Monday, November 24, 2014

The 2014 Midterms: Everybody Knows

Since miscalculating the likely outcome of the 2006 midterm elections I have avoided discussing American electoral politics on this blog, apart from a snarky comment about the 2010 midterm elections. The 2014 midterms, which generated massive victories for the Republican Party at the state and federal levels, have also generated so much commentary that it seems unnecessary for me to add anything. I agree with The Hill and Juan Cole that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate is unlikely to last, since the party will be contesting more than twice as many Senate seats in 2016 as the Democrats. It also seems unlikely that the Republicans will capture the presidency in 2016, partly because voter turnout will be higher among young people and minority groups (it can hardly be lower than it was this year, at 36 percent overall), mainly because the Republicans' anti-labor stance and reactionary social policies have effectively locked their forthcoming candidate out of states with 257 Electoral College votes.

The more troubling outcomes of the 2014 elections, in my view, are less visible ones. First, Republicans won control of more state governorships and state legislatures, increasing the number of each in their hands to 31 state houses and 68 of 99 state legislative chambers. As John Oliver points out, state governments pass ten times as many laws as the constitutionally straight-jacketed U.S. Congress, and now that it is even more firmly in the saddle at the state level, the GOP, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, will ride Democrats and social progressives “very hard.” Second, campaign treasurers and political action committees spent nearly four billion dollars on the 2014 elections, the largest figure ever spent on a non-presidential election in the United States. There is a connection, though not an immediately obvious one, between this figure and low voter turnout. Robert Reich points out that many younger and minority voters probably stayed home because high unemployment made it difficult for them to see what either party could do for them, and since many Democrats ran listless center-right campaigns to please their corporate backers. That same economy has, as most of my readers know, dramatically increased the wealth of the top one percent of Americans, and many of them have used that wealth to support candidates (mainly conservative) and policies that will line their pockets and suppress overall voter turnout. 2014 thus represented another milepost on our road to corporatist oligarchy.

Can progressives fight such trends? Not easily. Overturning the Citizens United decision with a constitutional amendment would help limit rich people's influence over elections, but federal constitutional amendments are hard to pass – the last one to pass both Congress and the states did so in 1971 – and I think it unlikely though not impossible) that one so inimical to the interests of lawmakers would succeed. In a previous blog post I suggested that progressives should focus on winning state elections, since that was where so much important legislation was passed, but I believe these are even easier to manipulate than federal elections, and oligarchs like the Koch brothers are happy to pour money into gubernatorial and legislative races. One must instead take action against the root cause of the problem, which is the maldistribution of wealth in the United States, and against its causes: incipient debt peonage for much of the 99 percent, the erosion of public education and infrastructure, the persistent belief – a lie since the 1970s – that the economic benefits of hard work accrue to anyone other than the rich, and the continued growth of massive industrial and commercial monopolies. Some of these causes we can only address through public action, but others we can at least begin to remedy through voluntary action.

That doesn't mean we can skip voting, of course, just that we can't assume it's enough.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Campaign 1776: Hallowing the Small and the Great

I am of two minds regarding the recent launch, by the Civil War Preservation Trust, of Campaign 1776, the Trust's effort to preserve battlefield land from the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. On the one hand, I have a 21st-century bourgeois appreciation for conservation: preserves and parks and historic sites improve the quality of life in their region, and tend to increase property values as well, not a bad thing in a depressed national real-estate market. Also, as a student of mine observed just the other day, most Americans learn more history from battlefields and museums and non-written media than from books. Experiential learning is very powerful, and actually visiting a historic site and walking over the landscape (or treading the boards within a historic house) gives one a visceral appreciation for the events associated with that site. Visiting the U.S.S. Constitution or the Paul Revere House in Boston, for example, allows one to see how cramped were the private and maritime spaces in which eighteenth-century Anglo-Americans spent their time. And many people who have visited the Gettysburg battlefield, your humble narrator included, have come away convinced the place is haunted, even if the battle itself wasn't the turning-point that its boosters claim. So, two cheers for battlefield preservation!

But I'll reserve the third cheer for the time being, because public history is a difficult enterprise to conduct properly, and the leaders of Campaign 1776, while energetic and well intentioned, don't (yet) seem to have thought too deeply about the lessons they want to impart to the public.

Based on their website, it looks like Campaign 1776 wants to present a very conventional, top-down account of the Revolutionary War, one which focuses on the heroism of specific leaders, lumps common soldiers together into a largely nameless mass, downplays the motives of British and Loyalist and Native American combatants, and assumes that the Revolutionary War consisted of regular soldiers maneuvering and fighting one another. The Campaign’s discussion of the Battle of Princeton, for instance, focuses on Washington’s endurance, Mercer's heroism, and the historical intersection between the battlefield and Princeton College, rather than on the bush-whacking campaign that Patriot militia units in New Jersey conducted against the British army after the battle. As David Fischer points out (Washington's Crossing, OUP, 2004), this campaign drove Britain out of New Jersey for most of the rest of the war. A focus on the Continental Army disregards the central role that rebel militia played in winning the war: they attacked British outposts and foraging parties, terrorized Loyalists into flight or surrender, and made it impossible for Britain to control the countryside, except a few frontier zones dominated by royalists. Militiamen were, in John Shy’s words, the “sand in the gears of the [British] pacification machine” (A People Numerous and Armed, Univ. of Michigan Press, 1990, p. 237).  It’s difficult, however, to memorialize the actions of a para-military organization that fought few set-piece battles. It’s harder still to build memorials to naval victories or to grants of foreign aid, which is why I also suspect Campaign 1776 will spend little time emphasizing the role that France played in winning the American victory, particularly during the Battle of Yorktown.

From a practical standpoint, though, one thing Campaign 1776 might consider doing is emphasizing the experiences of ordinary soldiers - regulars, volunteers, and militia - in the battles whose sites they are now helping to preserve. The War for American Independence left behind a massive and, for its time, unique body of records dealing with the experience of enlisted men: the pension applications that war veterans filed under the 1818 and 1832 federal pension acts, which fill nearly 900 reels of microfilm at the U.S. National Archives. These applications included veterans’ names, states of residence, and accounts of the battles and engagements in which they served. I don’t ask, of course, that Campaign 1776 plow through thirty or forty thousand records, but other scholars have already mined some of the pension files – John Dann, for example, read all (!) of the Revolutionary War pension applications and later reprinted several dozen of them in The Revolution Remembered (Chicago, 1980). Surely it would not be difficult, as these doughty preservationists raise funds to buy land they regard as “hallowed” – literally, made holy – by American soldiers, for them to remind the public that not everyone who fought at Monmouth or Yorktown was a Great White Man, and that we can recover and retell the life stories of many of the ordinary soldiers and militiamen who took part.

Also, I would like to see Campaign 1776 inform Glenn Beck fans that their movement simultaneously supports conservation, which Beck’s followers associate with the evil Agenda 21 conspiracy, and preserving the memory of the first generation of American heroes. Then we can watch the Beckians’ heads explode from the contradiction, just like in Star Trek.


And, yes, the image above is of British soldiers, or more precisely British-soldier re-enactors. Their story, and that of their Loyalist and Native American allies, also deserves telling to the public, but that's an issue for another day.