or have been hostile to those calling for greater commitments to public health. And it so happens that’s the part of the country that does not, historically speaking, care about the common good, because the common good is democratic.

Colin Woodard, in his book American Nationsdivides that quarter in three. Each part represents the politics of the white Europeans who settled them. In what he calls “Tidewater”: “17th-century gentry recreated semi-feudal manorial society of English countryside. Conservative; respect for authority and tradition, not equality or political participation.” In “Greater Appalachia”: “Settlers from war-ravaged Ulster, northern England, lowland Scotland. Deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty; intense suspicion of external authority. In “Deep South”: “Established by slave lords from English Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society. Modeled on slave states of the ancient world—democracy was the privilege of the few” (stresses mine).

Assuming Woodard’s thesis is correct—that our politics can be explained to a degree by settlement patterns established centuries ago—it’s clear why the southeast isn’t doing its part in a viral pandemic. It won’t, even if that means people die. It won’t, because serving the common good is undermining their respective political orders.

Americans in other parts of the country, especially white liberals in big cities, might not have noticed the soft civil war. White people have more access to better health care. White people are not generally blocked from voting. White people might have continued believing the Republicans when they said states rights means the federal government shouldn’t get involved in local matters. Then the GOP tipped its hand.

In 2017, the Republicans passed a law cutting taxes for the very rich and very large corporations but paid for it by extracting wealth from rich states. Rich states, mostly blue, had already been sending more money to the treasury than poor, mostly red, states. By repealing deductions for state and local taxes, the Republicans in effect said blue states have no sovereignty they are bound to recognize. A federal government under GOP control will take your money as quickly as it throws away your votes.

When does a civil war turn from soft to hard? When the other side sees it.

So far, the national Democrats won’t.

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